By David Schmidt
Special to Main Line Life
The Merion Friends Meeting House has long been recognized as a very important vestige of Welsh immigration in the Delaware Valley. With much of Welsh immigration caused by the desire to escape persecution in England, a 300-year-old Quaker meeting house couldn’t be a better symbol.
That Friends services have been held every week since they began even if only one member of the congregation could get there to worship is worth a memorial by itself. And after ten years of trying, late last year the structure became the first Welsh structure on the 2,200-strong National Historic Landmark list.
The Welsh community came here in 1682 with William Penn, and settled in what is now Lower Merion. The area they came from was called Merioneth, an area in Wales now a part of Gwynnedd and is the root of the names Merion and Lower Merion. It is one of the original Welsh names to have been established in this part of Pennsylvania.
Many of the other Welsh community names in the area were derived later. During the era of the Pennsylvania Railroad, these names accurately from the correct part of Wales came about as a part of a Welsh revival as the company named their train stations along the Main Line.
But the Welsh community isn’t a strongly ethnic in fact of all the national groups to immigrate to America, the Welsh were perhaps fastest to amalgamate into the dynamic frontier society which became “Americans.”Because of that, many Americans unknowingly think of the Welsh as English which can be as irritating to the Welsh as their Celtic brethren, the Irish and Scots.
This wasn’t out of a lack of pride in their heritage, but in their belief to pay attention to their new world and religion. In fact their importance to the Delaware Valley is often overlooked today, but in the 1750 census of Montgomery Country half the people were of Welsh descent.
Bill Bolger, program manager of the National Historic Landmark section of the National Park Service, was pleased to help the area’s Welsh community celebrate the building’s designation as a landmark. “I think one of the most important things about this building is that it is not a building of great national significance in terms of mayor political events or military events certainly not military events, but it is a place of cultural heritage,” he said.
This site sits on top of a small hill at the busy intersection of Montgomery Avenue and Meetinghouse Lane in Merion, and is considered the oldest meetinghouses in the region. They were the center of early life in the area, which is evident when you consider the number of “Meetinghouse” roads, streets and lanes there are in the area.
Each Meeting called the Monthly Meeting, although they met more often had broad jurisdiction over itself and its members beyond their religious life. It decided what behavior was both publically and privately acceptable.
Meetings were also the decided business and land disputes between members. “There were even bases in this Meeting and several other Welsh Meetings where parents had appeal for help from the Meeting because their children did not mind them,” said Nancy Webster, a birthright Quaker and historian. “The Meetings also decided who could become a member. This was more important then than now, as it gave you a status as a member of the community,” she said..
So it’s not surprising that when the Meeting decided to building a meeting place in 1695 it called upon its members to help out. Mary Jones is archivist for the meetinghouse, and calls it a prototypical work-in-progress. “This building was built between 1695 and 1711. There are calls recorded in the minutes for members to look for stone and bring timber for the building,” she said.
But the building doesn’t look the way most people expect Quaker meetinghouses to look. In fact, its appearance was the cause of some concerns amongst the Welsh because it appears too Anglican. They, the English Anglicans were the dreaded enemy of the Quakers, and the cause for their exile to the New World. In addition, Quakers abstain from adornment, which Anglican churches are known for, so this was serious business.
For one thing it isn’t the traditional rectangle of the mainstream Anglo-Saxon Quakerism. Secondly, it was built in what was then a very isolated area and at a time when there wasn’t a canon for what Quaker buildings should look like. The time is probably one of the most important aspects. “You had a community that was very isolated culturally, that was searching for an expression of its religious faith in architecture and it developed with very limited and incidental changes,” said Bolger.
What was controversial was the “T-shape” of the building, and the rather unique framing of the roof structure even the masonry. “I thing this because a point of some embarrassment and concern that the good Friends had created what, from the exterior, looks like an Anglican chapel, said Bolger. But he thinks they meant to build it that way for them it wasn’t duplicating anything English. He comes to that conclusion because they didn’t find any evidence of haphazard addition to the structure that would seem to indicate that it may have accidentally turned out like an Anglican building.
“The building is devoid of all iconography, all elaborate ceremonial accouterments, so they are being true to George Fox’s requirement that the building should be plain. They made it as plain as they could, it just happens to have a T-shaped plan,” he said.
Another element of the building that is unusual, although it can not longer be seen, is the roof structure. “If you were here prior to 1820, we would look up at a two-story interior space which is all still above us, the ceiling is added,” he said. There were massive timbers, called principal rafters, but Bolger finds them fascinating. “They are actually hewn out of single pieces of oak and are curved,” he said. The are called bent principal rafters, and Bolger thinks they are “imaginative” of medieval “cruck” framing. It’s not, he says, but it was clearly built with those timbers intentionally exposed. “What you had in here was a memory of a medieval chapel with its cruck framing.
Traveling in Wales, Bolger thinks he understands what the designers were doing. “We didn’t find a perfect prototype, but we found a countryside which these people came from, a most remote part of Wales and the least influenced by Anglo-Saxon culture,” he said. “We found a few very early medieval buildings that had existed at the time of the migration and were very, very simple,” he said. Bolger doesn’t see these as related to the Gothic style, which is very stylized. These were plain white plaster interiors with dark oak beams supporting the roof. ”
In a very broad sense there is a strong connection between those chapels which at that point would have been used by the Anglican church, and the dissenter religions that came out of it,” he said.
Those are the people that came here and build this Meetinghouse. Three hundred years later people are still worshiping in the same way in the same building. While that may not be unusual in Europe or Asia, in the New World in may be unique.