When one thinks of the Philadelphia area in the 17th century, Old City, the Delaware River waterfront, and William Penn’s original grid for his “greene countrie towne” usually first come to mind. Yet, tucked away in a corner of Delaware County, a mere five miles from Center City, there is a small enclave that also dates back to the late 1600s.
Like Philadelphia, Darby, Pennsylvania was founded in 1682. Its first settlers were eight Quaker families who were mostly from the county of Derbyshire in the English Midlands. That same year, they established the Darby Friends Meeting, then the Darby Friends Burial Ground soon thereafter.
One of the most prominent residents was John Blunston, who was active in both Pennsylvania politics in the Colonial Assembly and in advocating for abolition among Quakers. When first established, the Quaker meeting gathered in his home until he donated the land for the meeting’s burial ground, which also was the site of the first two meetinghouses.
The burial ground, located at 12th and Main Streets, is the resting place of several noteworthy members, including the botanist John Bartram, one of the founders of the American Philosophical Society, and Abraham Pennock, an abolitionist and a founder of the Free Produce Society, which boycotted goods made with slave labor.
While burials ceased in 1968, meeting records indicate it contains at least 1,300 graves and claims to be the oldest burial ground in Pennsylvania in continuous use.
The third meetinghouse was built nearby in 1805 and is still in use today. Constructed of local fieldstone, its design is a “doubled form” typical of Quaker meetinghouses in the area at that time. The interior featured a large hall for worship fitted with a central partition wall that could be lowered to create two equal spaces for the men and women of the meeting to conduct their business, addressing the belief among Quakers that the work of both groups was equally important. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.
The meeting founded Darby Friends School in 1692 near the site of the earlier meetinghouses. After the third meetinghouse was built, a stone house on the property dating to 1752 became the girls’ school, with the boys remaining at the original site, which is no longer extant. The school remained active for 225 years, finally being laid down in 1917 during the Spanish Flu pandemic.
In the 19th century, as abolitionist work became more widespread in the Philadelphia region, Darby meeting played an important role. “Multiple visits of the likes of John Woolman, Bart Fussell, Elias Hicks, Sarah Grimke, Ann Dickinson, Lucretia Mott, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and others molded the meeting members,” explained Harold Finigan, a historic restoration contractor and meeting member. “Finding multiple copies of pamphlets in the meeting library collection such as the 1824 call for an immediate abolition of the West Indian Slave trade by Elizabeth Heyrick and the Kite Brothers’ A Brief Statement on the Rise & Progress of the Testimony of the Religious Society of Friends Against Slavery & the Slave Trade, tells me what they were reading.”
Darby was a strategic location for freedom seekers following a route between Wilmington, Delaware and Philadelphia. Recently, the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom added the Darby Friends Meetinghouse and School site to the program as one of 23 new listings. The project currently includes over 740 locations in 40 states, plus Washington D.C. and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The meeting’s application to the project told the story of Allen Rickets. After taking his freedom with other family members from their enslaver near Baltimore, at age 11 in the early 1830s, he found safe harbor within the meeting and was educated at Darby Friends School. The meeting members later rescued him from a kidnapping.
Although meeting members were individually active in the work of the Underground Railroad and the abolitionist societies in the area, the meetinghouse itself was not used to hide fugitives, as other institutions and homes in the area did at the time. At that time, Darby was still a majority Quaker community, and Finigan feels they were exercising prudence. “I think for safety reasons they didn’t endanger the meeting,” he said.
Their work was not completely free from controversy, especially after the Civil War broke out. One of the most important tenets of Quakerism is the Peace Testimony, whereby a Friend rejects all forms of war. “When the war came, nine of the 11 Darby town Quaker families with males of service age, a total of 52 members, volunteered for the Union Army,” Finigan recounted. “All were disowned for violating the Peace Testimony. In 1865, 35 of the disowned reapplied in a joint petition to the Meeting. Historian William Wade Hinshaw, who spent 21 years of his life indexing American Quaker Meeting records, wrote that this is the only example of a joint petition for re-admittance he had encountered. Their petition was accepted with the clerk’s notation that a ‘conflict between the Testimonies to Equality and that to Peace had been recognized, and that their commitment to Equality was stronger,’” explained Finigan.
Another important contribution of the early Darby Quakers was the creation of the Darby Library Company in 1743. It was established as a subscription library like the Library Company of Philadelphia which was founded 12 years earlier by Benjamin Franklin. The members’ dues were used to purchase books from England, which were shipped by John Bartram in his commerce with the English botanical collector Peter Collinson. In a blog posting for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Celia Caust-Ellenbogen notes that William Bartram, John Bartram’s son, donated his personal copy of his 1791 book, Travels through North & South Carolina, to the library.
For its first 129 years, the librarian kept the collection in a trunk. In 1872, its current building at 1001 Main Street was erected, designed by Benjamin D. Price, an architect who specialized in church designs. In 1898, the library became free and open to the public and is now part of the Delaware County Libraries system. Despite its history as a subscription library, it claims to be “the oldest library in the United States in continuous service.”