A Brief History of the Newtown Monthly Meeting of Friends and of Friends’ Institutions in the Newtown Area
(The following talk was given in 1980 by Kingdon Swayne, a lifelong member of Newtown Meeting who died in 2009.)
I was asked to tell you something of the history of Newtown, but I have taken the liberty of expanding my charge somewhat to give you a brief history of Friends’ institutions in the Newtown area. I have done so because I think the truly remarkable thing from the Quaker standpoint about this small community is that in this 200th year since the birth of Edward Hicks the number of Quaker institutions in and around Newtown is expanding from five to seven.
Briefly, the five existing institutions, in order of their founding, are:
1815 Newtown Meeting itself
1893 George School, a coeducational secondary boarding and day school
1948 Newtown Friends School, a coeducational elementary day school
1970 Chandler Hall Nursing Home of Bucks Quarterly Meeting
Joining them in 1980 will be Pennswood Village, a total life care retirement community on part of the old George School farm, and Friends Village, an extension of the Bucks Quarter Friends Boarding Home on a new site just northeast of Newtown.
There is a celebrated Sherlock Holmes story in which the major clue is something that didn’t happen, in that case a dog that didn’t bark. One of the most intriguing elements in the history of Quakers in Newtown is also something that didn’t happen. Newtown was laid out as a townstead in 1684 by William Penn, and the early settlers in the community were mostly Quakers. Newtown quickly became the center of a road net—eleven roads, most of them ancient, come together here—and a settlement of such importance that it was made the county seat in 1727. But no Friends meeting was established here.
Why a meeting did not precede the courthouse in Newtown is a question whose answer is lost in the mists of time. But we have some hint from Edward Hicks himself as to why Friends chose not to gather in Newtown while it was the county seat. We can visualize the county seat in the 18th century as a place that was a day’s journey on horseback from many of the settlements in the county. Those who had business with the court normally spent the night in town, were undoubtedly mostly male, and were probably not above sowing a few wild oats during their temporary release from domesticity. In any case, Edward Hicks records in his journal that when he settled in Newtown in 1811 every other building was an inn and every tenth a house of ill repute. One can imagine that Friends in the area preferred to avoid this den of iniquity in favor of the rural purity of the meetings at Middletown, Wrightstown and Makefield, all about four miles distant.
Some credibility is added to what is so far a rather speculative line of reasoning by the alacrity with which Friends responded to Newtown’s natural advantages as a gathering place just as soon as the county seat was moved to Doylestown. That happened in 1813. By 1815, Newtown Friends, under Edward Hicks’ leadership, had nicely symbolized the triumph of God over Mammon by taking over the abandoned court house as their house of worship. Two short years later [the new meeting house] had been erected. Edward Hicks was again the guiding spirit in planning the building and raising the money, and was the first to preach in the new building. Temperance-minded Friends should be aware that at least one $100 subscription to the cost of the building was raised by distilling and selling a quantity of apple whiskey.
In 1815 the Meeting was an indulged meeting of Wrightstown and Middletown. In 1817 it became a preparative meeting under the care of Wrightstown. In 1820 it joined together with Makefield Preparative Meeting to form Makefield Monthly meeting. Business meetings alternated between the two meeting houses. This arrangement continued until 1926, when two separate monthly meetings were formed. After the leisurely manner of Friends, it was another 14 years before Newtown Preparative Meeting was laid down as a legal entity.
Browsing through the early minutes gives one some sense of Quakerly priorities in the 1820s. In the first ten years of this building’s existence, $4.25 had been spent for seat cushions. At about the same time, Newtown subscribed its full share of Bucks Quarterly Meeting’s contribution of $3,000 to North Carolina Friends for their losses in manumitting slaves.
The decade of the 1820s was also marked by the great schism between the Hicksite and Orthodox Friends. This monthly meeting was the only one in Bucks Quarter in which there was not a substantial Orthodox presence. It remained firmly Hicksite until 1948, when it became a United Monthly Meeting as a part of the process that culminated in the reunification of the two Philadelphia Yearly Meetings in 1955.
In the meantime, the building underwent some alterations. The interior received its first coat of paint in 1889. Those of us who admire the rich warmth of the natural wood wainscoting and benches in other old meeting houses can’t help but wonder what possessed the Victorians of Newtown to perpetuate this particulate madness. This action seems to have stood by itself, for it was not until three years later, in 1892, that the practice of separate men’s and women’s business meetings was abandoned and the partition that had separated them came down. A few years later, the second floor, which as far as we know was unused until then, was floored and enclosed to provide First Day School rooms and also overflow space for the large crowds at Sunday meeting for worship that came with the opening of George School in 1893.
The records suggested that there was originally a dropped ceiling extending the length and width of the building, designed with energy conservation in mind. This was raised about 1904 in the interest of better ventilation in the second floor rooms, ushering in what might be called the era of energy profligacy in Newtown Meeting. Seventy-five years later we are looking for ways to return to the more frugal approach to energy consumption of our 19th century ancestors. There could be a new dropped ceiling in our future.
The last major alteration [as of 1980] took place in 1957 with the addition of the wing that now contains the Edward Hicks Room on the second floor and three First Day School rooms below.
Newtown Meeting remains vigorous in an era of general decline in church membership, thanks in large measure to the attraction of other Quaker institutions in the community. George School has been particularly notable as a source of new members for Newtown Meeting, though each of their other institutions has had a share. But we like to think of Newtown Monthly Meeting and this meeting house as the spiritual center that continually renews and reinforces the commitments of members to vocations of loving service, often expressed through those other Quaker institutions. We are confident that the spiritual center will be both supported and supportive as we welcome two new Quaker retirement communities to our fellowship.
Kingdon Swayne, 1980