One of the unanswered questions in Colonial history is why the anti-Quaker acts weren’t applied uniformly. Only in bursts, apparently to curb their political influence. In small communities across New England, Friends were important parts of the economy and social life – and often related by marriage to the dominant Puritans.
Still, during the yearly years of Quaker existence, much of the activity continued more or less underground. Friends’ absence from the town church may have been condoned if for no other reason than to avoid their nuisance.
Then, in 1679, the revocation of the Massachusetts Bay colony’s charter reestablished New Hampshire’s independence and also allowed for Friends both there and in New Hampshire to finally formally establish their Meetings.
After decades of worshiping in homes, barns, outdoors, or other places, Friends could finally build their own meetinghouse.
Dover’s first meetinghouse, just south of today’s St. Thomas Aquinas High School, was one of the oldest in the New World. After the erection of the town’s third Quaker meetinghouse, in 1768, the first building was shipped across the Piscataqua to a site a mile away up Sturgeon Creek.
Salem, Massachusetts, claims to have built the oldest, but Dover’s may have been earlier – now, if only some solid documentation existed to support that claim.
Around 1680, with the lessening persecution, Dover Friends were able to formally organize into a Monthly Meeting, although they were already the fifth oldest worshiping body in New Hampshire. After years of gathering together wherever they could find, the Quakers erected their first meetinghouse, choosing a site on Dover Neck on a site between today’s Pinkham Cemetery (begun in 1700) and across today’s Dover Point Road from the Roberts farm and First Settlers Cemetery (1633). The structure remained there until Dover Friends erected a third meetinghouse in 1768, and the original was disassembled, ferried across the Piscataqua River, and rebuilt in Eliot – about a mile to the east, not far from the site of the Shapleigh manor where the three Quaker women had earlier found haven. By road, incidentally, the two meetinghouse sites are more than ten miles apart. Although Eliot/Kittery is sometimes honored as the first Quaker meetinghouse in the Maine colony, that designation may belong to Friends at Falmouth, who are believed to have constructed their own in the 1750s.
The Dover Neck Friends meetinghouse was among the first in the American colonies. Between 1672 and 1682, only seven had been constructed in heavily Quaker New Jersey, and perhaps only four in Pennsylvania. Third Haven, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, was open by 1682 and remains the oldest Friends meetinghouse in continuous use. The oldest confirmed date for a Quaker meetinghouse in New England is 1688 in Salem, and a reconstruction of that building is on the grounds of the Peabody-Essex Museum.
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