After visiting the National Constitution Center (see previous post), the RCC convention group walked a few blocks over to the Arch Street Friends Meeting House. The land on which the building sits was originally a Quaker cemetery since 1693. The land was set aside by William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, as a burying ground for members. When a series of yellow fever epidemics necessitated mass burials a hundred years later, the brick walls around the property were erected to protect the graves from “rowdy boys and wandering cows.”

The meeting house was built on top of the graves in the early 1800s. Quaker women lobbied for a structure providing equal meeting space for men’s and women’s business gatherings. The meeting house, with identical meeting rooms, was the world’s largest Quaker meeting house. After men and women began to conduct business together in the 1920s, they began to gather in the west, or woman’s, meeting room.

Today, the west room remains unchanged. The east, or men’s meeting room, now serves multiple purposes. For the plenary, we gathered in the west room. As we entered the room, I could imagine the meetings of the past 200 years. The benches had been chiseled and had never seen a single sheet of sandpaper. The souls of all the people who sat their over the years seemed to be present in the hazy air illuminated by the sun through the windows.

Dr. Emma Jones Lapsansky-Werner is emeritus professor of History and Curator of the Quaker Collection at Haverford College. Lapsansky-Werner told the group about William Penn’s utopian vision that led to his design of Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. In response to a question about utopia today, the professor said that “God lives in public transportation, community parks, markets where people sell their own wares, and schools where parents participate in teaching.” Mary Beth Coudal, who co-led a workshop on social media at the convention, has an interesting post on Lapsansky-Werner’s quote.

Dr. Lapsansky-Werner also mentioned – among other things – an interesting fact about the  earlier Philadelphia map. In focusing on his Philadelphia utopia, Penn had the roads into the city from outlying townships marked “road from (insert town).” The idea being that all roads led to Philadelphia. Penn was introduced to a Quaker missionary when he was fifteen, and became a Quaker at 22.

William Penn never lived to see the fruits of his labors – he died penniless due to shoddy business practices and mistreatment by others. But his democratic principles served as an inspiration for the United States Constitution and he was an early champion of religious freedom. Dr. Lapsansky-Werner gave an entertaining and marvelously informative lecture to the interfaith audience.

The lecture was not only appropriate to an interfaith group with her information on the Quaker community, but also with the story of Penn’s stand for religious freedom. It was also appropriate for the location of its delivery – the Quaker meeting house. To underscore the significance, it was announced during the convention activities on Saturday that the Arch Street Friends Meeting House had received historical designation status the day before.

Peace be with you.

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