A Brief History of the Meetinghouse of Buckingham Monthly Meeting
According to the National Park Service,
National Historic Landmarks guide us in comprehending important trends and patterns in American history. They form the common bonds that tie together the many groups that settled the country and provide anchors of stability in a fast-changing world, ensuring that the nation's heritage will be accessible to generations yet unborn.
This statement could not be truer of the Buckingham Meetinghouse. The members of what would become the Buckingham Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends had for years traveled many miles to attend Falls Meeting in lower Bucks County. These Friends, some of whom still have descendants in our Meeting today, had begun meeting for worship under the care of Falls in each others’ homes by 1702. In 1705 James Streator donated to Falls Meeting ten acres of land in Buckingham, and, “in a clear grassy spot, on the west side of a path that went winding up the hill,” member Stephen Wilson built their first meetinghouse—a log cabin. By 1720 their membership had grown to the point that it was recorded in the minutes of Bucks Quarterly Meeting of Ninth Month, 1720:
Whereas Friends of Buckingham who have hitherto belonged to Falls Meeting, being now pretty much increased in numbers, and having for a long time with some hardships traveled a great way, moved to have a Monthly Meeting of their own, not withstanding the Falls Friends are loath to be deprived of their good company and assistance, yet this meeting, having taken their requests and reasons into consideration, consents to their proposal and allows them to have a Monthly Meeting of their own.
It is possible that a second meetinghouse of frame construction was erected around 1710; minutes of 1720 record the enlargement of the meetinghouse with a stone addition, but it is not clear whether this was the original structure or not. The addition was probably used as the Women’s Monthly Meeting.
Between 1729 and 1731, the membership having outgrown its quarters again, a third (or second) meetinghouse was built, this time entirely of stone. By 1750 there was talk of relocating to larger quarters yet again, but the project was delayed as Friends could not agree on where to put the new building.
With the help of a large committee formed by Bucks Quarterly Meeting, they finally concluded to place the building “on the hill.” Construction of the third (or fourth) meetinghouse, the building in which you now sit, was commenced in Eleventh Month, 1767 under the direction of Thomas Smith and later Joseph Ellicott. Mathias Hutchinson was the master builder and most likely the architect. He completed the masonry work and plastering, using stone easily found “in the neighborhood,” and built the current Buckingham Friends School as well in 1794. The carpentry work, mostly of white cedar, was the work of Edward Good. All of these men were members of the meeting.
The project had apparently commenced none too soon, as it was recorded that the business meeting of Fifth Month, 1767 took place in the stable—the old meetinghouse had burned down! Worship continued in the house of Benjamin Williams until the new meetinghouse was ready in First Month, 1768. The masterwork of Hutchinson and Good has obviously served the meeting community exceedingly well ever since.
While it is certainly beloved by its members, what makes Buckingham Meeting worthy of being named a National Historic Landmark? For one thing, it has changed remarkably little since 1768. While its Georgian architecture may appear plain to us today, for its time the structure was a bold statement of the growing numbers, wealth, and importance of the Buckingham Quakers. The (later modernized) privies, the porch, plumbing, heating and electricity were all later additions, but the remainder of the structure appears almost exactly as it did then. The Old York Road also originally ran between the meetinghouse and the graveyard, but was thankfully shifted to the south in later years.
More importantly, Buckingham’s 1768 building was one of the first examples of a new design of “doubled” meeting, and it became the model after which numerous other meetings throughout the (future) United States were patterned. Some historical background to this innovation is necessary. From its early beginnings under the leadership of George Fox and his wife Margaret Fell, the Society of Friends was far ahead of its time in promoting and affirming the equality of the sexes. In England, men and women met together for meeting for worship each First Day, but once a month sat in separate rooms to conduct the business of the meeting (hence the term “monthly meeting”). At the time, this separation was considered respectful of the important position that women held in the meeting community, including the vitally important planning of marriages and other social events.
However, the men’s and women’s “apartments” in the meetinghouse were not equal—the women’s side, as in our 1720 addition, was almost always smaller and less well appointed, as it needed to hold only half the membership—the women during their meeting for business. In America , Buckingham’s 1768 meetinghouse changed all of that. The mid-eighteenth century was a time of great soul searching and spiritual reform among American Quakers. The French and Indian (Seven Years’) War was a violation of Friends’ peace testimony, and Friends withdrew from participation in Pennsylvania ’s colonial government to avoid supporting armed conflict. Quakers turned away from the outside world toward what Howard Brinton calls “deep spiritual inwardness” and isolation.
During this Quietist movement, marrying “outside the meeting,” for example, became grounds for “disownment”—expulsion from the Society of Friends. As enforcement of rules relating to moral behavior and marriage within the Society became more important, so to did the role of the women’s meeting for business, which had care of these matters. Buckingham Meeting was therefore a statement, in stone and mortar, of the equality of men and women under God, and of the different but equally important roles that men and women played within the Society of Friends.
To the casual observer, our meetinghouse appears symmetrical although in reality the women’s side—the one we now use for worship—is actually slightly narrower. (Ironically, the men’s side is now the social side.) In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in America, men and women sat on their respective sides for both worship and business, although the vertically sliding partitions were kept open for meeting for worship. Both of these practices were dispensed of in Buckingham by 1896.
National Historic Landmark status places our house of worship in Buckingham on the same footing as the Brooklyn Bridge, the United States Capitol Building, Pearl Harbor, New York ’s Grand Central Terminal, and just 2,500 other such sites in the country. Members are most appreciative of the work Historical American Buildings Survey of the National Park Service to bring such prominence to our meeting.
On the occasion of the 201st anniversary of the founding of Buckingham Meeting in 1923, Sarah H. Gilbert wrote:
We are hoping, too, that this action may contribute toward an end we earnestly desire—that our fine old meeting house may be not merely a notable historical monument…but that the meeting be more of a present-day influence, whose power may be felt throughout the community, helping disseminate the Quaker message that was never more needed than in the troublous times of today.
The Meeting celebrated the 250th anniversary of the construction of the Meetinghouse in 2018. With God’s providence, may it stand for another 250 years as a spiritual—and architectural—example to our nation and all the world.