Through much of its history, the Society of Friends was rooted in families, in contrast to today’s more individualistic lacework.
I use the earlier term, Society of Friends, rather than the more modern version, Religious Society of Friends, because Quaker practice emphasized all facets of one’s life, not just a spiritual component. We can argue about whether Friends worship is mystical or meditative as well as about our understandings of the nature of the Divine, but the faith has led us over our history to closely examine our political, business, educational, community, and family interactions. Often, as we’ve seen, from an intensely practical point of view.
It has been said that there are no Quakers apart from a Meeting, meaning that we need each other to hold ourselves to the path and practice. Families, too, need other families who share a similar vision.
When Friends had large nuclear families, three households could easily fill a small meetinghouse, especially when grandparents and unmarried siblings were included. As Quaker families intermarried over the generations, it became common for children to address everyone in Meeting, except their own parents, grandparents, or siblings, as aunt, uncle, or cousin. We can see how that would easily apply in Dover.
What I hadn’t expected when I began examining the genealogies of Dover’s early Friends was to discover just how intermarried their families had already become in the four decades between the arrival of the Quaker missionaries and the beginning of the Meeting’s surviving minutes. Some families were close even before that, suggesting religious conversions, “convincements,” often came within extended relations or among neighbors more than one by one, individually.
In other cases, some lines of a Dover family were Quaker while others hewed to the Congregational church. Even after a surname line left the Society of Friends, some individuals might later rejoin, and sometimes it is hard to determine precisely when or how. In addition, children of households listed in Dover Friends records might seem to disappear from further consideration when, in reality, their location was one finally set off within a newly recognized Monthly Meeting. In effect, their Meeting moved while they stayed put on the same land. A diligent researcher will need to go to those minutes to continue, if possible.
Compounding this, in terms of this particular history, is the fact that for some of Dover’s Meeting’s families, few or maybe none of the households lived within the current city limits. The Eliot, Maine, role – still officially in the town of Kittery – stands out, as do the Berwicks, in Maine, and Oyster River, now Durham, New Hampshire.
As long as a family was Quaker, we can make some general assumptions about its values and lifestyle.
In some ways, they were like Amish today, with distinctive dress and turns of speech, though choosing to “live behind a protective hedge” rather than separate more totally from the wider world. We’ve seen that Dover Friends were not afraid of speaking out in public and pressing for political redress, unlike the Amish.
Among the values were simplicity, plainness, integrity (honesty, no oathtaking), pacifism and nonviolence, equality of sexes and races. In addition to an avoidance of oathtaking, gambling and gaming, military service, Friends eschewed vain entertainments, including fiction, theater, dance, music, visual art. Science, mathematics, and poetry, however, were valued. There were no headstones until the 1850s. Nor did Friends take other Friends to court – differences were to be settled within Monthly or Quarterly Meeting. Quaker inheritance guidelines sought equal distribution for all the children rather than the bulk of an estate going to the eldest son – over time, raising the overall wealth of a family.
Anger, which commonly leads to violence, was curbed or suppressed – at a hidden price of burying all of one’s emotions.
Yes, the restrictions could be severe, but they also led to some remarkable accomplishments.
As I’ve reviewed Dover Quaker surnames, I find some moved out of the immediate area altogether. Others stayed, but moved completely out of the Society of Friends – still, their accomplishments were part of the larger society.
Even in a small community like Dover Friends Meeting, trying to keep the 41 or so surnames straight over several generations becomes difficult, but is a tight-knitted fabric of individuals and kinships. Sometimes, when I’m sitting in the silence of the meetinghouse, I feel that they’re also sitting with me. It’s a comforting, even strengthening, experience.
Check out my new book, Quaking Dover, available in an iBook edition at the Apple Store.
Welcome to Dover’s upcoming 400th anniversary.