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Sunday Journal: Carolina Quakers embrace the prodigal children

There were perhaps a hundred souls buried beneath the red clay of North Carolina in a graveyard so old, some of the stones' inscriptions have long been worn away. So old that Revolutionary War veterans are interred with their wives, their children and their grandchildren.

Out front, beyond the pines, a country road stretched out among a few farms, many still owned and cultivated by Quakers, some the descendants of those buried here.

And across the road stood a small, white-steepled church. Named after the nearby creek, Spring Monthly Meeting was one of the smallest of many Quaker churches in the Piedmont Hills region of this lush, green state.

I walked up to try the door and my wife said, "You'd better not!" She had never lived in the country and was occasionally hesitant to tread where I might rush in. The door was open that Saturday, and I stepped in. She came right behind me, now curious. It was a simple church, with pew seating for perhaps 80, but empty now. There was no cross or altar. Behind where the altar would be was another small room with a desk and some books that looked very old. We carefully closed the front door and crossed the drive and highway to the graveyard. It was almost dusk now, with the long shadows and rich colors in the fields that presage a summer sunset. I lingered awhile at the largest marker, and then we left.

The next morning we woke up late in the motel. We were on vacation from Florida, perhaps an odd paradox. As we woke we simultaneously looked at the clock and then at each other. This was the only day of the month when services were held at Spring Meeting. We had half an hour to get showered, dressed and drive the 15 minutes to get there. So we put on our vacation-Sunday best and were off to church.

The sun was shining between few clouds and everywhere the summer countryside was green. The farm roads led us quickly to the little white church and the nine cars parked in the drive, with a little space for us.

Upon entering, we got a few curious but welcoming looks from the 15 or 20 worshipers. We had made it there just in time, but because it was a small church, the service didn't start until everyone had looked us over and a few had said "Good morning" and "Thanks for coming."

We heard no thee nor thou here; by the 20th century, most Quakers had left that charming anachronism of speech behind. Most, too, had left the "Quaker" behind in favor of "Friend." The service was simple, with the singing of hymns and a homily by the minister. Apparently, as with other Friends' gatherings, she was more of a leader than the shepherd of a flock. Her husband played a guitar and sang one of the hymns himself.

After the service, there was a short period of friendly conversation among the congregants and a time for us to introduce ourselves. "Are you Friends?" they asked. I told them no, but that my ancestors were among the founding members of their church. Indeed, we had originally come to the cemetery to find their graves. I was the family historian.

Of course they asked who my ancestors were and everyone recognized their names. Over the past two centuries since their interment, a tree had uprooted the original markers. Decades earlier, a large bronze plaque had been attached to an even larger boulder at the site of their graves across the road.

Now we had revealed ourselves to be less the strangers and more the prodigal children. Everyone was very friendly and we received two or three invitations to visit homes that day. We were given a book telling the history of the first hundred years of Spring Meeting. Before long, the congregants broke up, each going his own way.

That afternoon we visited one family whose home was partly on what was once my ancestors' farm. We looked at maps, land charts and plats and compared family trees. We went out into the fields where today's owner pointed to a tree-bounded section of land where my ancestral owner had built his house and well. He said that both had been gone for probably a hundred years.

Later we visited an older couple in their 200-year-old stone farmhouse. Original flintlock rifles were mounted on many walls. Quakers are known for being pacifists, but that didn't stop them from being game hunters or antique collectors. Our host was the latter, and was the local historian. One of his labors was to re-create the historical cannons seen in our national monuments and old forts. We discovered that we were long-lost cousins through a common ancestor from five generations ago. My new cousin and his wife and I and mine had a long chat and they invited us to stay the afternoon.

Afterward, my wife and I returned to the old cemetery. Walking among the markers I felt a time-transcending connection, a link in a chain without end. Someday, I'm going back to Spring Meeting House.

Thomas E. Harvey is a semiretired advertising manager. He lives in Indian Rocks Beach and continues to do freelance writing, photography and graphic design.

Sunday Journal: Carolina Quakers embrace the prodigal children 08/22/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 22, 2009 5:30am]
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