In 1706, a local Quaker group from Scituate constructed a meetinghouse on a hill overlooking the North River in what is now north Pembroke.
The building still stands today, a reminder of the active role that Quakers have played in Pembroke’s history. Now that 300-year-old tradition is being revived by a local Friends group.
At the invitation of the town’s Historical Commission, the South Shore Preparative Meeting recently began worshiping at the Bethel Chapel, an 1851 town-owned church building that was restored by the commission in a multi-year project completed last fall.
The local Quakers for more than 20 years have been holding their summer worship meetings nearby at the restored Friends Meetinghouse, which is owned by the Pembroke Historical Society. With its new use of the Bethel Chapel in the spring, winter, and fall, the Quaker community will now have a year-round presence in Pembroke.
Elizabeth Bates, chairwoman of the Historical Commission and of the Historical Society’s Friends Meetinghouse trustees, said she is pleased that a modern-day Friends congregation is making use of the two venerable Pembroke buildings, which are about a quarter-mile apart.
“It’s perfect,” she said. “What could be better from an historical point of view — when you restore buildings that are an integral part of the town history — and then have the original tenants of one of the buildings occupying that space. I think it’s wonderful. That’s what restoration is all about.”
The South Shore Preparative Meeting had held its non-summer worship meetings for many years at the New England Friends Home, in Hingham. But it was forced to seek another site when the Quaker-run assisted-living facility was sold last spring after having closed the previous fall, according to Joanne Heffernan, the meeting’s clerk.
“We were homeless, searching for where to go, and this opened up to us,” she said of the Bethel Chapel. “They were so gracious and inviting and welcoming. We were thrilled. As a meeting, it gave us a real sense of stability to stay in Pembroke year-round.”
“We feel the Friends have been a part of Pembroke since Pembroke was a town. . . . We feel a big part of the community,” said Heffernan, a Randolph resident.
As an expression of that sentiment, the Friends group last December invited the community to attend one of its meetings at the Bethel Chapel, and to tour the Friends Meetinghouse, as part of Pembroke’s year-long 300th anniversary celebration.
Begun in the 1960s, the local Quaker group remains a “preparative” meeting to the Cambridge Friends Meeting, meaning that it operates under that larger group’s care.
The South Shore Preparative Meeting, which has about 20 members, is among 32 Quaker meetings across Massachusetts that are part of the network of the New England Yearly Meeting of Friends. In this region, there is also a meeting in Mattapoisett that according to its clerk, Alan Harris, draws 15 to 25 members and others to its worship meetings.
Massachusetts Friends meetings in all have 1,719 members and another 525 “attenders” — nonmembers who regularly participate — according to Jeff Hipp, communications director and office manager for the New England Yearly Meeting. New England meetings overall have 3,800 members and 1,100 attenders.
The central tenet of the Religious Society of Friends, as Quakers are formally known, is that “all people have an inward experience of the divine and that by following that inward connection, that spirit, we are led to witness for peace, justice, and equality,” Hipp said.
The large majority of meetings in New England are “unprogrammed,” meaning that they operate without a pastor. Members worship in silence, speaking only when moved to do so. Less common in New England are congregations whose worship meetings are led by a pastor — in Massachusetts there are only two such meetings, both in Dartmouth.
“Quakers believe that God speaks to us directly and that we can listen to that voice within us,” said Jim deVeer, of Hanover, a lifelong Quaker who belongs to the South Shore Preparative Meeting.
The original Scituate Friends group was started in 1661 by Edward Wanton. As a soldier in 1659-60, Wanton had assisted in Boston with the execution of Quakers — who were then suffering persecution — and was so moved by their bravery that he embraced the faith, the late Bob O’Hara wrote in an account on local Quaker history that Bates updated for Pembroke’s 300th anniversary book.
The local Friends built a meetinghouse at Wanton’s shipyard on the North River in what is now Norwell, and later added the second one in Pembroke — which was part of Scituate until its incorporation in 1712 — for the convenience of members who lived in that area. The building was erected by local Quaker Robert Barker Jr. at what is now the intersection of routes 53 and 139.
Bates said that many of what came to be known as the Pembroke Quakers were leaders of the community even before the town’s incorporation. The Friends continued to worship in the meetinghouse until 1876, when the meeting was disbanded due to declining membership.
Largely idle for the next century, the Friends Meetinghouse was deeded to the Pembroke Historical Society in 1974, and in 1988 received its first major renovation in 135 years. The South Shore Preparative Meeting about that time began its summertime use of the building.
Heffernan, who was raised a Catholic and became a Quaker about 20 years ago, said she believes the religion has much to offer in today’s society, citing in particular its emphasis on peace and living in harmony with the environment and other living creatures.
“We are on the threshold of a new world, the computer and . . . the way people communicate,” she said. “It’s time to put war behind us and to change and evolve. I think it’s possible and I think Quakers are leading the way.”
DeVeer agreed that the Quaker religion has much to offer today, though he said it may not be for everyone.
“If you believe in peace and you believe in living simply and you believe in having your own responsibility for communicating with God, this is a great place to look.”John Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org