Historical Markers
Yearly Meeting of Friends Historical Marker
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Yearly Meeting of Friends

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
Arch St. between 3rd and 4th Sts.

Dedication Date:
December 17, 1954

Behind the Marker

Illustration from 1832 of the original Friends Meeting House and old Courthouse in Philadelphia
Friends Meeting House, (woodcut), Philadelphia, PA, circa 1830.
The Quaker settlers who founded Pennsylvania were pacifists, bound by their faith not to engage in violence or take up arms. The American Revolution forced the Society of Friends to do some serious soul-searching. Once a year all the Pennsylvania Quaker meetings gathered at the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting to conduct business and address questions of faith.

In 1776, the meeting, operating by Quaker consensus, expelled Quaker men who chose to fight in the war for independence. In 1779, the Yearly Meeting decided to expel all members who refused to free their slaves. Outraged by their neutrality, and suspicious that many Quakers hid behind their pacifism to make money and disguise their loyalty to the Crown, the Pennsylvania assembly instituted a loyalty oath that prevented Quakers and other pacifists, because they would not comply on religious grounds, from voting. As the war dragged on, patriots became increasingly suspicious and angry at their Quaker neighbors.

Image of the Meeting house.
Free Quaker's Meeting House, S.W. corner of 5th and Arch Streets, Philadelphia,...
After the American Revolution, Pennsylvania's Quakers sought to re-establish themselves as loyal citizens of the new republic. While they held onto their belief in pacifism and equality, they also expanded their humanitarian activities to their non-Quaker countrymen to exert a positive influence as citizens of the early republic.

The Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, the administrative body of Pennsylvania Quakers, quietly accepted the new governments of Pennsylvania and the United States. In 1789 the Meeting sent a letter of goodwill to George Washington upon his election to the presidency. "Your principles and conduct are well known to me," replied Washington, "and it is doing the people called Quakers no more than justice to say that except for their declining to share with others the burden of the common defense [during the Revolutionary War] there is no denomination among us who are more exemplary and useful citizens."

In the 1780s, Pennsylvania's Quakers had demonstrated their civic consciousness by supporting a variety of institutions, including the Pennsylvania Hospital, the Library Company, the Alms House, and local fire companies. The Friends would make their most important contributions to the early republic in the abolitionist movement and in Indian affairs.

Watercolor of the front view of the Alms House.
"The Friends Alms-House," on Walnut Street between 3rd and 4th Streets,...
Quakers' belief in the spiritual equality of all human beings inspired their participation in both these areas. In 1775, Philadelphia Quakers led by Anthony Benezet met at Sun Tavern to establish the "Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Relief of Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, and for Improving the Conditions of the African Race," the world's first abolition society. Reconstituted as the markerPennsylvania Abolition Society in 1787, this organization pressed both state and national legislatures to abolish slavery.

Despite the federal government's passage of a Fugitive Slave Law in 1793, individual Quakers continued their involvement by helping slaves escape, firm in their belief that they must remain true to the will of God rather than civil authority. In the 1800s, Quaker abolitionists including markerLucretia Mott and Abraham Pennock were active in the Underground Railroad, a clandestine route that helped runaway slaves escape bondage in the South and secure freedom in the North.

Friends also extended assistance to Native Americans, especially the Iroquois. Under pressure from white frontiersmen and the United States government, which encouraged western settlement, Indians were being displaced from their lands east of the Mississippi River. Many tribes remembered the peaceful relations they had with William Penn, however, and turned to the Quakers for help. The Washington administration also preferred to remove the Indians without violence, and hoped to civilize them by sending missionaries and educators to newly-formed reservations.

Alms House in Spruce Street, 1823.
The City Alms House on Spruce Street, Philadelphia, PA, 1823.
In 1793, two Indian messengers traveled from the Northwest Territory to Philadelphia to request that Quakers attend a council at Sandusky, Ohio between the U.S. Government and the Six Nations. In response, the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting sent a delegation of six members. Although the council made little progress toward a settlement of differences, it did convince the Yearly Meeting to establish, in 1796, an Indian Affairs Committee that mediated between the federal government and Native Americans at later gatherings.

Pennsylvania Quakers' political influence declined during the American Revolution because of their pacifism, but their moral influence in the early republic, and afterwards, remained great. Friends intensified their involvement in both the anti-slavery movement and Indian affairs in the 1800s, and became national leaders in prison reform, care for the mentally ill, and women's rights. They set up Friends' Schools to provide educations that stressed their principles of pacifism and social action. Consistent with their belief in the importance of bearing witness in the face of evil and acting in the world, humanitarian reform enabled Quakers to contribute to the national welfare on their own terms.
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