We Gather Together

BARBARA MALLONEE

November 26, 1992|By BARBARA MALLONEE

Spread before me on the table are books far older than I, borrowed from the dim recesses of a Quaker meetinghouse on Charles Street.

As pumpkin soup simmers and apples bake, I look out at autumn leaves blowing across the darkening landscape as they have for hundreds of years. Mounds of leaves will be gathered in the morning and friends and family in the afternoon on a day our ancestors set aside to celebrate the gathering of sheaves and game enough to last through a cold winter.

At the dining-room table, I am gathering not stores, but story -- the story of Quakers in Baltimore, a tale that is neither history nor ''herstory'' either: It hovers in documents as disembodied as parchment penned by scriveners or scribes.

No more than we know who carved tombstones do we know who kept many of the earliest records of religious groups in Maryland. The story of the Society of Friends resides in minutes of meetings that stretch back to the arrival of Quakers on Atlantic shores.

By 1672, Friends meetings had sprung up at places like West River, Herring Creek, Choptank, Third Haven, Gunpowder, Elkridge Landing and Little Falls.

A group called Patapsco Friends worshiped in a log cabin on the Harford Turnpike until they moved to a red brick meetinghouse that still stands on the corner of Aisquith and Fayette where, in 1792, they became the first Friends Meeting within Baltimore city limits.

Like other sects in Maryland, Friends fled persecution in England and New England to enact religious belief. Though, as men and women of deep conviction, they led remarkable lives, they were buried in unmarked graves or beneath flat stone markers with names now barely legible.

In the leaves of the minutes before me, names are quite legible and many are well-known. Johns Hopkins. Moses Sheppard. Elisha Tyson. The silversmith Samuel Kirk. John Needles, who made furniture. John and Mary McKim. The Ellicotts of Ellicott Mills. Martha Ellicott Tyson and Rebecca Turner, who founded Swarthmore College. M. Carey Thomas, who presided over Bryn Mawr. These names history has recorded -- and maps, plaques and street signs too.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Baltimore Quakers founded banks, businesses, mills, mines, stores, schools, printing hourses, libraries, hospitals, the B&O Railroad -- and an underground railroad, too. When integrity led enterprise to flourish, they turned the wealth from their labors to corporate and philanthropic good.

Yet in the minutes of Friends meetings, any one name slips back among hosts of other names. Though the life of the meeting arose from the lives of men and women, early minutes made little mention of public or private lives. Each entry swept up only what hourly occurred within bare meetinghouse walls.

These old books of minutes, like all sets of minutes, celebrate a general human propensity to meet. Our ancestors arose in hopes of fruitful encounters; at night, we retire content if we find we have been well-met.

Our forebears crossed paths on lanes and roads and walkways; we linger on corners and curbs and sidewalks and streets. We meet when formally introduced, by happenstance, by chance. We meet in summits, sessions, clubs, councils, committees, seminars, senates, huddles, assemblies, groups. In the quiet of weekend mornings, we worship in meetinghouse, temple, cathedral or parish church. We congregate during the week.

Encounters can be rich in ritual. Quakers tend to be plain folk. They call their meetings ''meetings'' and forgo formality in favor of stretches of silence shaped by spontaneous speech.

In early meetings for business, to further such tenets as truthfulness, temperance, equality and peace, Friends monitored their own and sought to succor the poor, the infirm, the orphaned, the aged, illiterates, prisoners, Indians, slaves.

They argued, chided, grieved and railed; they pleaded, exhorted, uplifted, praised. Like many gatherings, Friends' meetings were times of shared deliberation how to etch intimations of the divine on the earthy surface of each day.

Since their arrival on the eastern seaboard, men and women of all faiths (and of none) have gathered and regathered together to mark where they are and walk further. Records have long been kept, not for posterity, but in order that moments in a long journey be mapped lest direction be lost.

But when, generations later, we are privy to old documents, we watch faded ink travel across a page and one hand give way to another -- and we hear a steady murmur become recognizable voice. Though it may on occasion falter, though it might tell of strife and sorrow as often as of gentle accord, over several centuries, its low sound gathers momentum and a tenor both warm and wise.

As chill winds sweep across a weathered landscape, we long for currents of consensus. In the minutes spread before me on a gray afternoon lie passages Friends called the sense of the meeting and believed to be good sense.

For those who labor far into the night to shape the written record, one might well give thanks. Records that tell the story of the past are also a store for the future. We relegate them to dark places, but their soft leaves open to light.

Barbara Mallonee chairs the Department of Writing and Media at Loyola College.

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