Sabbatical Blog: Week one

Here I am at the Arch Street Meeting House in Old City Philadelphia. In the first week of my sabbatical we traveled to Philadelphia, birthplace of religious freedom in America. I arrived 330 years later than did William Penn.   On August 31, 1682 William Penn arrived in New Castle (now in Delaware) from Deal in England on the 300 ton ship “The Welcome.”  Penn made his formal landing  on October 28 and took possession of his new territory with the feudal ceremony of receiving “turf and twig and water and soil.”  Penn became possessor of this province because King Charles owed Penn’s father’s estate the sum of 16,000 pounds.  The son and heir asked, in lieu of the money, the grant of land adjoining the Jerseys and Maryland.  The land granted to the Quaker Penn was almost as large as the whole of England.

Penn wanted colonists interested in a future in a new land with civic, economic, and religious freedom.  His commissioners had gone before him to lay out a city at a place the Indians called Coaquannock.  He named it Philadelphia, or, city of brotherly love.  Penn made a series of treaties with the Indians, and these fair dealings were the basis of the peace and prosperity enjoyed by this early outpost of civilization.  Penn guaranteed his settlers complete freedom of religion.  His 1701 Charter of Liberties began: “…Because no people can be truly happy tho’under the greatest enjoyment of civil liberties, if abridged of the freedom of their consciences as to their Religious Profession and Worship…”  Churches sprang up everywhere and by the time of the Revolution there were some thirty meeting houses, synagogues, and churches within a few blocks of Independence Hall. (I am summarizing from the pamphlet “Your Friend, William Penn”, published by The Welcome Society of Philadelphia, 1300 Locust Street, 19107)

Many are still in existence with worshipping congregations.  I had the pleasure of worshipping at the Arch Street Meeting House on Sunday (June 3).  This is still in its original location and was started in 1804.  It was not the first Quaker meeting house, though.  It had been moved in 1804 because the tract of land at 4th and Arch was much quieter than the previous location at 2nd and Market—taken over by commercial activity and too distracting for quiet worship.  The meeting house is very much unchanged and I think we sat on the original benches.  A little more uncomfortable than the ones at Zion–but just barely!  The meeting has a convener, but is silent and unplanned worship…until someone is moved by the Spirit to speak.  This happened several times with folks rising to offer testimony to their own inner journey or share an insight given them by the inner light.  The convener also read a brief passage from “Advices”, a tract of spiritual importance to the Quakers.  The passage read thus:

“Friends are reminded that our Religious Society took form in times of disturbance, and that its continuing testimony has been the power of God to lead men and women out of the confusions of outward violence, inward sickness, and all other forms of self-will, however upheld by social convention.” (Faith and Practice: A Book of Christian Discipline”, reprinted 2007, Phila. Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, p 82.) That certainly provided much on which to meditate…and I was especially struck by the forms of self-will that seem to rule our society today with such ill consequences.  And most of that ill consequence is upheld by social convention.

Some few blocks away is the Free Quaker Meeting House, no longer an active congregation, but founded in 1780.  It was formed by men “disowned” by the established Quaker meetings of the city, because they had supported the war for independence.  In other words they had deviated from the peaceful Quaker principles.  They put up their own building at 5th and Arch and is still standing– a lovely brick structure near Independence Hall.  Membership was never large, and it ceased to grow entirely after the Constitution was adopted.  In 1834, religious meetings were discontinued and the building turned over to charitable use.  Now it is owned by the National Park Service and open to the public, the oldest Quaker house of worship in center-city Philly.

Another highlight of my visit to Philadelphia was going to Bartram’s Garden.  This remarkable place preserves the home and botanical work of John Bartram, and his son, William.  Both are among America’s premier botanists and naturalists, and learning more about their remarkable story is worth a trip to Philly.  John Bartram, a Quaker who lived from 1699 to 1777, had a passion for nature and an enquiring mind that wanted to know  everything there was to know about plants. Carl Linnaeus called him the “greatest natural botanist in the world.”  He build a stone home on the bank of the Schuylkill River, farmed for a living, raised a family, all the while managing to introduce over 200 indigenous plants to the scientific world.  He did this as a self-educated botanist who  systematically collected the most varied collection of North American plants in the world.  His farm is now a 45 acre National Historic Landmark that educates the public, preserves the specimens and the fragile natural habitat.  It is a wonderful place.  My favorite specimen, is of course, the Franklinia alatamaha. William Bartram (John’s son) discovered a small stand of these  trees in Georgia by the banks of the Alatamaha River and brought a specimen back to Philadelphia.  He named it after his friend Ben Franklin.  The wonderful small tree that blooms with camellia-like blossoms in mid summer is now extinct in the wild, but preserved for all generations to come by someone who knew a special plant when he saw it.  I have studied this tree at Longwood, but I’ve only ever seen one in someone’s yard…and that someone is our great Arendtsville gardener Bob Smith. (I’m jealous…let me just put that out there.)

Bartram’s son William continued the work began by his father, and went on to become a famous naturalist, plant illustrator, and plant explorer.  His is the work in which I am most interested, because of his plant explorations and writings. He has been called a spiritual naturalist.  While John concentrated on minute descriptions of nature that were technical in nature, William worked his observations into a sutained work of art.  But both father and son had a belief in the common spirit animating all things.  Many shared their love of plants.  It is fascinating to consider the passion with which people pursued plants and knowledge about plants, and the relationships that sprang up among this network.  My research is uncovering wonderful correspondence among these “Brother gardeners”, or as one puts it “brothers of the spade.”  As one biographer puts it “…we realize the friendships and co-operation which existed from country to country.  They were all eager to help each other, giving freely of their time and advice, relating both their horticultural successes and their failures.” (The Golden Age of Quaker Botanists, Ann Nichols, p 28)

I learned so much that first weekend that my head was spinning.  Two remarkably helpful finds were from the bookstore at Bartram’s.  Two books by Andrea Wulf called The Brother Gardeners and Founding Gardeners.  The first chronicles the relationship between the six men who created the modern garden and changed the horticultural world in the 18th century: John Bartam, William Collinson, Carl Linnaeus, Phillip Miller, Joseph Banks, and Daniel Solander.  Each played a unique and indispensable role in the botany movement that took the world by storm.  Its a lot more fascinating than it sounds! The second book explores the passsion for gardening, botany and agriculture shared by our founding fathers such as Jefferson, Washington, and Madison; and the ways in which their obsession with plants shaped our nation’s history.

I had the privilege of going to the Magill Library of Haverford College, as part of my initial sabbatical research.  The Special Collections of Magill Library houses the Quaker Collection.  Presently this amazing body consists of 35,000 printed volumes and 300,000 manuscripts.  The holdings span the history of Quakerism from its 17th century roots to modern day.  Holdings include journals, correspondence, rare and out of print volumes, meeting records and family history….to name just some of the depth of this treasure trove.  I began poking around in the volumes having to do with the Bartrams, and some of  the correspondence as collected by historian William Darlington.  It made me realize how little I know, how much is available, and the amount of time it will take to gain even a passing knowledge of this slice of history! The Haverford campus is magnificent and the library is built next to the largest Bur Oak I have ever seen or could ever imagine.  The campus is itself an arboretum, with wonderfully labelled trees and a tree tour.  I understand that the offspring of the original Penn Treaty Tree (the tree under which Penn signed the treaty with the Indians) is there…although I did not have time to find it.  I will definitely be back!

Research questions that are piling up in my head:

1.  Was there ever any contact between Andre Michaux (father or son), who traveled extensively in America from 1785 to 1805, studying and classifying plants, and William Bartram?  Bartram lived from 1739 to 1823.

2.  Why are Quakers, a very small sect, so disproportionately represented in the forefront of botany?

3.  Who are the women botanists of the Golden Age of Quaker Botany and what were their contributions?  I know a little of Jane Colden, our first woman botanist in America, who lived from 1724 to 1766.  I do not think she was a Quaker, however, there was correspondence and visiting between the Bartrams and Jane’s family.

4.  What, if any, was the spiritual basis for the plant explorations of William Bartram?

5. Is it possible either of the Bartram’s ever came this far west in PA?  Did they ever visit any portion of what we call the Michaux?  Or did any other of the Quaker botanists ever visit here?  (Andre Michaux, son and father, were not Quaker.)

Listening to the botanist at Bartram describing the way in which John Bartram would ship seeds and specimens to William Collinson in England.







one of the many specimens collected by Bartram and showcased at the garden.





















An Unusual view of the Philly skyline from the garden at Bartram