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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.