Merion Friends Meetinghouse
This was the scene on the Great Conestoga Road (present Montgomery Avenue) in 1805: the covered wagon is headed eastward toward the General Wayne Inn (extreme right). Merion Friends Meetinghouse is just above the horses and to the right of it are the carriage sheds. (Engraving by Robert Sutcliffs from Travels in America published in England in 1815.)
Merion Friends Meetinghouse has stood as a landmark for 300 years. It is the most pictured Quaker meetinghouse in America, was the first public building in the area, and in 1998 was named a National Landmark by the U. S. Department of the Interior. Not only does its age, largely unaltered design, and continuous use make it a notable structure, but also the fact that Welsh members of the Society of Friends who built it represent the earliest migration of Celtic speaking Welsh in the Western Hemisphere. These “Merioneth Adventurers” were not accustomed to building meetinghouses in Wales. In the homeland they were not even permitted to meet for worship in each other’s houses when being persecuted as nonconformists. So here in the freedom of America, they built what they knew, something like a barn or a house, with a loft up above to be used as a schoolroom.
In or before 1695, the Welshmen who constituted Merion Meeting contributed labor, materials, loads of stone and wood to construct a meetinghouse. First indication that it was ready for use is found in Monthly Meeting minutes which records that Daniel Humphrey and Hannah Wynne, youngest daughter of Dr. Thomas Wynne, were married “at the public meeting house in Meirion” on October 20, 1695.
Observable evidence suggests that the building was executed as a single unit, according to National Park Service historians, but not until investigative deconstruction or judicious archaeological work under the floor, can more be known.
Minutes of business meetings between 1702 and 1704, and again between 1712 through 1717, record assigned tasks such as “make a cupboard in ye meeting house to the use of ye meeting to keep Friends bookes or papers,” or “add hookes and staples to the meeting house windows.”
In 1702, Griffith John and Robert Jones were appointed to find a carpenter to make benches some of which we believe are still in use, originally made with peg legs and no backs, but now modified for comfort. David Maurice was to “secure the meeting house” presumably against bad weather. With such reference to the meeting house already existing, then why were members requested to “see for stones to build a meeting house in 1703, and were to be reminded to pay their subscriptions toward the building project”? Was there thought of creating another, larger meetinghouse?
It may have been at this time the second, larger room was added, wide enough to accommodate two enclosed staircases to a gallery where children sat, strictly divided girls from boys, with access through a low door to the schoolroom. The additional room made the building T-shaped but not cruciform, as is sometimes stated. The roof was a major expense in 1714. The floor, says tradition, was supported by tree stumps.
Analysis reveals that the present chimney was added later, jerry-rigged through the existing roof. Merion may have had a fireplace similar to the one in the Old Haverford meetinghouse (on Eagle Road in Havertown) with openings both inside and outside the building so that fuel could be added from outside without disturbing the silence of the meeting within. On December 16, 1798, we know a stove was in use from a note in Joseph Price’s dairy: “Whent (sic) to Meeting, had 4 preachers…no fire in stove yet was prety Passable as to Cold.”
In the larger, added room shuttered windows high up above a modern dropped ceiling are visible now from below. Partitions to be lowered when necessary separate the two interior parts, whereby the women’s business meeting could be held while the men’s was in progress.
These separate meetings were held until 1883, then combined. A row of nailholes in the wainscoting of the larger room, and hat pegs placed too high, probably mean there once was a higher level of “facing benches” where visiting Public Friends (preachers) and elders sat, men on one side, women on the other. In 1829 Friends tried to improve the exterior by plastering over the original stonework and scribing lines to resemble cut stone blocks. At this time, perhaps, a window or door on the east wall of the first room was blocked up for some mysterious reason, the outline still faintly visible under the plaster. In 1849 an arched vault over a chamber below ground off the east wall was built to hold bodies for burial until graves could be dug.
The existing sheds for horses and equipage were probably built in the 1820s, but “stables” were there in the 1790s, as mentioned in the Price diary. A faint depression of a sawpit remains where two men could saw beams for the sheds, and pieces of a very dilapidated stone mounting block lie nearby. A huge sycamore tree three centuries old stands near the gate to the driveway.
Meetings for worship are still held each Sunday at eleven, unprogrammed and without a pastor or visiting preachers. Silence is broken by occasional spoken ministry by worshipers responding to inspiration of the “Inward Light,” principal doctrine of Quakers, the sort of speaking which underscores basic tenets of Friends’ faith and practice, namely equality, simplicity, non violence and peace.
About a mile up the trail going west (on Montgomery Avenue), Robert Owen’s house, Penn Cottage, was built at the same time as Merion’s meetinghouse, probably by the same workmen. An old journal tells of a boy climbing an outside stairway at the Owen house to spy on William Penn saying his prayers in an upper room …”Penn thanking God for providing comfort in the wilderness.”
From this story we judge it possible that there was an outside stair up the back wall of the meetinghouse for pupils and schoolmaster to use. Jonathan Wynne, only son of Dr. Thomas Wynne…a Quaker minister and physician to William Penn…had a farmhouse built about the same time about a mile and a half east toward the city in the midst of “Wynne’s fields” (now Wynnefield), a sturdy house that withstood a Revolutionary War skirmish. Though modified, these three stone buildings, the Owen house, the Friends’ Meetinghouse, and Wynnestay, bear similarities to one another.
Merion Friends Burial Ground
Where there’s life there’s also death. The subject of a burial ground in each of the four Quaker communities “beyond Schuylkill” (Merion, Haverford, Radnor and, only for awhile, Schuylkill) was broached in 1684. The two men from Merion, Hugh Roberts and Robert Davis, reported that Merion had a burying place, location not described. Possibly Hugh Roberts assigned a portion of his land for burials which may have included the place where Edward ap Rees (Edward son of Rees, eventually, ‘Prees” then Price) buried his young daughter in 1682, just two months after setting foot in the Welsh Tract.
In 1695, Edward Rees sold for five shillings a half acre to trustees of Merion Preparative Meeting for a burial ground and to them leased the adjacent plot where the meetinghouse stands. For 82 years, Merion Friends possessed the only place in today’s Lower Merion for burials. Everyone was accepted: Indians, strangers, servants, slaves.
The burial yard was increased in size several times, and now is about 1-1/4 acres and known to contain more than 2100 bodies recorded, and possibly several hundred more never mentioned in writing. About 20% are children.
People died of alcoholism, apoplexy, accidents, bilious fever, burns, childbirth, cholera, consumption, diabetes, drowning, dysentery, freezing, kidney stones, heart attack, hives, lockjaw, murder, palsy, pneumonia, poison, smallpox, suicide, typhus, war wounds, an unidentifiable “white swelling” and yellow fever.
Most of the 246 gravestones still visible in the cemetery date from 1801 and 1804 when John Dickinson sold, for token amounts, two acres to the meeting to extend ground for burials and later, for other buildings. This was the famous John Dickinson, lawyer and statesman who never lived in Lower Merion but owned land here. He represented Pennsylvania in the Stamp Act Congress of 1765 and drafted its declaration of rights and grievances. He encouraged the populace by his Letters from A Farmer in Pennsylvania, to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies to protest harsh British taxation. Yet he did not sign the Declaration of Independence, for which he suffered disapproval, but later served in the patriot militia and most importantly helped draft the Constitution.
A researcher in the early 1900s found some 62 names of militiamen serving in the Revolution who she claimed are buried at Merion Meeting.
Now in the first years of its fourth century, the old “yard” next to the meetinghouse resembles nothing so much as a shady park with only a few standing grave markers (some illegible). Only ashes of Quaker family members may be buried now in Merion Meeting’s cemetery, where a peaceful quiet still comforts the bereaved.
John Roberts Of Pencoyd
John Roberts of Pencoyd came to the area of Pennsylvania called Merion in 1683. He married a fellow passenger from the ship Morning Star, built a stone home, sired children and founded a dynasty in Lower Merion which produced, among other things, a model dairy farm, an iron works, many civic leaders, a physician, a president of the Pennsylvania Railroad and a state senator. John Roberts (1648-1724) became a prominent man in the Welsh settlement of Merion. Because of his fine reputation, he was appointed Justice of the Peace. He was also elected to the Provincial Assembly in 1704. John called his farm Pencoid (his spelling) which means in Welsh “head of the woods,” an apt name because his large stone farm house was nestled at the top of the rise of land from the Schuylkill River, just about where Saks Fifth Avenue is now on City Avenue.
It was in November of 1683 that John Roberts disembarked from the sailing ship Morning Star…near the new community of Philadelphia. John was pleased to discover well-timbered land, a clear spring, plenty of stone for building and soil which was “good and fat.”
The following spring, having cleared his land to build a house, John married Gaynor Roberts, who had also purchased ground. They began building a permanent home with the aid of hired carpenters and masons from Philadelphia. The marriage of John and Gaynor in January 1684, was the first such ceremony at the Merion Friends Meeting.
The Pencoyd Farm. The initial crops at Pencoyd were grains: wheat, Indian corn and the principal crop, barley. John Roberts was labelled malster in early records, a grower of barley from which malt is made. John’s life was a rich one…he had found freedom and a place to establish a family without the horrors of his homeland where frequent jailings and fines were imposed upon those who wished to be Quakers.
A Heritage Passed. At the end of his successful life, John left the farm to his only son, Robert, who was 40 at the time of his inheritance. By that time, Philadelphia had grown to be a major economic power, second only to London. Robert Roberts, a trustee of Merion Meeting, was known throughout the community as an honest, intelligent man.
He had been operating a ferry which served as a direct connection to the markets of Philadelphia, as well as keeping an active interest in the farming on his property. Philadelphia’s burgeoning population created a greater need for food and, as a result, Roberts abandoned the major crop, barley, in favor of raising beef, suckling pigs, vegetables, butter and eggs.
Surveyor Roberts’ Legacy. With expanded use, the property had grown to 180 self-sufficient acres and was passed on to Roberts’ son, John Roberts II, known as “the surveyor.” Young John had been surveying neighbors’ property lines from the time he was a teenager. With his gift for mathematics, he had been put to work early in life laying out roads and establishing the boundary rights of neighboring land owners. John II married Rebecca Jones with whom he had 12 children.
John and Rebecca’s first son, Jonathan, not being interested in farming, became instead a physician and relocated to Kent Island, Maryland. Jonathan’s letters home to his parents at Pencoyd give charming and valuable insights into mid 18th century life. John, the surveyor, died January 13, 1776, not living quite long enough to witness the break with England.
Two Brothers Rebel. However, son Robert Roberts, (the ninth child of John II and Rebecca), and his brother Algernon (the tenth child), went against their Quaker upbringing and trained to fight in the upcoming conflict. Robert was read out of Merion Meeting on January 26, 1776 for his warlike activities. It is assumed that Algernon met the same fate at Meeting as his brother, although documentation is lacking on Algernon’s behavior.
Aside from the impending war, another major problem facing the farm was the depletion of nutrients in the soil which had seemed so rich to the first John Roberts. Two and a half generations of heavy farming had taken their toll. A friend of the Roberts family, Richard Peters, whose Belmont mansion still stands today in historic Fairmount Park, is credited with introducing the use of gypsum (or “land plaster”) to the soil. Peters shared his technique of regenerating the soil with the Roberts family.
At the death of John, the surveyor, son Algernon became the fourth proprietor of Pencoyd. While serving in the army with his brother Robert, Algernon achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel of the Seventh Battalion under the command of his future father-in-law, Colonel Isaac Warner. In 1778, he took an oath of allegience to his country which further estranged him from his Quaker roots.
The Revolutionary Years. During the British occupation of Philadelphia in 1777, all farms nearby the city, including Pencoyd, were raided for food. The British often paid in gold for the goods but the patriots often did not. Algernon complained to the Governor about the patriots stealing fruit and vegetables.
After the war, Algernon became a member of Richard Peters’ new Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture. By this time, he had changed the focus of the farm once again, concentrating on dairy farming. Algernon provided butter and beef to his main market, Philadelphia. Always an active farmer, he continued to further the cause of farming by writing and spreading the word about new methods and techniques. President Washington, also a good friend of Richard Peters, visited Belmont frequently, so it is quite possible (but not documented) that Algernon Roberts was part of farming conversations which took place at Belmont when the President visited.
Isaac Furthers Agriculture. Algernon reigned as head of Pencoyd for 40 years. When he died in 1815, it was written “none will be more regretted, and few so much missed.” His son, Isaac Warner Roberts, took charge of the farm next, promoting many progressive techniques for furthering agriculture and dairying. Isaac’s first wife, Emily Thomas, died fairly young after having four daughters. Isaac’s second wife, Rosalinda Evans Brooke, bore him two sons, Algernon and George Brooke Roberts.
Isaac enlarged the house with the addition of a large stone wing and maintained the farm successfully for 44 years. However, when Isaac Warner Roberts died, neither George Brooke nor Algernon wished to be farmers in the family tradition. George had graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a degree in civil engineering and a keen interest in railroading. Algernon was drawn to the iron industry which he wished to pursue with his cousin, Percival Roberts. Because both sons were occupied “off the farm,” the business of Pencoyd was now managed by their mother, Rosalinda Roberts.
George and Sarah. George pursued and won the hand of Sarah Brinton, whom he married in 1868. Soon after returning from their wedding trip, George’s brother Algernon died of a serious infection caused by the lancing of a carbuncle. George was now the new proprietor-to-be of Pencoyd, since his mother, Rosalinda, was still in charge of the farm. When Rosalinda died in 1873, George became the true inheritor and proprietor of the property. George’s young bride, Sarah (lovingly called “Sallie”), died in 1869 after giving birth to a son, George Brinton Roberts.
The Railroad Years. George Brooke Roberts married a second time. His new wife, Miriam Pyle Williams, a descendant of both Dr. Thomas Wynne and Dr. Edward Jones, bore him five children. The year of his second marriage saw George’s elevation to the position of first vice president of the Pennsylvania Railroad and in 1880 he was elected president. Although not a farmer, George always kept up with the farming business, using the old homestead as a summer home for his family. In the 1890s, he had the farm wired for electricity, ‘a modern innovation.’
George was hailed as one of the finest businessmen ever to live, being fair and just in all his dealings. His fairness extended to his family as well as business. His will stipulated that each of his children should share in the ownership of Pencoyd so that each could have a house of his/her own. However, all the children were still living in the main house at Pencoyd.
It was some years later that the siblings decided that the third son, T. Williams Roberts, should be the seventh proprietor of Pencoyd. When T. Williams finally took over the running of the farm, he and his brother, Isaac Warner Roberts, decided to establish a herd of Guernsey dairy cattle. In time, they built up the second best producing record in the United States. Their brother, Algernon, became a member of the Pennsylvania Senate but unfortunately developed tuberculosis and died at the age of 34.
Pencoyd in a Time Warp. T. Williams oversaw many changes at Pencoyd. There were new stone chimneys, porches were removed, the entrance was redesigned. Another generation grew up in or near the old farm. However, the time was fast approaching when the growth of the city and suburbs, the demand for housing and new commercial ventures proved too much for the family to endure.
T. Williams’ children had to make the painful decision to sell the farm to a developer. Moving the house away from the commercialism was considered but the cost was prohibitive. The peaceful farm atmosphere was already lost to development along City Avenue. Peace and quiet would never surround the old farmhouse again. Pencoyd is now a memory…but what a wonderful memory it is!