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Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Quaker Worship: Listening in Silence

Horsham Friends Meeting – Horsham, Pennsylvania

Depending on where you live in the United States, you may know absolutely nothing about the Society of Friends (Quakers) or you may know quite a bit. I grew up in southeastern Pennsylvania, which has been a stronghold of Quakerism for more than three hundred years. Some of my earliest ancestors on this continent were Mennonites who became Friends, and I still live about five minutes from Horsham Friends Meeting, which they helped found in the early 1700s. While I don't agree with all the tenets of modern Quakerism, I’ve attended Horsham Meeting many times over the years.

The novel I recently finished is a fact-and-fiction narrative that takes place in Horsham, with some of my eighteenth-century Quaker ancestors as characters. Obviously, writing about people who lived almost three hundred years ago requires quite a bit of research on just about everything. However, I found one thing that hasn’t changed much in three centuries: how Friends worship. I’d like to share that with you today.

Before I continue, let me point out that Friends now have two types of worship—“programmed” (similar to Protestant church services, with a pastor who preaches a sermon, singing, etc.) and “unprogrammed” (silent worship). I’ll be describing an unprogrammed meeting since that is how Quakers traditionally worshiped and it is what I’m familiar with.

Upon entering a Friends meeting house, the first thing noticed is generally the simplicity. The aesthetics of many meetings have changed little over hundreds of years. Horsham Meeting has stark white walls and wide-plank wood flooring. Some of the benches were originally used in the previous meeting house, which was torn down when the current (much larger) meeting house was built in 1803. Dark wood stain abounds—on the floor, the benches, the balcony above, and the square pillars and the separators between them—and the scent of wood and varnish (which I’ve come to love) fills the air. The separators are now raised and worshipers can sit anywhere, but years ago men and women each had their own side and the separators provided individual spaces for the Men’s Meeting and Women’s Meeting (the two met separately once a month, either during or after worship, to discuss business).

Meeting for worship begins with silence. Friends General Conference describes well the reasoning behind this: “Quaker worship is based on silent waiting, where we expect to come into the presence of God. In this living silence, we listen for the still, small voice that comes from God through the Inward Light. Worshiping together in silence is a way for a community to be brought together in love and faithfulness."

During the meeting, anyone who feels inspired to speak will stand (or sometimes sit, in the case of elderly members) and say what's on their heart. They may quote Scripture, a poem, or text from a book; describe how the Lord is working in their life; offer a prayer; or speak about something important to them or to Friends as a whole (such as social justice issues). After the message is given, the speaker will sit and the silence again resumes. Other Friends then speak as they are led, changing the subject or building on (or refuting, occasionally) what others have said. And in the rare case that someone's message causes concern for any reason, a "weighty" Friend will stop them with a kind but firm, "Friend, thee has said enough." After about forty-five minutes to an hour, someone (usually an elder) will shake hands with another person, indicating that worship has ended, and everyone then shakes hands with those around them.

In Colonial times, Friends neither sang nor participated in any type of music at any time, but singing and playing musical instruments, as well as other creative arts, are now quite acceptable and encouraged in the Quaker community. I expect that some meetings sing more than others. At Horsham, I remember singing only during Christmas Eve worship. And while meetings generally last less than an hour now, they traditionally could go on for two or three hours (or more). Many meetings now also have what they call First Day School, or Sunday school for children.

While the Mennonite church is my home (sometimes what goes around comes around), I must admit that there is beauty and purpose in silent worship. We live in a busy, noisy world, and I daresay that the devices so popular in our current culture battle to make silence a thing of the past. “God gave us two ears and only one mouth,” an elderly Quaker woman told our meeting years ago. “He speaks with a still, small voice, and how are we to hear Him unless we’re silent?” How, indeed?

If you have any questions about an unprogrammed meeting, I’d be happy to answer them. 


  1. A very interesting post, Christy. Thank you.

  2. I really enjoyed reading your post. I was unaware of a balcony. Who sat there? And... I like, "Friend, thee have said enough."
    Kathleen ~ Lane Hill House

    1. Thank you, Kathleen. In large meetings, the balcony is used as overflow seating. At Horsham, the balcony was primarily used for "Quarterly Meeting," a meeting of several Friends Meetings to discuss business four times a year (it's now off limits to worshipers).

  3. Thank you for this beautiful post, Christy.

    Was the balcony not used for children past a certain age, but before reaching full adulthood? As I'm in the midst of a Quaker based WIP, I really need to know.

  4. Hi Judith,

    Thanks for your comment! I've never read anything about it being used for a specific age group, though most of my research has been around the mid-1750s, so I can't speak for other time periods. You might take a look at Google images to see if any drawings of meeting for worship would help you. I also know that some meetings (smaller ones) only used the balcony when the regular seating was all taken. In large meetings (like in Philadelphia), the balcony was needed all the time. I'll see if I can find anything in my research to help you.

    1. Okay, so I found this: "Notice the two staircases leading to the balcony. Once upon a time young Quaker boys would use one set of stairs and young Quaker girls the other set." This is taken from an article on Arch Street Meeting in Philadelphia, which was built in 1811 (http://www.ushistory.org/tour/arch-street-friends.htm). Going by this, it would seem that young people did sit in the balcony, at least at this meeting and during this time period (1800s).

  5. Christy, thank you so much for going the extra mile. I've been to Arch Street. The girls staircase has a wide board on the open side running up the stairs to provide modesty for feet and ankles. The period I'm looking for predates that. My historical starts with the American Revolution.


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