History of Wilmington Friends Meeting
Since 1738 the Wilmington Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society
of Friends has been a presence on the high point of land between
Fourth and West and Washington Streets. Its three successive
Meeting houses have escalated in size from the first building
measuring 25’ by 25’ to the present one designed
in 1817 to accommodate a membership of 120 families, representing
700 individuals. The Meeting now has approximately 400 members.
The burial ground, last resting place of the famous “penman
of the Revolution,” John Dickinson, contains also unmarked
graves of the town’s many victims of the yellow fever epidemics
of 1719 and 1802 as well as graves of Meeting members, the low
headstones uniformly modest in size in accordance with Friends
belief in simplicity.
In accordance with Quaker dedication to the education of
children, a school was held in that first small Meeting house.
Friends School had its beginning in 1748 and, with many
sprawling additions to the building and a growing enrollment,
remained on Quaker Hill in continuous operation until 1937.
At that time the size of the student body and the limited
space in the old building made it advisable to move the school
to the outskirts of Wilmington, in Alapocas. After remodeling
and a few years as an apartment building, most of the old
school was torn down, including the last bricks of the 1738
The first recorded Quaker meeting for worship in Delaware was
held in New Castle in September 1672. George Fox, English founder
of Quakerism, visiting in America, came to New Castle where,
according to his Journal, Governor Lovelace offered his house
for a meeting – a “pretty large one; for most of
the town were at it.” Many early settlers came to America
from England and Ireland seeking religious freedom in William
Penn’s Three Lower Counties on the Delaware. Small groups
of Friends worshipped in members’ homes and soon Newark,
Centre and New Castle Meetings were formed. The Brandywine “a
desperate river hazardous to us and our horses” and the
Christina Rivers made communication difficult between the Meetings,
particularly in winter, for the first bridge across the Brandywine
was not built until 1762.
By 1735 Willingtown consisted of 15 or 20 houses clustered near
the Christina River. In May of that year William and Elizabeth
Shipley, Quakers from Ridley Township in Pennsylvania, came to
Willingtown and built a one-story brick house near Fourth and
Shipley Streets. The first Friends meeting for worship in Wilmington
was held in the house. From that small group of worshippers,
Wilmington Meeting, as a religious body, evolved. First established
as a Preparative Meeting, the status of Monthly Meeting was finally
allowed by the Concord Quarterly Meeting in 1750. Wilmington
Meeting is now a member of Concord Quarterly Meeting and of the
Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.
In 1738 on land given by William Shipley, the first Meeting
house was built on Quaker Hill at the corner of High Street (now
Fourth) and Sassafras (now West). This small building was soon
outgrown and a second place of worship was erected in 1748 on
the west corner of the two streets, large enough for a congregation
of 500 persons. As the number of Friends grew a still larger
Meeting house became necessary and on September 25, 1817, the
present building was opened for worship and the earlier one razed.
Since that time interior changes have been made to accommodate
the First Day School, to provide kitchen and bathroom facilities,
and to install central heating. The great paneled partition in
two parts that once rose from the basement and descended from
the attic is now inoperable. In 1951 an addition was attached
to the rear of the building and designed to conform as nearly
as possible to the style of the Meeting house. This additional
space provides for social events, meetings, and First Day School
The neighborhood surrounding the Meeting house has witnessed
many changes over three centuries from an open country hilltop
to solid rows of city houses. In the late 18th and early 19th
century Friends families lived near the Meeting house, but succeeding
generations of those families tended to move to suburban areas.
Now, gracious historic brick homes built in the 19th century
and more modern twentieth century homes face the Meeting property.
The old burial ground with its tall trees, smooth lawn, and flower
beds continues to provide a green oasis on Quaker Hill. The Meeting
cherishes its place in the community, and as it always had, welcomes
neighbors from near and far to share in Friends’ worship.
[Excerpted from a pamphlet written by Anne P. Blake]
Delaware’s Greatest Stationmaster on the Underground Railroad
Perhaps unequaled in American history is the powerful impact
that the Underground Railroad and its seemingly ordinary citizens
working as conductors and masters, had in changing society.
In Delaware, a few very effective abolitionists worked for
many years sending fugitive slaves along the road to freedom.
There were Underground Railroad stations throughout the state…in
Blackbird, Camden, Middletown, New Castle, Hockessin and Wilmington.
As a border state, Delaware had citizens who felt strongly both
for and against slavery. But, in spite of strong opposition,
men like Isaac Flint, John Hunn, Joseph Walker, and Thomas Garrett
worked to provide a safe journey for the slaves they met. It
is difficult to imagine the courage, determination, strength,
ingenuity and fear that the station masters, conductors and fleeing
slaves faced as the Underground Railroad performed its miracles.
Thomas Garrett (1789-1871), who lived at 227 Shipley Street
in Wilmington, was Delaware’s greatest station master.
He is credited with helping 2,700 slaves reach freedom. A brave,
big-hearted man, he opened his heart and home each time he was
called upon. Garrett lived his Quaker faith and its main precept
that God resides within a person’s soul, leading him in
Beginning near the end of the 1820’s, Garrett devoted
most of his lifetime to the Underground Railroad, serving until
1864. Except when threatened by police capture, Garrett worked “without
concealment and without compromise.” Because of this, his
reputation spread quickly among both slaves and whites.
With increasing numbers of slaves coming to him, by the late
1830’s he could no longer accommodate everyone and enlisted
several local assistants. He also found outside sources of financial
support. Many of the fugitives he saw needed clothing, shoes,
money for transportation and help getting started.
Garrett helped as he was able. On one occasion Harriet Tubman,
who had become a close friend, asked him directly for nearly
$25 for slaves she was leading. Garrett replied by asking how
she thought he could possibly supply her with such a large sum.
Tubman replied that God had sent her to him. Garrett could only
respond that indeed He had, having just returned from the bank
where he had converted an English 5 pound note (a gift) into
$25! Groups from as far away as Edinburgh, Scotland sent gifts
for Garrett’s cause.
Not everything went as smoothly for Garrett. In 1848 at the
age of 60, he and John Hunn from Middletown were brought to trial
for aiding fugitive slaves. Both men were found guilty and fined
severely. Garrett was forced to sell his iron and hardware business
along with his personal property at auction to pay the fine.
Friends purchased Garrett’s property, allowing him to use
it and buy it back when he could.
In 1850 the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, intending to deter
slaves from attempting to escape as well as anyone who wanted
to help them. Although it was more dangerous, the Underground
Railroad continued, becoming more successful. By the end of 1857,
Garrett had helped a total of 2,152 slaves.
In January 1871, an estimated 1,500 people overflowed the Wilmington
Meeting House at Fourth and West Streets awaiting the arrival
of several young black men. These men carried Garrett’s
last remains on their shoulders, up the steep hill from his house
on Shipley Street. The inspiring voice of abolitionist Lucretia
Mott, another well-known Quaker, rang out over the wooden benches
of the Meeting House in praise of the man they all came to know
as “unrelenting” in his willingness to help the runaway
slave. Those who heard her wept. It was called “the most
moving funeral in the history of Wilmington.”
[By Ellen Peterson, with Jim McGowan; reprinted with permission
from the Harriet Tubman Historical Society]