Newport/Fountain City Meetinghouse: Treasure or Millstone?
The early Quaker community of New Garden clustered around the meetinghouse of the same name in Wayne County, Indiana. Named after a meeting in North Carolina, New Garden Meeting was established in 1811 and became a monthly meeting in 1815.
New Garden's commercial center developed nearby to its north, along what is now US27. In 1833 New Garden Monthly Meeting established Newport Preparative Meeting on the main street, close to the home of abolitionists Catherine and Levi Coffin. In 1834 the small town was named Newport; and in 1879 it became Fountain City.
While Friends agreed that it was sinful to own another human being, the town of Newport was the epicenter of the conflict as to whether it was enough for Friends not to own slaves and to distance themselves from the products of slave labor, or whether they should be more active in terms of shaping public policy and assisting those who had been enslaved to escape. This conflict was at the heart of Quaker identity. Were they to remain a quietist sect, separate from “the world?’ Or were they to join with other like-minded Christians in advocacy and direct action?
Levi Coffin wrote in his journal: “soon after we located to Newport (now Fountain City), I found that we were on a line of the U.G.R.R. (Underground Railroad). Fugitives often passed through that place…fugitive slaves…were often pursued and captured… I was willing to receive and aid as many fugitives as were disposed to my house.”
Indiana Yearly Meeting expelled Levi Coffin for his activism and suspended other Friends from committee service. When the activists were refused use of the yearly meetinghouse in Richmond, they gathered in 1843 in Newport and established the Indiana Yearly Meeting of Anti-Slavery Friends. Newport Friends were divided, and the Newport Anti-Slavery Friends Meeting lasted until 1857, when its meetinghouse at New Garden became part of the school.
Newport Preparative Meeting, on the main street, achieved monthly meeting status in 1921, as Fountain City Monthly Meeting (Friends Church.) By that time, the congregation had a frame building which, with some later additions, still stands.
Despite all the history, there is no longer any active Friends meeting in Newport/Fountain City. New Garden was laid down in 2008 and the historic property was sold. The Fountain City Friends Church building is empty and becoming vandalized.
Indiana Yearly Meeting has offered the Newport/Fountain City Friends Church property to the New Association of Friends as part of the division of assets to take place later this year. Is it an asset, which we should hold in trust for the wider Religious Society of Friends, to tell the story of our crises of conscience, and how we handle them? Does it have the potential to become a center of worship once more?
Or is it a liability, a money pit? Should we refuse to accept it (in the knowledge that it would be sold and be lost to Friends for ever, like New Garden.) Should we accept it, and sell it ourselves, so we can focus on living ministry, rather than upkeep of a dead building?
Or should we have the boldness to accept it on behalf of Friends everywhere, knowing that it is both a financial burden and responsibility that we gladly take on, and trusting that in some way it can once more become a living witness, a place of gathering, and of worship?