Friends General Conference

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Our monthly meeting history

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When Friends first came to Philadelphia in 1681, they gathered to worship in private homes until the first meeting house was built on the bank of the Delaware River. As the Meeting increased in size, it outgrew a succession of meeting houses until the present large house was built in 1804, on a site originally granted by William Penn as a Friends burying ground. The meeting house was built for this Monthly Meeting and for the holding of Yearly Meeting (the annual session for regional monthly meetings). Mainly used by the Monthly Meeting each week, the building serves as an exhibition and conference center, and is visited by thousands of tourists each year.

The Arch Street Meeting House stands as an enduring symbol of the people who created Pennsylvania as a "Holy Experiment." It was built to house the men's and women's Yearly Meetings, which were the business sessions of the Religious Society of Friends for Philadelphia and Environs, and remains as one of the oldest active houses of worship in the City.

The Friends did not follow the classical revival style then in vogue. Master carpenter Owen Biddle built the Arch Street Meeting House according to the Quaker principles of plainness and simplicity. Begun in 1803, the new building was financed by the sale of the Greater Meeting House which stood at Second and High (now Market) Streets, the site of Quaker meetings since 1696.

The first Quaker settlers met in private homes until they build a modest wooden Meeting House, on Front Street near Walnut Street in 1684. A century later, there were five Meeting Houses in the City, including the Free Quaker Meeting House which still stands at Fifth and Arch Streets. The Free Quakers, sometimes called the Fighting Quakers, split from the pacifist main body to support the American Revolution. They worshipped separately for only a few years.

The Society of Friends, called Quakers by their critics, grew out of the teachings of George Fox in England, in the seventeenth century. William Penn, a disciple of Fox, founded Philadelphia as a haven for his persecuted co-religionists. His "Holy Experiment" was to build a society according to Quaker ideals: the absolute right of conscience, the equality of man, and nonviolence.