Rowdy Meetinghouse On Green Street Divides Quakers

The Green Street Meeting House | Courtesy of the Haverford College Quaker Collection

Greene Street Friends School in Germantown announced it will soon begin its first construction project in over 100 years. The City Planning Commission voted to support a zoning change that would let the school build new facilities without having to go through the zoning board for variances. The legislation would rezone the Pre-K-8 school’s properties to CMX-3, a commercial category that allows educational uses by right, so that the school can increase enrollment from 300 to 340 students.

The Greene Street Friends School was founded in 1855 by former members of the rebellious Green Street Meeting House in Northern Liberties–once located on the north side of Spring Garden Street between Third and Fourth Streets, a block redeveloped in the 1960s for textile dealers. The grimy one-level buildings now house retail stores. The variance of Greene and Green is not a spelling error, but indirectly draws its origins from the first major schism within the Religious Society of Friends. The split, which occurred in 1827, estranged Quaker communities for well over a century, separating families and dividing acquaintances in the city and throughout the nation.

Greener Pastures

In the early 1800s, affluent Quakers of Philadelphia built impressive townhouses around the area north of the city’s northern boundary (Vine Street) and several blocks west of the Delaware River. They wanted to escape the congestion and noise of the city (today’s Old City and Society Hill).

The blocks surrounding Green Street were primarily within the District of Spring Garden but also included the western portion of the Northern Liberties District. It was said that this zone was among the best neighborhoods of Philadelphia in the 1840s and ’50s, a place of money and refinement. (Spring Garden Street passes through this drab post-industrial region today, but as unlikely as it seems, did not connect to Delaware Avenue until the 1920s.)

The members of the Society of Friends who moved to the area needed a meeting house. The nearest one, the Meeting for the Northern District (long since torn down), at Sixth and Noble Streets, was already filled to capacity, so they petitioned Quaker authorities to establish what became the Green Street Monthly Meeting of Friends. In 1810, the Monthly Meeting of Philadelphia purchased connected lots on Green Street’s south side bounded by Fourth Street and Hanchel (future Orianna) Street.

The Society of Friends erected a substantial meetinghouse at this location between 1813 and 1814. The house was placed in the middle of a parcel that was once the site of a large ice skating pond that had been popular during colonial times. The Green Street Meeting House looked very much like any surviving Quaker meetinghouse in Philadelphia: symmetrical and somewhat plain, with multiple entrances into the brick building. Space was available in the basement for neighboring Quakers to store household items.

Inside, balconies overlooked the central meeting space and sounding boards over the assembly room galleries helped amplify the voices of worshippers. There was also a partition to separate men and women during concurrent business meetings. Sometime in the mid-1800s, an addition was built onto the back of the building, giving it a curious T shape. The property was fenced in by bulky brick walls, similar to other Quaker houses around town.

A map of the neighborhood surrounding the Green Street Meeting House.  Many rich Quaker families moved into the area in the early 1800s. Spring Garden Street had yet to be laid | Source: 1875 Philadelphia Atlas, G. M. Hopkins with Google Maps overlay

The Green Street Meeting House opened for worship under the administrative control of the Northern District Meeting for two years. It was then placed under the Philadelphia Quarterly Meeting’s direction in 1816, as with other Quaker houses in and around Philadelphia. (Quarterly meetings met once every quarter of the year.) Friends who lived north of Callowhill Street made up much of the meetings.

An Unorthodox Home

It was at this meetinghouse that a chain of events started that lead to the Hicksite-Orthodox Separation of 1827. This was the only Quaker house around Philadelphia where reformers—followers of Elias Hicks—dominated. Each ensuing faction of this doctrinal rift considered itself to be the rightful expression of the legacy of the founder of the Society of Friends, George Fox.

The Hicksite-Orthodox Separation was not the first split within Philadelphia’s Society of Friends, as the Free (“Fighting”) Quaker movement during the Revolutionary War era was another, smaller division. The bitter schism of 1827, however, was much larger and more public, and affected a broader range of individuals. The falling-out persisted well into the 20th Century—Philadelphia’s quarreling Quaker camps did not reconcile until 1955.

Engraving at the Library of Congress of Elias Hicks, from Wikipedia. And what a handsome and friendly-looking fellow he was. Elias was the cousin of Edward Hicks, a Quaker minister who became a Quaker icon because of his folk paintings, including The Peaceable Kingdom, of which Edward painted over sixty versions.

Engraving of Elias Hicks. The dour-looking Elias was the cousin of Edward Hicks, a Quaker minister who became an icon because of his folk paintings, including The Peaceable Kingdom, of which Edward painted over sixty versions | Source: Library of Congress

Elias Hicks (1748–1830), an itinerant Quaker minister from New York, had visited the Green Street Meeting to preach in December of 1822. This was one of several trips he took to Philadelphia in the early 19th Century to profess that the “Light Within” was the source of all revelation. The light is a Quaker concept that means different things to different Quakers, but it’s usually explained as the presence of God within each person. The written Bible was subordinate to this line of thinking, which was quite contrary to Quaker beliefs.

A very popular orator, Hicks had been called a radical eccentric for his convictions, among which was his fervent anti-slavery stance. Moreover, he refused to accept Jesus’ virgin birth to Mary and he didn’t preach salvation through Jesus’ death. Some Friends refused to go hear Hicks preach, while others defended his right to speak as he pleased.

During his 1822 trip to Philadelphia, Hicks was received at the Green Street house, the only Quaker meetinghouse in the city that was open to his message. A large group of the city’s Quaker elders who disapproved of his interpretation of Quakerism called Hicks—under dubious authority—to an interview at the Green Street house. Some of Hicks’ followers were with him as the elders challenged his beliefs. Hicks thought the encounter unfair, stating that he was treated cruelly and that he was answerable only to the Quaker body in his native New York. The interview sparked tensions among local Quakers.

Hicks’ teachings caused great dissension within meetinghouses throughout the Philadelphia region for years thereafter. The discord nearly led to violence at a special gathering in November 1826 at the Arch Street Meeting House, the city’s Orthodox Quaker stronghold at Fourth and Arch Streets. A group of young Quakers had taken to pounding on the meetinghouse’s gates trying to get access into the building and chanting for Elias Hicks to be  acknowledged.

Glass slide view of interior of the Green Street Meeting House; photo taken from women’s entrance, 1913 | Courtesy of the Haverford College Quaker Collection

The Philadelphia Quarterly Meeting attempted to get the Green Street Meeting to toe the line regarding Hicks and his teachings, but the Hicksites there would not oblige the Orthodox Friends’ directives. The Green Streeters had even brusquely replaced some of their longtime Orthodox elders, thus angering Orthodox Quakers around the city. An overtly confrontational spirit pervaded the Green Street Meeting.

Ultimately, the Hicksite-Orthodox Separation was based on differing views of abstract and trivial matters having to do more with meeting procedure than spiritual practice. For the Green Streeters, it came down to the issue of whether their Hicksite-controlled meeting be subject to orders relating to dogma and policy from the Arch Street Meeting.

The Hicks Rebellion

It all came to a head in April of 1827 during the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, held at the Arch Street Meeting House. Hundreds of Quakers from local quarterly meetings were in attendance at the multi-day annual assembly, including envoys from Bucks County and Abington.

During sessions at this Yearly Meeting, several Green Street representatives tried to substitute one of their own, one John Comly, as the presiding clerk. The existing meeting clerk, a staunch Orthodox Quaker named Samuel Bettle, was in charge of recognizing speakers and taking minutes, among other administrative duties. A heated debate resulted from the attempt to replace Bettle, followed by long hortatory sermons and charges of insolence against various members. General confusion added to the tumult.

The Green Streeters were unsuccessful in their clerk-related crusade, so they met at their meetinghouse in the evenings that week seeking ways to reconstitute the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Returning to the assembly, they proceeded to circulate a document, the “Green Street Declaration,” at the closing session that declared their desire to separate from the Philadelphia Quarterly Meeting. Meanwhile, the city’s Orthodox Friends had already been leaning toward closing the Green Street Meeting, as radical affairs there had caused enough tension among Philadelphia’s Quakers. These events culminated in the “Great Separation of 1827.”

A 1910 photo of the original Green Street Meeting House by David I. Moore | Source: Old Towns and Districts of Philadelphia , 1942

The Green Street Meeting House was formally taken over by the Hicksite Friends, who immediately transferred their allegiance to the Abington Quarterly Meeting. This may have been done to exercise their newfound right to ally with the quarterly meeting they chose (Abington Quarterly Meeting was operationally distinct from Philadelphia Quarterly Meeting), as well as to forestall disciplinary action. The few Orthodox Friends of the Green Street Meeting joined the Northern District Meeting, which was under the supervision of the Philadelphia Quarterly Meeting.

Although the Hicksite-Orthodox division was intended to be temporary, other Quakers meetings in Philadelphia and its countryside soon followed suit. By 1828, there were two independent Friends groups in the city, both claiming to be the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. For years thereafter, the Hicksites typically held their annual meeting at Green Street Meeting House (and later the Race Street Meeting House) with John Comly as presiding clerk, while Orthodox Friends had their annual meeting at the Arch Street Meeting House with Samuel Bettle still serving as meeting clerk. The two conferences—both called the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting—existed simultaneously in Philadelphia for more than a century.

Split The Difference

Orthodox Quakers refused to recognize Hicksites as Quakers. This ultimately backfired against the Orthodox, as the number of Hicksite followers in and around Philadelphia was so large that their disownment from Orthodox meetings practically decimated the traditionalist meetings. In the immediate aftermath of the 1827 separation, it appeared that the radical movement had won.

Other Friends meetings in New York, Baltimore, and elsewhere along the East Coast split along similar lines. The break even reached regions far inland and even in Canada. Hicksite and Orthodox branches of the Society of Friends each claimed to represent the only authentic body of Quakers in America.

A series of property disputes and lawsuits between the two groups dogged the Friends of Philadelphia and vicinity for decades and served to cement the break. The physical appearance of individuals also played up the differences between members of the two factions: Hicksite Friends kept to Quaker traditions of plain speech and dress that had long been abandoned by Orthodox Friends. Furthermore, some meetinghouses on one side of the separation barred the interment in their burial grounds of Quakers of the other side—a true insult to Friends.

Tradition In Decline

Philadelphia’s Hicksites held meetings at Fourth and Green twice a week for decades. The meeting’s membership in 1863 was 399 families, with a total of 1,279 members (1,004 adults and 275 minors). But as the Northern Liberties-Spring Garden neighborhood began losing its appeal after the Civil War, Quakers started moving from the region to other sections of Philadelphia and out of town entirely. Landlords carved large houses into tenements for immigrant German, and later, Russian, Jews, Irish Catholics, and Poles. In addition, the Hicksites sect had been rapidly loosing members throughout Philadelphia as a result of a decrease in early marriages stemming from the increased wealth of members. By 1912, Green Street had only 649 members with only 72 of them under age 21.

In the end, urban demographics and not the religious turmoil of the 1820s, spelled the end of the Green Street Meeting House as a place of worship. A few months after the meetinghouse celebrated its 100th anniversary on May 8, 1913, the building was “laid down” (discontinued) and sold to the Philadelphia Quarterly Meeting in 1914. That group gave the building to the Friends Neighborhood Guild to assist the rising Eastern European population of Northern Liberties. A few years later—between 1922 and 1923—Spring Garden Street was constructed behind the building.

Several health initiatives were instituted at the former house of worship, which was renamed the Friends Neighborhood House. One of the first events there was the inauguration of the city’s first Well Baby Clinic. A newspaper of the day wrote: “The spirit of democracy is at once evident as the mothers, some extremely poor and others fairly well to do, some black and some white, assemble together in the hall and exchange friendly greetings.”

RiteAid

The old Green Street Meeting House was replaced with this strip mall on Spring Garden Street in the 1970s | Photo: Harry Kyriakodis

The Friends Neighborhood Guild also furnished the onetime meetinghouse yard with swings, see saws, a giant slide, a sandbox, and a wading pool. The playground, operated by the City of Philadelphia, eventually had an average daily attendance of 200 to 275 children from Northern Liberties and other local neighborhoods. Indoor facilities included a lounge and a gymnasium in the former assembly room, along with a kitchen, a pre-school kindergarten room, a library, and an art studio. The basement held a general workshop, a game room, and showers. The Friends Neighborhood Guild provided a staff of 12 full time workers, plus student volunteers and field work students from area colleges of social work.

Sometime after 1970, the tired old meetinghouse was bulldozed after serving the citizens of Philadelphia in various capacities for over 160 years. The entire block of the southeast corner of Fourth and Green Streets then became occupied by the commercial strip that now faces Spring Garden Street.

All traces of the Society of Friends having worshiped in the western part of Northern Liberties has since vanished and is long forgotten, although the Green Street Monthly Meeting in Germantown still has benches that were originally installed in the Northern Liberties Green Street house. Confusingly, the leaders of Green Street Monthly Meeting named their K-8 school “Greene Street Friends School” not in reference to the dissenting founders, but because it is located on Germantown’s Greene Street.

About the author

Harry Kyriakodis, author of Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront (2011), Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward (2012), and The Benjamin Franklin Parkway (2014), regularly gives walking tours and presentations on unique yet unappreciated parts of the city. A founding/certified member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides, he is a graduate of La Salle University and Temple University School of Law, and was once an officer in the U.S. Army Field Artillery. He has collected what is likely the largest private collection of books about the City of Brotherly Love: over 2700 titles new and old.

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19 Comments


  1. Thanks so much, Harry, for this – I’ve been looking at maps for years wondering what the Green Street Meeting looked like and what happened there etc. Thank you!

  2. A wonderful review of the Hicksite separation, with lots of wonderful detail. Only one carp: one does not “tow” the line, but “toe” it. It comes from naval discipline, having ratings line up with their toes on a line of the deck. In other words, “Get in line!”

  3. as a member of Green Street Meeting and a teacher and parent at Greene Street Friends School, as well as Philadelphiaphite, I am grateful for this well researched and informative article.

  4. Green Street had outlier “protected” meetings in what is now called Spring Garden, west of Broad Street, and in West Philadelphia, during the 19th and early 20th centuries, from what I’ve read. It’s a fascination reflection of the development of the city.
    Germantown’s Hicksite meeting was originally a protected meeting too — under the care of Frankford’s Hicksite meeting. The affiliation with Green Street came later.
    By the time the building in Northern Liberties was sold, Green Street’s Germantown meeting was the last one left.
    Meanwhile, there are many communities in South Jersey and Southeastern Pennsylvania where there are two meetinghouses, although Germantown is one of the few — maybe the only one? — where both are still active.

    • Hi, Mary-
      There are still 2 meetings in Frankford. Would you know if the naming of Orthodox Street, where one Frankford Meeting and school are located, be so named as a clear destinction of the Orthodox Friends Meeting on that street West of Frankford Avenue from the Hicksite meeting on the East side of Frankford Ave.? I can’t recall the street name, but I could walk there from the elevated train stop. I used to own an 1898-built twin home on the 4900 block of Duffield Street, 6 blocks from the eastside meeting house. I’m a Quaker but never attended meeting there or at the Orthodox Street Meeting because of the way I was blown off by the clerk whom I had called way back in 1982 to inquire of meeting times. Funny how first impressions persist!

  5. Harry, a really well written piece of important history. I find myself wishing the meeting house was still standing. An historical building like this, with surrounding landscaping and stout brick walls would be a considerable asset in that corner of the neighborhood. Thanks as always for digging deep into the past to unearth a bit of gold.

  6. Thanks, Harry, a thoughtful piece!

  7. Correction: the second paragraph states the building was between Fourth and Fifth Streets, but the map and the final photo show that it was actually between Fourth and Third.
    (P.S. This comment is a resubmit – I submitted this two days ago and it never showed up.)

  8. A wonderful recounting of some of the key events in Quaker history that continue to have repercussions even today among Friends.
    . I would caution however the misunderstanding of Quaker organizational structures and theology which is perpetrated here. Ask any Quaker elder to explain some of these terms before you write about them, please. First, the meetinghouse is not the church, the body of people or congregation. Friends’ testimony from the first is that all the people of God are the church and the local group is a Meeting, which meets in a meetinghouse. The building is not the church; individual Friends are members of a Meeting, not a meetinghouse.
    . Next, there were numerous differences between the rural and urban Friends that promoted differing affiliations in the Quaker groups that came out of the Hicksite schisms. But some of them were significant — the differences were not little, insignificant niggles. In the last 2 years Quaker groups in Indiana and North Carolina have separated over some of the same issues. Some of the issues still provoke dispute and even rancor 200 years later.
    . And the Orthodox were not the more orthodox in Quakerism; they were more orthodox in protestant Christianity. Quakerism until the late 1700’s had been considered heretical by most mainline groups and Catholics. One of the biggest sticking points was the doctrine of the Inner Light, the faith in “that of God in every person” which would take them back to God, not the agency of Jesus’s blood sacrifice. This is what Hicks preached and insisted upon– faithfulness to Friends tradition. The ‘Orthodox’ had let go some of the plain dress customs and had accepted a Bible-centered protestantism, which more rural and traditional Quakers objected to. Evangelical Friends (rare in Philadelphia but common in other places and the majority in some other countries) still reject Hicks’s more historically based theology.
    . A non-Quaker is really not qualified to describe what is or was “correct” Quaker faith and practice in our Religious Society that has no creed but unites around distinctive doctrines and a way of life. Walking in the Light of Christ and seeking to make God’s Love our Guide is not for others to assess; our tradition is rooted in each person’s making a commitment to their direct experience of God’s Spirit. This is why questions of authority and control still provoke reaction. But those decisions are not made by Meetinghouses but by meetings of real human Friends, who are successful to the degree they let God guide them to the Truth.

    • William Rushby

      Pablo Paz correctly asserts that one doesn’t belong to a meetinghouse, but to the meeting or congregation which meets there. Thus, Friends belonged to the Green Street Meeting, not the Green Street meetinghouse.

      Pablo Paz’s interpretation of the differences between the Orthodox and the Hicksites is quite slanted, in favor of the Hicksites. Orthodox reliance on the Bible goes back as far as Robert Barclay’s Apology, published in Latin within the first 50 years of the Society of Friends’ existence.

      Over time, the Orthodox (especially Wilburite-Orthodox) proved to be much more traditional in adherence to plain garb and other Quaker peculiarities than the Hicksites.

      • William Rushby

        The Northern District Meeting was the most Wilburite Meeting in Philadelphia. It was Orthodox and strictly traditionalist.

        • William Rushby

          Harry K.: You might find it instructive, as a tour guide, to read the journals of some Friends ministers from the 19th Century. I could recommend the *Diary and Letters of Deborah Brooks Webb*. For much of her life, Deborah was a member (and eventually a minister) of the Northern District Meeting, commonly called “the North Meeting.” This book is available as an “on demand” reprint from the Harvard Book Store (yes, that place in MA)for $9.95. Deborah’s diary my also be found on Google Books:

          There may also be journals and memoirs of members of the Green Street Meeting. I happen to be more familiar with works by Orthodox Friends, so I cannot identify any journals/memoirs by Green Street Friends. Presumably, the folks at Haverford or Swarthmore Colleges could help you to find some.

        • William Rushby

          Hello yet again, Harry! At the risk of overdoing a good thing, and thereby turning it into a bad thing, I would also like to call to your attention *The Memoirs of John S. Stokes*. John was also a minister in the North Meeting, and the Editor of the *Friend*, which was the leading Wilburite-Orthodox periodical in his time. John was a gifted Orthodox minister, and his memoirs are replete with descriptions of meetings for worship, sermons and other details concerning the religious life of Philadelphia Orthodox Friends. If there are gaps in your knowledge of 19th Century Philadelphia Friends, John’s memoirs will fill many of them in!! An original hard copy may be had for $17.00, and a modern reprint from “Espresso” at the Harvard U. Library is available for $14.00.

  9. Free Quakers organized after the revolutionary war and were not just “fighting quakers.” This was a group of disowned for many reasons who build and met at the “Free Quaker” meetinghouse. The last person worshiping there was the woman know as Betsy Ross. Almost of of the “free Quakers” rejoined their meetings.

  10. Fascinating and relevant to many of the issues faced today with regard to the educational legacy of Friends’ Schools, here and elsewhere. Years ago I was a teacher at Greene Street school and attended several workshops where the subject of ‘exclusivity’ was often debated.
    Another feature of the Friends’ legacy in Philadelphia is in the political and social arena.
    The more we learn about the history of Quakers the more we might understand an important and unique feature of the nature of power and beliefs still operant in Philly.

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