Tuesday, January 22, 2013
The archetypal meeting house
From their origins in the 1640s until the late 1680s, the Quakers were persecuted in England. Many Quakers were imprisoned (usually on charges either of blasphemy or of causing a disturbance). Their meetings, like those of other dissenters, were outlawed. But continue to meet they did. Things changed in 1687, when King James II issued a Declaration of Indulgence, a measure that was followed by the Toleration Act, passed in 1689 under James's successors, the joint monarchs William and Mary. One group of Quakers, who had met at a house known as Old Jordans not far from Beaconsfield, moved quickly once the Declaration had been issued, building a meeting house by their burial ground. They called the building New Jordans, and Quakers still meet there today. This brick, hipped-roofed building of the late-1680s is for many the archetypal Quaker meeting house.
Architecturally, the meeting house looks modest – the Quakers eschewed the grandiose architecture and ornament of Anglican or Catholic places of worship just as they eschewed the churches' hierarchies and rituals. But the building is full of wonderful touches. The brickwork has a dappled effect because dark, vitreous bricks are used between the red ones – but the effect is not too dark because only the headers (the short ends) of the dark bricks show, whereas we see the stretchers (the long sides) of the red ones. The curving eaves cornice in white and the shuttered windows are also details that make the building stand out. Inside, it's no less impressive. The main room was panelled in the 18th century, and this woodwork and the plain benches set the tone of the interior. Miraculously, all this survived when the building suffered a major fire in 2005.
But, as usual, this place is about much more than the architecture, It is steeped in history. George Fox worshipped at Old Jordans: he died in early 1691 when the meeting house was still new. William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, is buried in the graveyard at Jordans, one of a number of early Quakers who are remembered with small stones right in front of the Meeting House. Thomas Ellwood (friend of Milton and inspirer of Paradise Regained), John Bellers (writer on education and early advocate of a national system of hospitals), and Isaac Pennington (writer and great defender of the Quaker movement) were other notable early Friends associated with Jordans. Their work, ideas, and beliefs have had an influence that has spread beyond this small place far across the world.