Home : Quarterly Archives : Volume 22
Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
Source: July 1984 Volume 22 Number 3, Pages 81–88
Newtown Square Friends Meeting
The Newtown Square Meeting, founded in 1696, is 288 years old!
It is a part of the Haverford Quarterly Meeting. A quarterly meeting is a group of individual meetings. It used to meet quarterly, but doesn't always do so today and, in fact, may sometimes meet only about twice a year. A number of quarterly meetings meet once a year, at a yearly meeting. Thus Newtown belongs to Haverford Quarterly Meeting and to Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.
From a once flourishing Meeting in the early part of this century, the membership at Newtown Square has dwindled seriously. Today it is down-to something like fourteen members - ten of whom live outside the state! As a result, it can hardly function. One couple faithfully attended every week and acted as Clerk and treasurer, trying to hold the Meeting together. But after thirty some years, Mr. and Mrs. Johns realized that they just couldn't seem to attract new members, and so earlier this year they decided to "lay down" the meeting, the Quaker wording for discontinuing it, and turned it over to the Haverford Quarterly Meeting.
The Quarterly Meeting did not want to see this happen. There is still one elderly lady, a descendant of the earliest settlers and founders of the Newtown Meeting, who still lives in Newtown Square, in the Dunwoody Home, and who hoped that the Meeting would stay open through her lifetime. We all do! So the Quarterly Meeting appointed a committee of representatives from each of the other six meetings - Valley Meeting, Radnor, Willistown, Old Haverford, Haverford College on Buck Lane, and Merion - to explore ways and means to keep the old Meeting alive.
Mary D. Grant, the Clerk of Haverford Quarterly Meeting and a resident of Newtown Square, is the head of this committee of ten Friends, some of whom meet here each week for worship, and all of whom meet once a month, after Meeting, as a business committee to discuss business affairs and the committee's progress. Fortunately, we have a resident caretaker who lives in one half of the "school building" to the south and who takes excellent care of the grounds and graveyard.
I thought that you, as neighbors to the north in Easttown and Tredyffrin, would like to know that someone is working to preserve this historic meetinghouse, where Friends have been meeting in Newtown Square for almost three centuries.
Actually, parts of two walls of the present meetinghouse are the walls of the original meetinghouse built here in 1711. The house in its present size stems from the year 1791.
Many of the settlers of Newtown Township were Welsh Quakers. Although Newtown was not officially a part of the Welsh Tract of 40,000 acres, quite early some of the Welsh moved inland from the Schuylkill River and settled here. There were also some English Friends who came out from Darby to this area. Together, they settled the township, beginning in 1684. We are not sure why it was called "Newtown", but it is thought that it may have been because it was laid out as a "new town" on the town plan devised by William Penn, with a townstead in the center of a township of farms. Under this plan, when a person purchased a farm within the township he received, for each ten acres he bought and owned, one acre in the townstead. (Many of the lots in the townstead were, in fact, rather sizeable and small farms in themselves. If a person bought 100 acres in the country, he got ten acres in the town.)
In several townships Penn also planned to have property lines parallel to each other, with a street running due north and south through the center of the township. This was planned for Radnor, Haverford, Concord, and Newtown, but only the Newtown Street Road (now a part of State Route 252) exists. (It was called a "street road" because the word "street" originally meant straight". Theoretically, for a road to be a street it must be straight - which this was.) The original center of the town was where Goshen Road crosses this Newtown Street Road. It never really developed much as a town, however, but there was at one time a school there, and there was an inn there as early as in the 1740's, run by a man named Elliott.
After one year, John West took over as host. When West came here, his son, young Benjamin West, born in Springfield Township, was four years old, and his first efforts at drawing occurred here at Newtown Square. He came from an old Quaker family in England; his parents and grandparents were members of the Society of Friends. (Actually, his father did not officially join the Friends until late in life, but I'm sure he considered himself a Friend and probably worshipped here at Newtown Meeting.) For years and years John West ran the inn. The Quakers did not like it, and he was read out of Meeting after he joined. (Being read out of the membership did not mean that he could not attend Meeting, however - in fact, attendance was encouraged! But he could not take part in the business affairs of the Meeting at its business meetings, held once a month.)
Among the earliest Welsh settlers were William Lewis and his wife Ann, and their children David Lewis, William Lewis Jr., Evan Lewis, and a daughter Seaborn Lewis, obviously born on the voyage to this country. William Lewis was from Eglwys Ilan in Glenmorganshire in Wales. He and his family arrived in Pennsylvania on Fifth Month 11, 1686. They settled first in the northeast part of Haverford Township and belonged to Haverford Meeting. They soon bought land and came over to Newtown, but retained their membership in the Haverford Meeting. His three sons built homesteads in Newtown, all of which are still standing. William Jr. lived in a little house on the north side of Goshen Road, to the west of the crossroads or old square; the nucleus of the house was actually the immigrant Lewis Newtown home, and it went to his son.
At the Haverford Monthly Meeting it is recorded that on 11th Month 14,1696, "William Lewis and some other Friends, having proposed to this Meeting to settle a meeting at Newtown, they are left to their freedom therein". For a number of years these Newtown Friends met in private homes, at first at the home of William Lewis. "As they prospered and grew, and as new neighbors - the Thomases, the Williamsons, and other English families from Cheshire - arrived and settled here and joined the Meeting, they soon had a flourishing Meeting.
But immediately there was controversy about the establishment of the Meeting. Originally each quarterly meeting was to represent a whole county, and all the meetings within the county would belong to that quarterly meeting. For Chester County, this was the Chester Quarterly Meeting, located in the town of Chester. But these Welsh Friends did not want to belong to a predominantly English quarterly meeting, and the Welsh Quakers along the great Welsh Tract were allowed to belong to the Philadelphia Quarterly Meeting. Newtown Meeting thought that it too should be a part of the Philadelph Meeting. Needless to say, the Chester Quarter did not like this at all. It sent a delegation to the next Haverford Monthly Meeting, but did not get any satisfaction. So it took the matter all the way to the Philadelphia Quarterly Meeting, and finally to the Yearly Meeting in 1702. At this time, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting decided that hence forth no Welsh Friends could build meetinghouses outside their territory, but since this Meeting was already started and successful, it would allow the Friends Meeting at Newtcwn to continue to belong to Philadelphia Monthly Meeting. Actually, within a few years, the Newtown Meeting petitioned Chester Quarterly to let it in, and after that it belonged to Chester Quarterly Meeting! (Later the Welsh Friends Meetings all broke off to belong to what is now called Haverford Quarterly Meeting.)
While it was born in some controversy, it grew rapidly, since Newtown had big founding families -- the Lewises, the Thomases, the Williamsons - each with enormous numbers of children. My own ancestors who settled here, Daniel Williamson and his wife Mary Smith, had a large family of children. When Daniel later in life moved to Edgemont, he turned over his Newtown property to his son John, who married Sarah Smedley. They also had a huge number of descendants - eight children, some 57 grandchildren, and 212 great-grandchildren, and when Sarah Smedley Williamson died, at the age of 94, she even had at least 12 great-great-grandchildren, the oldest six years of age. (I've always enjoyed Sarah Smedley Williamson's Will. After leaving properties to her various children and others, she left to her daughter Margaret Brinton her best bed and all the furniture thereunto belonging "the better that she might be able to entertain her friends"! Actually, Margaret Brinton was in her seventies when her mother died.)
One of my grandmothers was a West, of the West family. Banjamin West's uncle, Thomas West, was my immigrant ancestor. Some of his descendants also came to Newtown Square, One of them, Caleb West, married Sarah Williamson of Newtown Square, the daughter of Enos Williamson and his wife Sarah Lewis. When Sarah Lewis was a young girl going to school, her father gave her a cyphering book which is one of my treasures. It has a beautiful front page, with her name on it: "Sarah Lewis her Cyphering Book December ye third 1784". On the first page are tables to teach her to read and write numbers and their true value, followed "by a table on the equivalents of pence, shillings and pounds, and so on. Besides arithmetic, she also learned to write by copying poems into this book. She copied a great many, under her teacher, whoever this teacher was, and some of them are quite interesting.
One is an obituary for "William Lewis, late of this town, deceased". (That was William Lewis, Jr.) It is a poem about him. It was composed by "John Pearson, Esq. of Darby on the day said Lewis was buried". At that time, the Friends did not approve of having gravestones. (When they first settled here they put up gravestones, but in about 1704 the Meetings became very concerned about these "vain marbles", and ordered the Friends to remove them and not mark their graves. It was a great controversy, and month after month the Meetings were advising their members that such stones were "wordly" and "vain". While some did and some didn't, for the most part they did take them down - and that is why we don't see many Quaker gravestones dated before the early nineteenth century in this country. Where there are gravestones, they are all uniform - here at Newtown they can't be more than so many inches long and so many inches high and so high out of the ground.)
Anyway, at the time of Lewis' death here is what John Pearson, Esq. had to say:
"When to the grave the good and just descend,
This poem has, in fact, survived for two centuries, even though Lewis was denied a stone by what Pearson described as "rigid bigotry"!
Another poem is an acrostic, written the 14th of February, 1796:
"Beauty in all its form serenely shines,
Many there are more splendid, more refin'd.
Betsey Maris, I think, was another ancestor of mine, as Caleb West's mother was Elizabeth Maris.
I mentioned that Benjamin West's boyhood was spent here in Newtown Square, His first work that we know of are pictures of two small children of the Morris family. (They were done on poor material, probably some bed linen, and when I saw them years ago they were crumbling away and needed restoration badly.) Soon other local people commissioned the young boy to draw, and were so impressed with his work that they sent him to Philadelphia to study, I think he lived in Philadelphia with the Reverend William Smith, before he went abroad to study in Italy and England. He eventually became the second president of the Royal Academy of Art in England. The Quakers didn't like the idea of this young boy being allowed to paint pictures - it was another "vanity" - and they criticized the family. John Williamson, of this Meeting, having heard the criticism of young Benjamin West, stood up and said in effect, "What gifts God has given this child we should not take away. Let him do as his talents dictate." And so then he was allowed by his family to go to Philadelphia and study art. (This episode is sometimes attributed to the Springfield Meeting, but it actually happened here at Newtown, where John Williamson lived and was a member and leading minister. His house is still standing.)
John Williamson was my fifth-great-grandfather Williamson. He is buried in the graveyard here. He died in 1760, and later generations have put up stones marking the site where he and his wife Sarah Smedley Williamson are buried. Each generation from then on also has markers.
I also have the 1769 wedding certificate of Sarah Lewis' parents, Azariah Lewis of Newtown and Hannah Scott of Easttown. (it was with some old deeds and other papers handed down from the Lewis family to my grandparents and my father, and was in sixteen small pieces when I acquired it.) It is an unusual certificate in that it does not follow the accepted form of the Quakers. Anticipating that the Meeting might object, there is a note on it to the Recorder of Goshen Monthly Meeting.
(This requires another note of explanation: Newtown Meeting at this time was a preparative Meeting and belonged first to the Chester Monthly-Meeting for a long number of years, and then, when Goshen was born, it transferred its membership to Goshen Monthly Meeting. It did not become a separate monthly meeting until this century. Its early records are therefore buried in the records of the Chester and Goshen Monthly Meetings.)
So Azariah Lewis, having written his own wedding vows (being a progressive, as he was), wrote to the Recorder of Goshen:
"Esteemd Frd. Whereas it has hapend. there is a Variation in form Between me & my Reputd. Frds I hereby Let thee Anderstand that I have Not Differd. from them through any Selfish motive Nor in order to introduce New Modes amongst Men By [but] my meaning is that if it is possible for me By obedience to the first former of all things to Convince the world that there is No form in it to be in the Least Depended on But Entire Submission to his will & then Every Act will Bring Necessary form with it & the Less form the Better & I Believe it to be the Real Right of God to Change form & Act at pleasure & I Believe I have Complyd. with the form of my Frds as far as my God Requires. So if thee pleases thee may Record this Certificate as Soon as Can Conveniently & Return it & I Expect to Satisfy thee But if it is any Burden on thy mind to Do it I Should Chuse thee to Leave it undone from thy Frd.
Azariah Lewis "
The certificate was recorded, but without this note.
Actually, the only difference in the form was to substitute "hopeing by Divine Assistance To be a True and Loveing Husband to her Untill Death Separate Them" and "hopeing by Divine Assistance To be a True and Loveing Wife to him untill Death Separate them" in place of the phrase "promising by Divine Assistance to be a loving and faithful..." &c.&c. And when they stood up and took each other's hand, they took their vows in this form which Azariah Lewis had written. (The sequel to this story is that when our son Christopher married a few years ago he and his wife Cameron MacRae liked the vows so much that, 210 years after this marriage in 1769, they recited the same vows Azariah Lewis had written, "hopeing by Divine Assistance to be True and Loveing ...")
The original land for the Meeting was donated by William Lewis, in whose home the Friends had been meeting. He first set aside land for a graveyard, and it was then chosen as the place for the meetinghouse also. In 1708 Lewis donated the land, and work was begun on the meetinghouse in 1710 and completed by 8th Month, 1711. From time to time the property has been enlarged by additional gifts.
As mentioned earlier, the present meetinghouse, incorporating two walls of the earlier one, was built in 1791.
In 1815 a stone octagonal school house was built in the meetinghouse lot. It was still being used for educational purposes one hundred years ago, when Ashmead published his History of Delaware County, but it is gone now.
The Friends also built a boarding school, to the south of the Meetinghouse, in 1885. It was discontinued in 1889, but then reopened in 1903 for a brief time. I'm not sure when it finally closed. During the 1950's and 1960's a nursery school, headed by Elizabeth Lewis and Bernice Shockley, was located in the former boarding school.
More recently, part of the building has been used to house a Vietnamese refugee family. After they arrived here they learned English, and got good jobs, but they then moved to California where they had relatives living. Theirs is a true success story in the American tradition.
In the present century, one of the principal benefactors of the Meeting was William Hood Dunwoody, of Minneapolis, Minn., a vice-president of the Washburn-Crosby Mills. Some of his ancestors are buried in this graveyard. He was concerned about the dilapidated condition of the wall around part of the graveyard, and he had built at his own expense a fine concrete wall, completely surrounding the area.
I hope that you all will follow with interest our efforts to preserve this old meetinghouse. Parts of it go back to 1711, and it represents a history and tradition of worship here for 288 years.Top
In reviewing the history of the Meeting, I have used only secondary sources, including Gilbert Cope's excellent history of the Smedley family, published in 1901, In it he included brief histories of the various Meetings to which a number of Smedley descendants belonged. This of course included the Newtown Meeting, attended by the large Williamson family of Newtoun Square, whose progenitors in this township were John Williamson and his wife Sarah Smedley, both recognized ministers of the Society of Friends. Their many, msny descendants filled up much of the graveyard in the 18th and 19th centuries.
I have also used a manuscript written in September 1977 by Hilary Conroy, a member of this Meeting, entitled "A Brief History of Newtown Square Monthly Meeting of Friends", and a manuscript by the former Clerk of the Meeting, Josephine W. Johns, "Newtown Square Friends Meeting, 1696-1981". Each is about six pages long, typewritten and, I believe, unpublished.
Also helpful was Susan L. Lucas' "A Brief History of Newtown Township", published in 1970, and an excerpt from a history of Delaware County up to 1954, published by the Delaware County Historical Society.
Page last updated: 2009-07-29 at 14:31 EST