On December 17, 1733, the Dartmouth Friends Meeting condemned Henry Tucker for wearing wigs and folding up the brim of his hat on three sides “like the vain Custom of ye World.”

In May 1766, the Friends Meeting called to account Benjamin and Francis Allen, as they had “Allowed of fiddling and dancing in their Houses.” Benjamin had submitted a contrite statement, but there was no word yet from Francis. 

On August 18, 1746, John Slocum was ejected from the Dartmouth Friends for being unrepentant about “Drinking Strong drink to Excess and gaming and such like Evil Practices.”  In May 1711, the Friends shut the door on Abigail Allen, who had beaten an enslaved man “so unmercyfully” it was suspected that the violence contributed to the man’s death shortly after. Three years later Allen submitted what was considered a heartfelt confession, and was let back into the fold. 

So it goes in page after page of a newly published print edition and online version of The Minutes of the Dartmouth, Massachusetts Monthly Meeting of Friends. The full scope of the transcription by the Dartmouth Historical and Arts Society runs from 1699 to 1920, the print edition only up to 1785. 

The project provides a glimpse into the lives of the Quakers of Southeastern Massachusetts: marriages, disputes among members, theology, responses to slavery and war, contacts with Quakers elsewhere, and, yes, much time spent at the monthly business meetings enforcing the discipline of the faith. 

Transcribing bound volumes of some 6,000 pages of handwritten notes into a readily accessible form took four years, a duration Society President Robert Harding likens to a whaling voyage. 

Some 20 months into the work the technician/craftsman/philosopher Dan Socha, who had been project manager, died at 80. Another volunteer, Andrea Marcovici, stepped into the breach, ushering the last pages into the online version early last month. The two print volumes published by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, including a historical introduction and index, include about 1,500 pages of the minutes.  

As Harding recalled, discussion of the material among Society members began in 2011. Members knew there were bound volumes of minutes of Quaker business meetings and also books on births, marriages and deaths, on the rules of the faith and recording when people moved away from the area. The 20 books, owned by the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, were first held at the Smith Neck Meeting House, then at the New Bedford Whaling Museum and finally in the archives collection at UMass Dartmouth.  

Sometime before the material moved to the college library, Harding said, “it became clear the records were at risk” of being damaged. 

Socha designed and built a device that could be used to scan pages at his home without too much handling of the fragile material. From there, starting in the spring of 2019, the transcription crew followed a five-step process: “photograph, transcribe, review, review again, and upload to the website,” Marcovici said in remarks to the group last month. 

“We struggled with ‘s’s that looked like ‘f’s, ‘y’es that actually were ‘the’s,” Marcovici said. “Capital letters were more art than standard writing, and tired clerks that would write the first few letters of a name and then throw a little letter in the air and figure we would know the rest.  We kept a running list of all that we saw in order to keep a consistent practice.”

Most of the books are bound in leather, the pages in shades of beige, the ink ranging from faint sepia to near black. Three of the volumes are slender as a child’s picture book, some the size of a pulpit copy of the King James Bible.  

The notes cover meetings held on a few occasions in the home of John Lapham, then for years in the home of Peleg Slocum, which apparently stood near where the Slocum River meets Buzzards Bay, according to an article published by the Old Dartmouth Historical Society in 1903. 

In a meeting that appears from the notes to have taken place in January 1698, although the year is marked “1698/9,” Friends took up a collection to build a meeting house. At first 12 members contributed a total of 63 pounds, 12 shillings. In April 1700 the minutes show members contributing another 8 pounds, 12 to finish the job.  

The Apponegansett Meeting House in Dartmouth. Credit: Courtesy of Jean Schnell

That money built the Apponegansett Meeting House in Russells Mills, where the meeting was first held in June 1703. There the Friends met in surroundings that likely looked much as the inside does now in the existing building, put up to replace the original structure on the same site in 1789 or perhaps 1791 — different sources provide different dates. 

Each building would probably have been a post and beam structure furnished with wooden benches, plaster walls, all of it devoid of decorative touches in keeping with the Quaker value of “plainness.”

Inside of the Apponegansett Meeting House in Dartmouth. Credit: Courtesy of Jean Schnell

The freshly available minutes will shed light on an aspect of Quakerism often overlooked, as the scholarship in the field tilts toward the Quakers of Philadelphia, not least for their number and their dominant role in what was at the time of their arrival on these shores the largest city in the colonies, said Thomas D. Hamm, a scholar on Quakerism who edited the new volumes.  

“Quakers were outliers in colonial New England,” Hamm writes in the introduction. “A self-defined ‘peculiar people,’ they embraced a vision of Christianity that their neighbors generally regarded as at best strange, at worst dangerously heretical.”

Friends were held to strict standards of conduct, as the minutes show. Hamm said two-thirds to three-quarters of the pages are devoted to meting out discipline for various transgressions. 

Also, lots of ink spilled on couples presenting the meeting with their wedding plans. The meeting would then name Friends to ensure the “clearness” of each of the two people to marry, meaning they were free of other such commitments, and also of any financial encumbrance. A matrimonial equivalent of a title search.

In the case of an offending Friend, the meeting would typically assign Friends to talk to the transgressor, to see if they might be persuaded to make what was considered a sincere public statement acknowledging the errors of their ways. If they could not be convinced, and if they persisted in their errant conduct, they could at worst be “disowned,” or shut out of membership. 

Friends could be condemned for unruly conduct, drunkenness, dishonest business dealings, premarital sex, running afoul of proper Quaker notions of “plainness” in one’s dress, which Hamm said would likely mean any sartorial flourish that did not appear to serve a practical purpose. Decorative buttons or bows, for instance. Henry Tucker erred in his attempts to indulge the popular styles of the 1700s by “wearing divers sorts of Perriwiggs” and by turning the brim of his hat up on three sides to approximate the tricorne. 

The resistance to common fashion extended to more serious matters, and could mark the Friends as “progressive” by contemporary standards. It was not common religious practice for women to run their own gatherings within the faith, but Quaker women did, and the minutes of those business sessions are also part of the project. 

As the Atlantic slave trade went on, Quakers resisted, establishing rules against the practice that were well ahead of their time. Some 40 years before the U.S. Congress in 1800 passed a law making it illegal for Americans to take part in the slave trade, the Friends adopted that prohibition for their members, Hamm said. 

Minutes show Friends planning to meet with several members to “Convince them of the Evil of that Iniquitous Practice of Keeping our fellow Creatures in Bondage but Several of them yet Refuses to Comply with the advice of friends on that matter…” That meeting was in September 1772, 91 years before President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Hamm said it was common Quaker practice after the mid-1700s to condemn slave ownership, but not to banish slave-owning Friends. Keeping them in the fold while trying to persuade them of the error of their ways seemed a better way to see that enslaved people were eventually freed, Hamm said. 

As preparations for revolution against British colonial rule emerged, the meeting at Russells Mills was compelled at times to condemn Friends for taking up, or even repairing arms, which violated Quaker precepts. 

In December, 1775, the meeting accepted from Jonathan Russell a written statement condemning his “Exercising with the militia.” In the same session, four members were assigned to work with Josiah Wood to try to correct him in his practice of “firing up and mending Guns for the Use of war.”

The minutes suggest the distant rumble of big events, as the Friends, settled into their hard wooden benches, attend to immediate concerns of a faith community.   

Email reporter Arthur Hirsch at ahirsch@newbedfordlight.org.

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