P aul Hammer once told a new friend he was a Quaker. The friend was surprised, Hammer recalls. “‘You mean there are still real live Quakers among us?’ As if we were a historical relic.”
“We’re a small denomination,” he concedes, but he says Quaker culture in New Haven might best be described as “everywhere, and invisible.” It comes into focus far up Grand Avenue, on a hilly plot of land in Fair Haven Heights. There stands the Friends Meetinghouse, which serves as a place of worship and community.
Within a dark, dense exterior of shaggy wood, the interior—designed by local Quaker and architect Charlotte Hitchcock—is alive with light. Massive banks of windows bring sunlight to every corner of the main room, which is decorated with neatly upholstered chairs in autumnal oranges, reds and greens. The chairs are arranged in a square, the center of which is open space.
“Quaker meetinghouses are plain,” says Jane Coppock, the chapter’s clerk. “They’re built around two of our basic ideas: equality and community. So there’s no altar.” Perhaps best known for its commitment to pacifism, Coppock says the Quaker faith—technically called the Religious Society of Friends—was founded in England in the mid-1600s in reaction to the political and moral instability of the time.
“The monarchy was overthrown, the church had disconnected from Rome,” she says, and Quakerism rose as a system of belief fueled by what Coppock calls “radical egalitarianism.” In addition to opposing the power of clergy and compulsory tithes, the Quakers “got themselves in lots of trouble because they refused to do certain things they were supposed to do for people above their station,” she says. “They didn’t tip their hats, they didn’t use proper titles.”
Their refusal to honor cultural and religious hierarchies was cause for mockery in many quarters, and the Society of Friends picked up a new, derogatory nickname. “‘Quakers’ was originally an insult,” Coppock says. “Because they were supposed to quake before the lord. But the name stuck.” In the colonies, the headstrong Quakers found their niche, although, as this story’s opening anecdote suggests, they’ve long been considered oddities within the national religious landscape, eschewing the wendings of other belief systems and focusing instead on a handful of straightforward tenets: simplicity, peace, integrity, community and fairness.
In New Haven, the Friends’ weekly announcement goes out to 150 people, and between 40 and 50 come to Sunday worship at the meetinghouse. Although they represent a small sliver of the city’s population, Hammer says Quakers “are very active in the life of our community, as advocates, philanthropists, educators, chaplains, healers and in many other capacities, but not every Quaker chooses to tell everyone they know that they are a Quaker.”
Hammer has his own modest outreach program: “I’ve taken to wearing a traditional Quaker hat, similar to the one you see on a box of Quaker Oats, in public, in order to spark conversation about Quakerism. It’s working for me,” he says. “I’m not handing out any pamphlets, but I am responding to inquiries about my hat and using that occasion to share my faith and practice and inquire about those of others.”
While Quakerism is a branch of Christianity, Coppock says “there’s lots of room for people to find their own spiritual path” at Friends, and that most of the members of the meeting “have come to it from another place.” While Coppock was raised in a Quaker family and Hammer attended a Quaker boarding school, they both say they appreciate the fact that even new members can engage in ministry.
Naturally, in Quakerism, “ministry” is not like it is in most other traditions. Every Sunday, in the airy meeting room, Quakers sit in a silence that anyone may break. “Everyone is a minister. Anyone can minister,” Coppock says. “And they do. The most unexpected people will stand up and say the most profound thing. And if it wasn’t organized this way, we would never hear them.”
New Haven Friends Meeting
225 East Grand Ave, New Haven (map)
Services: Sun 10:30-11:30am, followed by a “fellowship hour”
Written and photographed by Sorrel Westbrook.