Farmington Quaker Meeting House
Built in 1816
Judith Wellman and Stephen Lewandowski
The glacial cobbly soils and drumlin-hill-and-cedar-swamp landscape of northern Ontario County, New York have been wondrously productive of spiritual, religious and social movements. As a birthplace of spiritualism, millenarianism, and perfectionism and the pathway for numerous evangelical reforms and new religions, the Farmington area provides many notable examples of the movements that led western New York to be known as the “burned-over district.”
The Farmington Quaker meetinghouse sits not only at a geographic crossroads but also at a crossroads of ideas. As the site of Farmington Quarterly Meeting, Genesee Yearly Meeting, and the organizational meeting of Congregational Friends, the Farmington Quaker meetinghouse binds together generations of Americans with roots all over the northeastern U.S., Canada, and Michigan. Carrying the legacy and the challenge of their Revolutionary fathers and mothers, Quakers who attended these meetings debated the essential meaning of the Declaration of Independence: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
American democracy founded on living documents finds a counterpart in the active spiritual search embodied in Friends meetings, where Quakers listen for and act on the “Inner Light’s divine requiring.” Longtime Farmington Quaker minister Sunderland Gardner states, “True religion comes not by tradition or creeds, but by obedience to the living word of God.” Because American democracy has remained open to such leadings, the universe of those experiencing fuller human rights has consistently grown, far beyond the small numbers of Quakers.
Quakers and reformers affiliated with the Farmington meetinghouse influenced at least three major human rights reform movements in the nineteenth century, and their influence was so significant that it extends to the present day. First was their work with Native Americans. Seneca Indian land rights were especially important for Farmington Quakers. Following the tradition of their provision of teachers to the Seneca at Allegany and Cattaraugus and witness on behalf of the Haudenosaunee at the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, Seneca leaders and Quaker representatives from the Baltimore, New York, and Philadelphia Yearly Meetings of Friends met in the Farmington meetinghouse in June, 1838 to help the Seneca to retain ownership of their lands in western New York after the Ogden Land Company’s fraudulent Treaty of Buffalo Creek. To gain public support, the Quakers published the affecting testimony of Tonawanda Seneca leaders: “Brothers, we want the President to know that we are for peace, and that we ask only the possession of our rights. True, we are small in number, but we ask only for justice. We want to be allowed to live on our land in peace. We love Tonawanda. It is the residue of the land of our fathers. Here we wish to lay our bones in peace.” Quakers helped document the Land Company’s trickery and worked with Seneca people to influence congressional representatives and two Presidents to promote the compromise Treaty of 1842, by which Seneca kept their homelands at Cattaraugus and Allegany, avoiding another “Trail of Tears.”
Though important to the Cattaraugus and Allegany bands of Seneca, the 1842 Treaty did not close the matter. Buffalo Creek reservation land was irrevocably lost. Well-meaning Quakers tried to induce Seneca men to cease hunting and follow the plow. They taught Seneca women to stop gardening and take up sewing. Quakers persuaded the Seneca at Cattaraugus and Allegany to drop their ancient mode of self-government where the clan mothers chose the leaders (royaner), in favor of elected chiefs.
The Farmington Quakers also played an important role when the Tonawanda band of Seneca refused to change governments, leave their reservation, or conduct treaty negotiations. A delegation of Tonawanda clan mothers, including Minerva BlackSmith, Widow Little Beard, Susan BlackSmith, Jo-no-que-no, Gar-near-no-wih, O-no-do, De-wa-does, and Gar-e-was-ha-dus, petitioned President Tyler in 1842 to preserve their lands. Rochester Monthly Meeting member Amy Post worked with the clan mothers, solicited Quaker help, lobbied for Native American land rights and secured the traditional homelands of the Tonawanda band through a Treaty in 1857.
Quakers were important in the early woman’s rights movement, far beyond what their numbers might suggest. Quakers had always been sympathetic to women’s rights, and Farmington Quarterly Meeting took the lead in promoting the rights of women both within Friends’ meetings and the larger world. In 1838, Quakers meeting in the Farmington meetinghouse abolished the distinctions between men’s and women’s meetings, the first Quakers anywhere to do so. In 1847, they participated in the antislavery Liberty League convention, at which women voted for the first time for presidential nominees and in which women for the first time received votes as presidential nominees (one vote each for Lucretia Mott and Lydia Maria Child). In 1848, Quakers meeting at the Farmington meetinghouse organized the Congregational Friends, in which men and women met together rather than separately, a practice later adopted by all Friends meetings. In 1848, Quakers from Farmington Quarterly Meeting helped organize the nation’s first woman’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York, and about one-quarter of the one-hundred signers of the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments came from Farmington Quarterly Meeting. Though Elizabeth Cady Stanton is rightly given credit for organizing the Seneca Falls convention, she was inspired and helped by Quakers from Junius Monthly Meeting in Waterloo, part of the Farmington Yearly Meeting. There would have been no Seneca Falls woman’s rights convention without these Quakers.
The Seneca Falls convention precipitated the organized woman’s rights movement nationally. Before Seneca Falls, there was no organized woman’s rights movement. After Seneca Falls, national newspapers took notice of the Declaration of Sentiments, and women and men began to generate petitions, hire lecturers, and organize conventions. The earliest conventions, beginning in Rochester in August 1848, were located in areas where Congregational Friends were strong. The first state convention in Salem, Ohio, was attended by many Congregational Friends. In 1850, the first national woman’s rights convention was held in Worcester, Massachusetts, with two members of Farmington Monthly Meeting, J.C. Hathaway and Pliny Sexton, attending. Hathaway was President pro tem. Nationally important woman’s rights leaders, including Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony, spoke in the Farmington meetinghouse. All three of these women (including Stanton, who considered herself a Congregational Friend) were Quakers.
Farmington was also a key node in the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad. Austin Steward, who escaped from slavery in 1815 and lived in Farmington for four years, almost certainly helped build the 1816 meetinghouse. Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and other abolitionists spoke in the meetinghouse. Members of Farmington Monthly and Quarterly Meetings organized some of the earliest female and male antislavery organizations, antislavery fairs, and a free produce store. Key officers in the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society were members of Farmington Monthly and Quarterly Meetings, as were abolitionist lecturers and organizers of the anti-slavery political party, the Liberty League.
From the 1810s to the Civil War, Farmington was also a center of Underground Railroad work. Beginning in the late 1840s, members of Farmington Quaker meetings worked with an Underground Railroad network that extended from Washington, D.C., maintained by William Chaplin. Key Quakers associated with the Underground Railroad in Farmington included Joseph C. and Esther Hathaway, Phebe Hathaway, Asa B. and Hannah Comstock Smith, William R. Smith, Esek and Maria E. Wilbur, and Cassandra Hamlin, Elias and Susan Doty, Griffith and Elizabeth Cooper, and Pliny Sexton. The M’Clintocks and Hunts in Waterloo, New York, were part of Farmington Quarterly Meeting, and their homes are documented Underground Railroad sites. (The M’Clintock and Hunt houses are both listed on the National Register and National Park Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. The 1816 Farmington Quaker Meetinghouse is also listed on the Network to Freedom.)
Amy and Isaac Post, the Anthony, DeGarmo, and Fish families worked on abolitionism, woman’s rights, and the Underground Railroad with Frederick Douglass in Rochester. The African Americans associated with abolitionism in Farmington, included freedom seeker Austin Steward, William Wells Brown and his daughter Josephine, Mary and Emily Edmondson, and Charles Remond. European-American abolitionists included William Lloyd Garrison, William Chaplin, Myrtilla Miner, and Gerrit Smith.
Struggling over issues of slavery and freedom, Quakers and their reform allies in Farmington tried to balance individual rights and community stability. They never disagreed about the basic value of absolute human equality, but they did disagree on how they should work toward implementing equality. The question revolved around agitation. Toward the end of his life, Frederick Douglass advised, “Agitate! Agitate!! Agitate!!!” Jacob Ferris, a member of Farmington Quarterly Meeting, agreed: “It is to me, absurd that, at this day and age, Friends should talk about keeping to the quiet . . . . agitation has been productive of great good to the world.” But Sunderland P. Gardner, Farmington minister to the quietist branch of Hicksite Friends, disagreed. “Wrong may be wrongfully opposed, and war may be opposed in a warlike spirit.” Disagreement over agitation produced a “moral earthquake,” within Friends’ meetings and in reform movements, especially abolitionism, as a whole. Farmington Friends were at the cutting edge of this debate.
Architecturally, the Farmington meetinghouse represents an early style of Quaker worship: a two-cell meetinghouse plan appropriate for separate meetings of ministers and elders and separate meetings for men and women. The building incorporates the simplicity, integrity, and sense of community inherent in the Quaker worship and values from the seventeenth century to the present.
In terms of its importance to the national story of Native American rights, woman’s rights, and abolitionism, the 1816 Farmington Quaker Meetinghouse is particularly significant. No public building still standing in New York State and few in the country better represents the continuity of reform work over a long period of time; the intertwined origins of the movements for Native American rights, African American rights, and woman’s rights; the constant ongoing relationships between African Americans and European Americans within abolitionism and the Underground Railroad; and the conflict as well as cooperation that characterized the national abolitionist movement.
The Farmington meetinghouse represents the ways in which spiritual ideas inform and intersect with political values. By their work in national movements for Native American rights, woman’s rights, and abolitionism and the Underground Railroad, Quakers in Farmington forged for themselves and others a new and larger meaning of democracy.
Today, our sense of time seems to collapse as we walk in the Farmington Quaker district. Dominated by the 1816 and 1876 Quaker meetinghouses and a cemetery, surrounded by rolling hills, fields of grain, marshes, and wooded areas, it could be a view of the nineteenth century world. As we walk by these meetinghouses and stroll through the quiet cemetery, we hear the echoes of Seneca leaders, Frederick Douglass, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and others who spoke in these meetinghouses and gathered here in this place. Some of them are buried in Farmington as well. Marie and Selby Howard, freedom seekers lie buried here, and Selby’s stone reads, “Born a slave. Lived a free man. Died in the Lord.” Their lives were devoted to the cause of freedom, respect, and independence—for themselves and others. They challenge us to reflect on their legacy, on the contested meanings of freedom and equality, not only in their lives but our own.
Quaker Meetinghouses of Farmington, New York
1789, the Quaker Comstock and Aldrich families from Adams, Mass., among the first to purchase land in the Phelps and Gorham Tract, are followed to the area by other Quakers from the Northeast, eastern New York and Pennsylvania.
1796, Quaker families construct a double log house on 15 acres deeded by Nathan Comstock to “The Society of Religious People called Friends or Quakers.” The building is used for worship and as a school, and a burying ground for “Friends and friendly people” is established. The Farmington Quakers function under the care of the Easton (NY) meeting.
1803, Farmington Friends becomes a monthly meeting in its own right and the log building constructed in 1796 burns.
1804, a frame building measuring forty-four by thirty-two feet is constructed on the Comstock grant.
1816, the Farmington Friends Monthly Meeting outgrows the 1804 structure, and a new, two-story meeting house* measuring forty-seven by sixty feet is constructed across the street (west) of the 1804 structure.
1828, the Farmington Friends Monthly Meeting splits along Hicksite/Orthodox lines, and the so-called Orthodox congregation moves back into the 1804 structure on the east side the street. Hicksites emphasized ongoing revelation, and Orthodox emphasize the atonement of Christ and the Bible as the Word of God.
1848, the Friends congregation splits again, with the group separating itself known as the “Congregational Friends.” Congregational Friends abolish separate meetings of ministers and elder and separate meetings for men and women.
1871, Farmington becomes the first site of the first “General Meeting” of Friends in New York State. Six thousand Friends meet in a holiness revival.
1875, the 1804 meetinghouse used by the Orthodox congregation burns.
1876, the Farmington Friends construct a “new” meetinghouse east of the road. Due to the congregation’s separations and out-migration, the whole Farmington Friends Monthly Meeting is able to use the new meetinghouse.
1927, the 1816 building is sold to a local farmer, moved north to its present location, and used for storage of agricultural crops such as celery and potatoes.
*The Friends Meetinghouse of this article is the existing 1816 structure.
Who Are the Quakers?
Organized by George Fox in the 1640s in Lancashire, England, the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers as they came to be known, was one of many groups of dissenters who sought divine guidance outside the Church of England. Fox’s vision on Pendle Hill in 1652 and subsequent convincement of several of prominent families, including the Fells and the Penns, established a church distinguished by its silent worship, search for “that of God within” and anti-authoritarianism.
Because of the persecution of dissenters in seventeenth-century England, many Quakers elected to try conditions in the New World. Though Pennsylvania, established by William Penn in the 17th century, was best known for its Quaker foundations, communities of Quakers were sprinkled along the coast of New England from Maine to New Jersey.
After the Revolutionary War’s end in 1783, there was a period of uncertainty on the “frontier” of settlement because the Six Nations of Iroquois who had inhabited what became central and western New York had not been included in the Jay Treaty ending hostilities. Massachusetts asserted a pre-emptive right (to displace the native people and replace them with paying customers) and sold that right to Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham. When Phelps and Gorham’s land office (the first in the United States) opened for business in Canandaigua in 1789, they sold land in Farmington, Ontario County to the Comstocks and Aldriches, two Quaker families from Adams, Massachusetts. Other Quaker families followed and settled in the same area. In 1794, the Haudenosaunee signed the Treaty of Canandaigua with the U.S. government, witnessed by Quakers.
Historically as well as today, Friends organize themselves into meetings reflecting both time and space. Preparative meetings are local neighborhood groups that meet twice a week. Once a month, several preparative meetings meet for worship and business as a monthly meeting, and monthly meetings gather four times per year for quarterly meetings, and once per year for annual meetings.
Farmington hosted a monthly meeting of Macedon, Palmyra and Farmington preparative meetings made up of emigrants from New England, eastern New York and Pennsylvania. Farmington became the site of a Quarterly Meeting and, beginning in 1834, the Genesee Yearly Meeting of Friends. As Friends moved west with the general migration of the 1820s and 30s, more than twenty-five meetings in western New York, Ontario, Ohio and Michigan originated from the Farmington meeting.
Current Status Critical
The 1816 Farmington Friends Meetinghouse is on its last legs, literally. We are concerned that after a hundred years use as a church, nearly a hundred years of use as a barn, and a decade or more of plain neglect, that it may fall down before it can be restored. Restoration isn’t out-of-the-question even if it does fall, but the job becomes more difficult and expensive.
Local and regional committees of concern have begun to work on the larger task of raising a million dollars to match expected State and federal funding for this important project. But the building needs an emergency stabilization right now!
We are committed to raising $20,000 locally through gifts and loans to complete emergency stabilization before winter. About one-third of that amount is now pledged. If you can make a gift or loan to help with the remainder, please call or e-mail Judith Wellman at (315) 598-4387, wellman at twcny.rr.com or Steve Lewandowski at (585) 657-7168, stachu14512 at yahoo.com. Thanks for your help!
© 2007, Judith Wellman and Stephen Lewandowski