Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
I am a fairly new Friend who, over the last few years, has enjoyed "digging into" Quaker beliefs and history. I live in western Nebraska, which has no Quaker meetings. My closest meeting is in eastern Wyoming.
So, it came as a surprise when I was visiting family friends near the tiny town of Venango, Neb. - population a little less than 200 - and I was discussing Quakerism with this friend (but not Friend) and he said, "Oh, about a mile down the road there was a Quaker church, across from that farm."
After some questioning I discovered that he knew about it because his mother, grandparents, and great-grandparents had all been Quakers. He told me that the meeting slowly died as the members aged and younger members moved away from the sparsely populated rural area. Surviving members eventually joined mainstream denomination churches in town.
When I asked whether it had been a programmed or unprogrammed meeting, after explaining the difference the conclusion was that it must have been programmed, because his relatives "weren't the type of people who liked being silent." From his family's photos, I also do not think they were plain-dressing. I have no idea to which Yearly Meeting they belonged.
The meeting house is no longer standing, although he said that someone still has the bell. Also, his wife said that her mother-in-law took the meeting's record book with her to Denver, and they don't know what became of it after she died. That is all I know of the Venango, Neb. Friends meeting.
What surprised me the most about this revelation was the realization that there were once communities of Quakers scattered in these rural areas, where now they are all but forgotten (and nearly forgotten, too).
It leads me to ask, does anyone know whether there once were more Quakers in the U.S. than there are today? Did meetings have to obtain approval for their establishment? Or were groups of homesteading Quakers allowed to legitimately organize a meeting without approval from elsewhere? How were area meetings established?
Thank you in advance for any information you can offer. I often hear and read about how Friends influenced the formation of our country on a national level, but because there aren't Quaker meetings relatively close to me anymore, I never considered that Quakers (as homesteaders) may have also influenced the formation of the towns and rural communities around me, and I can only wonder what imprint they left.
(Also, if you have any stories of disovering a surprising, small piece of Quaker history where you live, I'd enjoy hearing about it!)
Interesting! So, almost like colonies (although I've read that Quakers really have never believed in settling in colonies like Amish, for instance). You are right that western Nebraska has a harsher climate than Penn., but another factor too, is, it was opened for settlement later... in the 1880s, I think... so after only a few generations, it was already post WW2 and the trend for farms to become larger (more mechanical machinery) and more young people to relocate to cities was already in effect. (So a lot of these towns didn't have even a century to develop before they began to whither into ghost towns.) I think it must have been the 1940s-50s when this particular meeting dissolved. Other churches survived, though. There is a steady Mennonite presence in that county, also, in a part of the country that isn't particularly known for its plain people.
Quakers also would settle an area as part of a mass migration. Philadelphia and N.J. Friends settled Salem, Ohio, for example. Later, Friends from Salem moved to Iowa and settled West Branch and West Liberty, both to the east of Iowa City. In the case of these Friends, they still belonged to the meeting in Salem, so there were no transfer records. (As an amateur genealogist, I was puzzled by this for quite awhile.) Finally, another mass movement took Friends from Iowa to Altadena/Pasadena, California.
Because there were enough Friends involved in these migrations, they could set up their own meetings and churches. At one point, about 1865, West Liberty had a Friends meeting consisting of roughly 200 people (Wapsinonoc Friends Meeting). There was an attached cemetery that still stands, and all of the early graves are Quaker. I will visit this cemetery again during my trip to the FGC Gathering next month. My grandmother was born in West Liberty in 1875.
West Branch was the birthplace of Herbert Hoover (1874), and at one point there were 3 different strains of Quakers there. West Branch is still quite small (roughly 2,000 pop.), but there is a Conservative Meeting and a Friends Church located here, as well as Scattergood Friends School. I plan to attend Friends Church on July 3 with my distant cousin, who still lives in West Branch (my ancestors pushed on in 1879).
I'm sorry I don't have specific information about Friends in Nebraska for you. Some information may be available in Friends libraries. You might want to check out this link for local information about Friends in Nebraska:
There are also major Quaker libraries in other places, such as the excellent library at Swarthmore College. From the webpage above, however, it looks like many Nebraska Quaker records were transferred to the Nebraska State Historical Society in Lincoln, to which this link belongs.
I hope this is helpful, at least a tip for getting started on your own research. Good luck!