The History of Quakers in Baltimore

In 1792 a group of worshipers, gathered together in a Meetinghouse at Aisquith and Fayette Streets near the Baltimore harbor, gained official status as Baltimore Monthly Meeting of Friends. The building, erected in 1781, now to the City. The influence and contributions of early Quakers (formally known as The Religious Society of Friends), who lived their lives in the light of their belief, grew and influenced many aspects of Baltimore history.

The Religious Society of Friends, founded in 1652, believed that they could experience God directly in their lives without relying on paid clergy. Persecuted as nonconformists by the Church of England, many Friends sailed to America, with some landing in Maryland in 1656. By 1700, there were 3,000 Friends in Maryland. Meetinghouses, as they called their places of worship, sprang up first on the waterways of the Eastern and Western shores of Chesapeake Bay, then inland as villages, towns, and cities were established.

A theological schism in 1828 caused some Friends to establish a separate Meeting in Baltimore. Today, the two groups are represented by Baltimore Monthly Meeting of Friends, Homewood (near the Baltimore Museum of Art and Johns Hopkins University) and Baltimore Monthly Meeting of Friends, Stony Run (adjacent to Friends School of Baltimore). The theological dispute has long since been resolved. Stony Run Meeting and Homewood Meeting, just a few miles apart on Charles Street, enjoy fellowship and work together on many projects and events. A group of Young Friends (high school-aged Quakers) is drawn from both Meetings.

Baltimore Yearly Meeting now consists of 52 local Meeting communities in Maryland, Central Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia, Virginia, and West Virginia. Within the Baltimore Yearly Meeting region are also nine Friends elementary and secondary schools and three camps. Locations and details can be found here.

Though Friends worshipped in silence, they did not withdraw from the world. Members of both Meetings found their livelihood in the booming port city. Through acts of individual and corporate beneficence, they returned to the city and surrounding countryside the fruits of their labors.

Early Quaker names exist on Baltimore’s map today. Joseph, John, and Andrew Ellicott established flour mills in what would become Ellicott City. They built a wharf in Baltimore, established iron works, a copper mill and a woolen mill. They sold land to John McKim for a cotton mill. In the Jones Falls valley, Elisha Tyson built grist mills, near which his nephew Isaac Tyson would discover and mine chrome.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, Baltimore was home to many mercantile houses established by Friends, including Johns Hopkins and Moses Sheppard. Philip E. Thomas and his brother Evan were among the founders of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Other Friends, such as the Fell brothers, Randolph Winslow, M.D., and Benjamin Lundy established shipping and importing companies, medical practices, printing houses, banks, and insurance companies. Quaker manufacturers and craftsmen included the cabinetmakers John Needles and Gerrard Hopkins and the silversmith Samuel Kirk.

In their conduct of business, these early Friends were guided as are Friends today by a set of religious principles and practices that included strictures against activities such as betting and gambling, capital punishment, slavery, and all forms of war. They stood for integrity in business, penal reform, plainness of dress and language, relief of suffering, social order, and temperance.

Early Friends expressed a concern for education, the orphaned, the ill, the elderly, and the poor. Johns Hopkins left funds for establishing the Johns Hopkins University and Hospital. Moses Sheppard founded what became the Sheppard Pratt Hospital. Quaker women founded the Baltimore Branch of the Y.W.C.A. From the estates of Jonathan K. Taylor and Joseph C. Townsend came money to establish homes for the elderly that preceded Broadmead, a retirement community built in 1979.

Quakers have been active in work to secure the rights of minorities and oppressed peoples. As early as 1795, Baltimore Friends were an active part of a larger Quaker committee to work in securing full rights for Native Americans. Philip E. Thomas assisted the Iroquois and Six Nations Tribes in securing 52,000 acres in New York State in 1839. Friends helped to establish the Baltimore American Indian Center in 1968. Elisha Tyson was tireless in his work to free and assist slaves. (At his death in 1824, it was reported that 10,000 blacks walked behind the hearse to Friends Burial Ground.) Friends Courtland Street Meetinghouse became the site of the Baltimore Normal School for the Education of Colored Teachers, the forerunner of Bowie State University.

Early Friends were concerned for the education of all children, male and female. Friends School of Baltimore was established in 1784. McKim's School was opened in 1821 as the first free school in Baltimore to educate indigent youth. Martha Ellicott Tyson was a founder of Swarthmore College. M. Carey Thomas founded Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore and became the first female president of Bryn Mawr College. Because women were refused degrees from Johns Hopkins University, she was one of five Baltimore women who pledged to raise $500,000 for Hopkins if the medical school would agree to admit women on an equal basis to men.

In the twentieth century and continuing today, Baltimore Quakers have worked for civil rights, the empowerment of all peoples, opposing war and striving to eliminate the causes of war. Friends have urged conscientious objection and alternative service during U.S. wars. They have organized relief and refugee services and tried to affect the political process through vigils and demonstrations and such organizations as the Friends Committee on National Legislation and the American Friends Service Committee. The Peace Vigil every Friday at Homewood Friends is just one continuing effort Baltimore Quakers are sponsoring in order to seek a world free from violence, where all may live in peace.

This is excerpted and adapted from an article written on the occasion of the Baltimore Monthly Meetings' Bicentennial Celebration.

More information about the history of Baltimore Yearly Meeting can be found here