The First Settlers
Purchase Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends was founded by the first settlers in the Harrison area of Westchester County. In 1695, John Harrison of Flushing, Long Island, together with four partners, bought a tract of virgin land in Westchester. The land, which corresponds almost exactly to the Town of Harrison today, was purchased from the Indian Sachem, Pathungo, for the sum of forty pounds.
One of Harrison’s partners was Samuel Haight, a member of the Society of Friends. While other partners sold their shares, Haight retained his and encouraged his Quaker friends from Flushing to move to Westchester. Thus, the Quakers became the first settlers of Harrison. In the northern part of the Harrison’s tract a farming community developed which became known as Purchase. These Quaker farmers formed a meeting and began to worship in each other’s homes in 1719. One of these farmers, Anthony Field, donated a plot of land for a meetinghouse and in 1727 the first meetinghouse was erected. This historic meetinghouse stood at the corner of Purchase and Lake Streets for nearly 250 years. Fire damaged the structure in 1919 and it was reconstructed to the original external appearance. Unfortunately, it was completely destroyed by fire in 1973.
In 1755 the British troops deported the French Acadians from Nova Scotia as part of the British takeover of Canada. The Acadian story is recounted in Longfellow’s well-known poem, “Evangeline.” The Acadians resettled along the east coast of the Colonies and some of these refugees were received by the Quakers at Purchase.
The Battle Against Slavery
The members of Purchase Meeting were among the early opponents of slavery. Before the revolution, slavery existed in New York and other northern Colonies. As early as 1767 the meeting declared the holding of slaves to be inconsistent with Christian spirit. A few years later a committee was formed to assist negroes in their liberation and settlement. As a result of this, a negro community was given land northeast of White Plains and the community has continued into the present day. In 1776, New York Yearly meeting took action against slavery and it became a disciplinary action to buy, sell, or hold slaves.
The Revolution Comes to Purchase
During the Revolutionary War, Purchase became a no-man’s-land between the British troops and the Continental Army. For several months in 1778 the meeting house was used as a hospital for Washington’s soldiers wounded in the battle of White Plains. The graves of both Colonial and Bristish soldiers who perished in the war are found in Purchase cemetery. Among those buried there is Cornelius Oakley, George Washington’s scout. The Quakers as always, maintained their stand against war and the next year, some of the young men from the meeting were jailed for refusing to bear arms in the Continental Army. A committee from the meeting testified to their Quaker beliefs in order to secure their release.
As the new nation began to find its feet in the early 1800s, Friends saw a great need to bring education to all. Purchase Meeting opened an elementary school for their members and the community. It operated in the small building just south of the meetinghouse throughout the nineteenth century. This structure is a private residence today.
The Old Quaker Customs
In the first half of the nineteenth century the Quakers at Purchase could be distinguished from other members of the community by their plain dress and quaint language. The women wore long gray dresses with scoup bonnets and the man always wore dark clothing and flat, broad-brimmed black hats. Their language was punctuated with “thee’s” and “thy’s” and to many they must have seemed a rather “peculiar” people.
Quakers placed a great deal of emphasis on leading lives of simplicity and honesty. They were not only opposed to war and slavery, they were also opposed to the use of alcohol, tobacco, dancing, and fancy dress. For example, an early book of discipline advised the following regarding plainness of dress, ” …that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness, and sobriety; not with broidered hair or gold, or pearls or costly array; but which becometh women professing godliness, with good works – plain shewing, that such adornings are contrary to the profession of godliness.” These “advises” were taken quite seriously and early Friends were frequently disowned from the meeting for seemingly minor infractions. In the minutes of the meeting in 1806 it is noted that Charity Carpenter Birdsall was disowned by the meeting for “lack of simplicity, going to frolics and marrying her first cousin.”
During the early part of the nineteenth century, a disagreement developed in the Society of Friends. “Orthodox” maintained traditional Christian theology and evangelical methods. Most Orthodox groups were “programmed” meetings with a pastor, sermon and hymns. The “Hicksite” Quakers followed the great speaker Elias Hicks placed more emphasis on each person finding their own “inner light” and they tended to hold “unprogramed” and silent meetings. In 1827, the Orthodox group at Purchase built a second meeting house opposite the first. In 1937 the groups reunited and the old Orthodox meetinghouse was used for the first day school. In the old meetinghouse there was a gallery of balcony on the upper level overlooking the plain wooden benches and the black stoves below. The gallery was reserved for servants and negroes. For instance, Susan B. Anthony noted in her journal for 1839 that she visited a Quaker meeting along with three educated negroes from Oneida. Miss Anthony and her friends were not even allowed to sit on a back bench in the main meeting room but were forced to sit in the gallery. Since Miss Anthony was teaching in New Rochelle at the time, this incident most likely occurred in Purchase or Mamaroneck Meeting. Women were not permitted in the men’s meetings for business and the women held a special business meeting of their own. On these occasions, a wooden screen was lowered in the meeting room to separate the two meetings.
The Quakers Today
Although the Friends no longer dress differently or demand conformity to a strict code of behavior, there are still many things that have not changed. They still seek the inner light through prayer and meditation. They still maintain their Quaker testimonies about simplicity, equality and peace.
Friends, as always, express their beliefs by their actions in dealing with today’s social problems. Members of Purchase meeting have been leaders in the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) that provides relief and educational programs around the world including the Middle East, Latin America, Africa and Asia. In 1947 AFSC won the Nobel Peace Price for its relief work after World War II. Purchase members are also leaders in the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) that provides conflict resolution workshops for prison inmates and community groups. The AVP program that began in Dutchess County is now an international program that operated in more than 30 countries. Quakers continue to speak up for the poor and homeless, lead protests against war and object to military service.
Purchase Meeting looks forward to many more years of serving the spiritual and social needs of our community as it has for the last 275 years. A friendly and warm welcome awaits all religious seekers, the socially concerned, neighbors and travelers who find their way to this secluded corner of Westchester County overlooking Rye Lake and adjoining the Westchester County Airport.