CFM Roots: Worship in the Manner of Friends

When Cincinnati Friends Meeting was established in 1815, worship was conducted in much the same manner that Quakers had been using for the preceding 150 years. Women sat on one side of the meetinghouse, and men on the other.

Woman's dress and bonnet, courtesy of Mary Ellen Krisher

Undyed man's vest and breeches, courtesy of Mary Ellen Krisher

When the Religious Society of Friends was founded by George Fox in seventeenth-century England, the social and economic differences among people could be readily distinguished by how they dressed. The wealthier classes wore elaborately made clothing, often decorated with ribbons, lace, embroidery, and other embellishments that were far too expensive for the average person. As a result, Quakers back then made a particular effort to dress in a manner that showed they were all equal in God’s eyes—plain dress, as it was called. They chose to wear clothing of simple design; fabrics of muslin, linen, wool, and silk (some avoided cotton because it was the product of slave labor); muted colors (typically grey, brown, beige, or undyed cloth); and head coverings—usually broad-brimmed hats for men, and bonnets for women (which both genders removed during preaching and vocal prayers). In the early years at Cincinnati Friends Meeting, the women were attired in long dresses, the men in long-sleeved collarless shirts with waistcoats and jackets. Some of the men might have worn knee breeches, long stockings, and shoes with buckles, although by this time many were wearing trousers.

Children of all ages were present during worship. “Friends in years gone by did not encourage Sunday or First day schools,” recounted Clarissa Gest, whose family joined Cincinnati Friends Meeting in 1818 when she was three years old. “[It] was the duty of parents to teach their children the Bible, and the great principles of truth and Christianity.”

Worship itself began in silence. There was no liturgy, no rites of baptism or communion, no choir or instrumental music. Eventually, one or more individuals might rise to speak as each felt led by the Spirit. During its first 15 years, the meeting had five ministers, some of whom served concurrently: Christopher Anthony, Rowland Richards, Elias Fisher, George Hatton, and Rebecca Hopkins. Hopkins was the wife of the first clerk, Benjamin Hopkins, and the first female minister recorded by Cincinnati Friends Meeting. Like Anthony, who had himself spent many years visiting other meetings, traveling Friends periodically came to Cincinnati. According to Anthony’s granddaughter, Mary P. Hart, “two very eloquent preachers...used to visit this monthly meeting. One was Elisha Bates, the other was Jeremiah Hubbard. They were both thought to be great preachers.” Others came from as far away as Vermont and New York.

When speaking, Cincinnati Friends of this period used plain language—addressing others as thee and thou. This tradition also hearkened back to Fox, who noted that in Scriptures, thee and thou were used with individuals, while you was used only with groups of people. Although Fox used a Scriptural argument to explain this practice, it also had an unsettling effect on the people of his time, since thee and thou were considered a more intimate form of address, while you was more formal and considered appropriate for those of higher social status. By using thee and thou with everyone, regardless of their rank or class, Fox was once again making the point that all people are equal in God’s eyes, and therefore should be addressed in the same way. Even when the use of thee and thou had fallen out of common practice in the rest of society, Quakers continued the tradition for some time.

At the end of worship (known as the rise of meeting), it was the custom of those attending to shake one another’s hand and sometimes ask, “Did thee meet?”—a reference to meeting God.

This article comes from the book Friends Past and Present: The Bicentennial History of Cincinnati Friends Meeting (1815–2015). You can obtain a copy of the printed book or a Kindle version from Amazon.com. The proceeds of all sales go to Cincinnati Friends Meeting.

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2 Comments

  1. Jeff Arnold | | Reply

    Thank you Sabrina. These reflections give rise to productive queries for me: how do I incorporate plain language and plain dress in my life as a 21st century Friend?

  2. Judy Born | | Reply

    Sabrina, Thank you for enlightening us about Quaker history!

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