Friday, June 20, 2014

V is for Vermont

Statue of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture
dome of the Vermont State House, Montpelier, Vermont
carved by Dwight Dwinell as a copy of a wooden original by Larkin Goldsmith Mead
photograph ©Kristin Lord 2014

Virtually since the beginning of English settlement in the state of Vermont, Quakers have been part of the area's religious and social fabric. In the early part of the nineteenth century, Ferrisburgh Quarterly Meeting in western Vermont formed an active and healthy contingent in New York Yearly Meeting. During this period the word “Quaker” became part of street names not only in Addison County, where the town of Ferrisburgh is located, but as far east as Quaker Road in East Montpelier in the middle of the state.
Not that far from Quaker Road:
Vermont State House, Montpelier, Vermont
designed by Thomas Silloway, 1858
photograph ©Kristin Lord 2014

Ferrisburgh Quarter was affected by the same theological divisions as the rest of New York Yearly Meeting in the nineteenth century. These were painful to all involved. More difficult still is the realization that those Vermont Friends who were active Abolitionists in the period leading up to the Civil War were not supported by either their Monthly or Yearly Meetings. This is despite the fact that slavery was forbidden in the state from the time of Vermont's first constitution in 1777. Rowland T. Robinson and Rachel Gilpin Robinson, the Quaker couple known for their work on the underground railroad, were effectively forced out of their Meeting in 1845. (See Elizabeth H. Moger, “Quakers as Abolitionists: the Robinsons of Rokeby and Charles Marriott,” Quaker History 92.2, 2003, 52-59.) This inconsistency in Quaker belief and practice will, unfortunately, not be unfamiliar to readers of Donna McDaniel’s and Vanessa Julye’s Fit for Freedom, not for Friendship.) Nevertheless, the Robinsons persevered on their work against slavery and helped send a number of women, men, and children on their way to safety in Canada from slavery in other US states. The Robinsons’ Ferrisburgh home, Rokeby, has been meticulously restored and is the most significant example of Quaker history in Vermont as well as a treasure of the Abolitionist  movement.

During the second two-thirds of the nineteenth and the first part of the twentieth centuries, the number of Vermont Quakers declined precipitously. Friends increasingly moved to states further west, while those remaining often married neighbors who were not Quakers. By the time Quakers stopped “disowning” members for marrying people of other faiths —not to mention such “offenses” as owning musical instruments— the damage was done. Eventually, only two historic Friends Meeting Houses, both owned by New York Yearly Meeting, remained. They were from the Gurneyite tradition of Friends and had long since adopted a pastoral manner of worship. One of these two Meetings, Monkton Ridge, amalgamated with the local Methodist church several generations ago and was officially laid down in 1996. A Methodist minister serves the congregation, although Friends still own the building.

Friends Meeting House, South Starksboro, Vermont
photograph ©Kristin Lord 2007

The other historic Meeting, South Starksboro, underwent a different trajectory. Perhaps the best-known product of this Meeting is Joseph C. Greene, a physician from Buffalo, New York, who grew up in South Starksboro and who had the Lord's Prayer inscribed on a large rock in Bristol one town over as a warning to ox cart drivers who were cursing the muddy roads. (Modern motorists, who spent several years waiting for the replacement of the nearby bridge after severe flooding, will comment that neither the circumstances nor the language has changed much.) The last member of the original community, Elizabeth Birdsall Young, died in the Middlebury area in 1976. No doubt, as she watched the congregation dwindle around her, she began to wonder what would become of Vermont Quakerism. But change was afoot, and toward the end of her life, Elizabeth Birdsall Young was able to get a glimpse of it. (Note: I am perhaps the youngest Friend to have been introduced to Elizabeth Birdsall Young. It was she who confirmed that Joseph C. Greene had come from her Meeting.)

The change came from unprogrammed Friends. By the 1950’s there were small Meetings in Burlington, Vermont and Hanover, New Hampshire, one of the towns on the eastern side of the Connecticut River that was added to the latter state as a condition of Vermont becoming the fourteenth US state in 1791. As befits its location, a reasonable percentage of the participants in Hanover hail from Vermont. These Meetings, affiliated with New England Yearly Meeting, became the Northwest Quarterly Meeting in 1958. (This latter date should be readily accessible in the Yearly Meeting archives, although I do not have the source at hand.)

These unprogrammed Meetings were filled with some Friends who had grown up in Vermont or New Hampshire and had returned home after studying or living elsewhere, where they had encountered Quakerism. Susan Webb (née Howard) who had grown up in Burlington and with her husband, Kenneth Webb, founded the Farm and Wilderness Camps on Quaker principles in 1939, was an example of this post-war contingent.  Thomas Day Seymour Bassett, another Burlington native, was an archivist and authority on Vermont history; he came to Friends as a conscientious objector during World War II. (See Samuel B. Hand’s obituary for Friend Tom in Vermont History, winter/spring 2001, 141-2.) Most of the “new” Quaker contingent, however, were among the plethora of newcomers who were attracted to the natural beauty of the Green Mountain State and who found the area increasingly accessible to the cities in the Northeast, especially once the Interstates were completed. This larger body of newcomers, regardless of background or political or religious tradition, had a chance to start over and, in the parlance of a later generation, to “reinvent themselves.” The earlier arrivals found a lower cost of housing, assuming that they were selling an existing residence and were not entirely dependent on the commensurately lower salaries; that was, of course, a big assumption. They found the local inhabitants welcoming...

up to a point. The white clapboard houses snow-girt at Christmas were not so beckoning when most people in the neighborhood had a choice of relatives three generations deep with whom to spend the holidays. More prosperous suburban communities with less ice on the roads began to look attractive to some of the new arrivals.

The traditional views of many Vermonters, initially endearing to outsiders, became annoying at town meeting and election time. Even through the 1970's most of the so-called “real” Vermonters voted Republican —unless they lived in Burlington or suburban Chittenden County, both of which were already suspect. Susan Webb, representing a rural district in southwestern Vermont in the 1970’s, served as a moderate Republican. (See the obituary of Susan Webb linked above.) The newcomers, on the other hand, were politically varied, and a reasonable number were what a later governor and Presidential candidate, Howard Dean (himself a native of the New York City area), called “the Democratic wing of the Democratic party.” Only in the last generation or so has Vermont become the bluest of blue states and the home of “the People's Republic of Burlington” of Doonesbury fame, where the independent Socialist politician Bernie Sanders made his political breakthrough. (For those who might wonder, I come from an “old” Vermont family, but one that is politically and spiritually diverse; one of my mother’s favorite memories was running across Bernie Sanders on Church Street in Burlington shortly after he was first elected to Congress.)

Yet many of the new arrivals stayed. The Quaker community blossomed. Once again, many Friends were from out of state (disproportionately convinced Friends) or newcomers seeking a fresh faith community in their new home, although others were long-time inhabitants. Monthly Meetings were established in Putney, Bennington, Plainfield, Middlebury, Wilderness (near the Farm and Wilderness Camps), and Barton in Vermont and in the western New Hampshire community of Keene. A few years after Elizabeth Birdsall Young passed away, the ownership of her old Meeting House, which had been opened once or twice during the summer and on Christmas Day, was turned over to New England Yearly Meeting. There were enough Friends between Burlington and Middlebury to keep it viable year round. The property was renovated in 1985, and before too long South Starksboro once again had a Monthly Meeting. This time, however, it was an unprogrammed Meeting in New England Yearly Meeting.

There are now several hundred Friends in Vermont, of a wide range of interests and from many walks of life. Quakers have made particular contributions to education, social services, small and medium-sized businesses, and the arts. Regrettably, Quakers have not added appreciably to the ethnic diversity of the state, but neither have most other people. This problem, along with the increasingly precarious social and economic footing of many Americans, is among the principal moral issues affecting Vermonters both inside and outside our Religious Society.

If I, as an expat Vermonter who votes by absentee ballot, might comment on some of the challenges facing Friends there, I might look at two other areas: outreach and the peace testimony. Neither is is unique to Vermont, but both have factors germane to it. Quaker Meetings have done well in Vermont since the 1960's thanks to population growth and increasing political and religious diversity —not to mention the foresight of Friends who established a Kendal retirement community in nearby Hanover, New Hampshire— but further growth may require more effort. The unprogrammed Quaker reluctance to “proselytize” has left Friends unable to capitalize effectively on the growth of secularism and the increase in the number of people seeking spiritual alternatives. This is a real shame in Vermont, which is now ostensibly the state in the country with the highest percentage of people without religious affiliation. I hope that Friends in the Northwest Quarter will be able to take advantage of the new outreach initiatives of Friends General Conference.

In terms of the peace testimony, many Americans believe that we Vermonters have it lucky. Classmates, colleagues, and “capital and small f” friends from out of state post quotations from Vermont politicians on their Facebook pages and are overtly envious that I am privileged to vote for them. By and large, they are right, but we as Friends have to reckon with the fact that our Congressional delegation and our governor have all supported posting a squadron of F-35 fighter jets in the Burlington area. Burlington Friends Meeting is one of a number of organizations and individuals attempting to stop this plan.

There is also the matter of military recruitment. Because of its solid high school completion rates and academic standards, Vermont is a prime target of recruiters. The high cost of in-state college and university tuition does not help matters. Add to that a tradition of military service that in some cases goes back generations, as is true in other parts of the U.S. Vermont had one of the highest number of Union fatalities per capita in the Civil War (see especially the information from and the Vermont Historical Society). Although the percentage of Vermonters who died in Vietnam was lower than many states, it was still significant. It had the highest per capita casualty rate in the Iraq conflict, which makes it at outlier among relatively prosperous states. (See the study by Charles Maynard in Population Health Metrics, January 6, 2009). Thus, for cultural reasons and several other factors, there is sometimes pressure on young people to enlist. 

door of state office building, Montpelier, Vermont, 1949
across the street from the State House
building designed by William Freeman
of Burlington (VT) architectural firm Freeman, French, and Freeman
photograph ©Kristin Lord 2014

Finally, Vermont’s rural hunting culture, which is often different from political affiliation, makes gun control a difficult sell, although there are some signs of progress. For instance, Governor Peter Shumlin, a liberal Democrat, posed on his FaceBook page last fall with the carcass of a deer he had shot and wished all of his supporters a safe and happy hunting season. (As a vegetarian, I admit that I was not amused.) Shumlin’s views are complex, as are those of Senators Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders and Representative Peter Welch.

As Friends, we have a distinctive peace testimony and social witness. How can we best bear witness to Vermont's motto, “Freedom and Unity?”
close-up of door of state office building, Montpelier, Vermont, 1949
photograph ©Kristin Lord 2014

The author would like to thank her father, Arthur Lord, for making it possible to take the photographs in Montpelier.

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