Historic Structures

Friends Meeting House, Newport Rhode Island

Date added: July 23, 2010 Categories: Rhode Island Church

Built in I700, with additions of 1730, 1807, 1857, and 1867, the original (center) portion is an important example of the square hip roofed and turreted structures being built for some thirty years, from about 1680 to 1710, An excellent exposed framing system with balcony and much of the original plastered wall finish is still extant. The hip roof and turret no longer exist. Newport was the seat of New England Yearly Meeting .of Friends from as early as 1860 to 1905. The 1700 portion was built to house the annual influx of Friends. The subsequent additions were also made to accommodate the yearly throngs.

The growth of the structure from 1699 to 1867 has been documented during restoration. According to the Rhode Island Monthly Meeting, Book 807, an addition was contemplated for the convenience of the women's meeting March 22, 1705. No physical trace of this addition has been found. By July 29, 1730, the existing north end of the meeting house was completed. This has been known as the "ship room" because of the curved ceiling beams on the second floor. The third addition was built in 1807. This wing to the south included the installation of the huge, vertical, sliding shutters which, when open, enlarged the first floor into one large room. The fourth addition, the west wing, was built in substantially its present form in 1857. The last major change, the resurfacing of all the interior walls and the changing of many of the window sizes and locations, was completed in 1867.

The Newport settlement of Friends was one of the earliest in America, with some of Newport's first settlers of 1638 (including William Coddington, Walter Newberry, John Coggeshall and Nicholas Easton) holding views akin to Quakerism. They and others soon became Friends and by 1750 half of Newport's population were Friends. Six of the English Friends from Robert Fowler's ship. "The Woodhouse" arrived in Newport in 1657. George Fox debated with Roger Williams in Newport (perhaps in a first Meeting House) in 1672. The New England Yearly Meeting held in Newport as early as 1661, continued here until 1895, then, on alternate years, until 1905. The 1700 Meeting House was built to take care of the annual influx of Friends, and was enlarged each time for the same reason. The building was criticized as ostentatious from the first each time when objections to the "lanthorn"'were made before the building was finished. It was described by visitors such as George Keith (visited in June 1702). Travelling Quakers came: including Edward Peckover, England, (visited in 1743) and James Birket, Antigua, (visiting in 1750). John Woolman, best known American born Quaker of Colonial times, visited in 1760 and called a special Meeting House against keeping slaves. Among others were John Griffith and Joseph Oxley, both English Quakers. There are many letters from Friends describing their experiences during yearly meeting in Newport. Five thousand persons were attending each year by 1743 and great crowds came each year until late in the nineteenth century.