Old Kennett Meetinghouse

Celebrating 300 years of religious freedom


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Lars Farmer
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Old Kennett Meeting celebrates 300 years
Published: Sunday, May 09, 2010

The Old Kennett Meeting, whose cemetery was the scene of several first shots from the Battle of Brandywine, proudly celebrates its tricentennial this spring and summer.

All are welcome at four historical lectures, centered on the Meeting's storied and colorful past.

The stucco-covered fieldstone meeting house, in Kennett on the north side of a bustling Route 1 and close to the entrance of the Kendal at Longwood retirement community, is actually the second to stand on that property, according to Lars Farmer, clerk of the Old Kennett Property Committee.

Farmer is a font of information about the historic property, building and graveyard.

He is a lifelong member of the congregation that now worships at Kennett Meeting on the corner of North Union and Sickle streets in Kennett Square borough.

Built in 1710, Old Kennett Meeting was constructed out of logs on land owned by Ezekiel Harlan, who received his land deed from William Penn. The original structure was torn down and the current building erected around 1730.

"To be a Quaker means to be active in nonviolent pursuits and to promote peace in everything you do," Farmer said. "The number of Quakers worldwide is dwindling (about 360,000, according to various sources), but Philadelphia is still a stronghold because William Penn originally set up Pennsylvania as a place where Quakers could worship in peace."

The Kennett Meeting,

where local Quakers now worship each month in "unprogrammed" fashion, which means that congregants speak as the spirit moves them, without a minister, is part of the Western Quarterly Meeting and the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends.

In the 1700s, farming Quaker families colonized East Marlborough and Kennett townships and originally worshipped at the New Castle, Hockessin and Centre meeting houses. Eventually, those meetings united at Old Kennett.

During the Revolutionary War, Quakers adopted an official policy of neutrality. But, as British and Hessian forces, 5,000 strong, marched east and north that September day in 1777 along what was then called Nottingham Road, skirmishes broke out against the much less numerous and ragtag American forces, led by General William Maxwell.

Visiting the Old Kennett property today and pausing behind the ancient stone fence that abuts the old Nottingham Road, now called Route 1, you can see how soldiers could have been picked off as they trudged east and north.

Common lore has it that the first shots of the storied Battle of the Brandywine occurred at the meeting house, but actually, Farmer said, they were fired at the Anvil, a nearby roadhouse, long since razed.

Eventually, American troops were driven back into the northern hills surrounding Chadds Ford. The Quakers gathered up soldiers killed that day and buried them in a deep, common Old Kennett grave still marked with a stone that reads, "Ye Hessians."

A shutter on the attic window is missing and there's a bullet hole nearby that could date from that day, but Farmer thinks the hole could be from a BB pellet much later.

During the 19th century, the meeting suffered many divisions, the first in 1812 when Quakers formed a new meeting in Kennett Square, on land now occupied by the Bayard Taylor Library.

By 1827, the congregation divided into liberal and conservative sects and met in two separate places. The liberals, led by Elias Hicks and called Hicksites, continued to meet at Old Kennett Meeting while the conservative Friends established the Parkersville Meeting, used until 1904.

Even before the American Revolution, Quakers gave their slaves freedom but the issue continued to divide the Old Kennett congregation, leading to the so-called Progressive Friends forming their own Longwood Meeting in the 1850s. It hosted such famous visitors as Lucretia Mott, William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony and Harriet Tubman. It was also a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Membership dwindled, until, in the early 1920, only one or two members sat on Sundays in the stillness of the ancient building. In 1974 the Old Kennett Meeting house won a place on the National Register of Historic Places, which nationally recognizes it as a historically and architecturally significant structure.

Since 1950, the Old Kennett Committee of Kennett Meeting has maintained the building and opens it for worship on the last Sunday of June, July, and August at 11 a.m.

The building has no electricity, plumbing, heat or air-conditioning, though portable toilets will be brought in to accommodate visitors during the tricentennial celebration. (See accompanying story.)

Inside, it's divided in two, originally men's and women's sides, with two upper mezzanines across from each other. An attic once provided sleeping space for weary travelers. The sanctuary has its original walnut benches, including graffiti from the 1800s, plus the occasional bat.

The building needs numerous repairs, among them to a leaky roof, chipped and flaking exterior paint and porous shutters, Farmer noted. The Old Kennett committee is applying for a $60,000 grant from the Longwood Foundation nearby to restore the building.

When Old Kennett celebrated its 200th anniversary in September 1910, organizers expected 1,000 visitors but nearly 2,000 flocked to the building and grounds, many coming by train to the nearby Mendenhall and Longwood stations, Farmer's research reveals.

Quaker burials still take place in the cemetery, where many graves are unmarked or adorned with a simple flat stone. When a burial is to occur, Farmer "checks the grave site with a long steel rod to make sure no one is buried right there," he said.

July 11, 2010 at 6:29 AM Flag Quote & Reply

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