A visit to the Rochester Quakers to learn about the local Religious Society of Friends
by Chris Clemens
I’m not an expert on any religion. With no experience in sharing stories about learning about religion, I’m winging it. What you’re getting is an account of me figuring it out as I go along. Furthermore, this post was probably the toughest I’ve written so far. There was so much information, and none of it really seemed cut and dry.
Prior to visiting the The Rochester Society of Friends (or Quaker) meeting house, I knew very little about local Quakers. I’ve passed the building on 84 Scio Street countless times, and never knew it was a Meeting House. The square, simple, painted red brick building features one simple white sign outside. It indicates that had you been looking for it, you’ve found your destination.
Origins of the Quaker Religion
The Religious Society of Friends was founded just after the English Civil War in the mid-17th century. Founder George Fox felt as though having a relationship with Christ should not have involved any type of clergy. Rather, he thought that spirituality should be more of a personal exchange.
He traveled the area and preached his ideas to other believers, who called themselves “Friends”. The Friends considered themselves to be the true, unadulterated, originally intended Christianity. They aimed to separate themselves from the Puritans of the time. More importantly, they sought to separate themselves from the strict rules of Puritanism.
In 1662, the term “Quaker” was first used by a magistrate who was trying Fox and his followers for blasphemy. While in meeting, Friends would have a physiological ‘quaking’ responses to experiencing the light of their god, and being awakened to their individual struggle. At the time, it was considered a derogatory term, but it was later accepted.
Today, the term “Quaker” is commonly used to describe a follower of the Religious Society. The English Parliament eventually passed the Act of Toleration in 1689, which allowed ‘nonconformists’ to have their own beliefs. A few courageous Friends had already started the trek to the United States. They hoped to begin anew here in a country known for celebrating religious freedom.
This is where things get very confusing.
Visiting Rochester’s Religious Society Of Friends
We had contacted the Rochester Friends prior to showing up. Kenn, the current Clerk, agreed to spend time with us and show us around. When we arrived, we were let in by the person assigned to be the greeter at that time; her name was Sylvia. Everyone seems to have a different response to ‘we’re doing this out of pure curiosity, and to learn all we can’. Sylvia seemed genuinely happy to have us there and was incredibly hospitable. She definitely allowed us to feel at home while we waited for the morning to end.
At the end of the meeting, Friends filtered down from the upstairs meeting room, to the downstairs community room. After the meeting, there is a ‘fellowship’ time of sorts, with coffee and food so people were beginning to gather. A woman walked up to us and introduced herself as Lu. She welcomed us and soon thereafter, introduced us to her husband Kenn. Kenn explained that he was the current “Clerk”, which essentially meant he was the liaison to the public. That’s how it came to be that he received our initial inquiry about a tour.
As it turns out, he was an incredible resource, and had been in numerous Meetings around the country and involved for a long time. We didn’t realize at the time that “everything” was more than we could ever fully comprehend even if we agreed to study only Quakers for the next straight year.
We ultimately ended up with a little mix of all Quakers, and Rochester Quakers.
Quakers in America
He showed us around and told us a bit about the history of that particular meeting spot, and then spent the next two hours patiently answering our incessant questioning. Here’s what I came away with: The history of the Quakers is INCREDIBLY complex, and whatever you think you know about the Quakers, it’s probably only slightly true, if at all.
The Quakers were essential to the founding of the United States of America because of their interest in activism and community. You’ll also find that many of their business practices and beliefs on work are still around today. Their ideas on non-violence and treating all with respect and dignity meant the Quakers were active in helping others. They were instrumental in the Underground Railroad, the Woman’s Rights Movement, and numerous other forms of movements, including the currently ongoing Occupy movements.
What A Quaker Meeting Is Like
Here in Rochester, the Friends meet weekly on Sundays. This group is referred to as an “unprogrammed group”, which means there are all different types of Friends in attendance. In Rochester you can find Buddhist Friends, Jewish Friends, Atheist Friends, Evangelical Friends, even Buddhist Jewish Friends! (The Rochester Friends own a diagram, which shows all the many different splits, and mergers of the many different sects of Quakerism that have existed since its founding. It is a very complex and overwhelming read).
The meeting consists of sitting in a room, in chairs set up in circles. There is no altar, no special decoration, no adornments, no distractions. The design is to imply the concept of simplicity, which is one of the Quaker Advices. (The Advices are a set of guidelines that provide a sense of direction to a Friend). During the Meeting, everyone sits in silent meditation, and when compelled to do so by the experience of connecting with whatever they’re there to connect with, they may stand and share whatever thoughts are on their mind. In the event that no one feels so compelled, the group sits in silent meditation for the entire time.
This particular group in Rochester has no assigned leader or pastor. It operates as a pure democracy where all are treated equal and everyone’s input and experience is welcomed. Most find value in this arrangement helpful to gain exposure to many different perspectives. However, because there are so many potential views on a subject, it can often be time consuming for a group to come to a unanimous decision.
In the event that someone is looking for counsel on a particular issue, a committee may be appointed to assist the individual come to an objective awareness about making the best possible decision. What I found really interesting about this, is that the group in its entirety may have an opinion on a particular issue but may arrive individually at a different opinion–and most importantly, that’s okay. There seems to be a philosophy of open-mindedness and acceptance that’s unlike any other.
Who Can Be A Quaker
All are welcome to be Quaker, and if you want to be a Quaker, you can just start to show up and start calling yourself one!
In retrospect, it would’ve been great to experience a Meeting, and see the process unfold. We’ll have to schedule a return visit to visit our new Friends!
Many thanks to those who invited us, and made us feel at home. See you again soon!
*This post previously appeared on ExploringTheBurnedOverDistrict.com
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens