Friends General Conference

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Brief History of Nashville Friends Meeting

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While the Nashville Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends was officially established in January, 1963, its roots go much further back.

Quakers came to Eastern Tennessee beginning in about 1820, coming from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, North Carolina, etc., but there is no record that they came as far west as Nashville. In 1926, Thomas Elsa Jones and his wife, Esther Jones, came to Nashville, Tom to be President of Fisk University. He brought some other Quakers to visit during his 20 years at Fisk, including Homer and Edna Morris, Gladys and Irving Parker, Jim and Nancy St. John, Elise and Kenneth Boulding (Nobel Prize nominee in both Economics and Peace), and John and Rusty Sweitzer. Informal Quaker meetings for worship were held on Fisk campus and in Friends' homes, but not to compete with the Sunday morning Fisk Union Church service which most Fisk staff attended. In 1941, the civil rights leader Margaret McCulloch, who taught at Scarritt, started a Friends worship group in Nashville. Others besides the Fisk group who participated in the late 40s included students Hibbard Thatcher and Ed Burroughs. Walter Hoose writing in the late 50's left this remembrance:

"...Representatives from various Friends groups in the South Central area met in October, 1942, facing the mutual concern of a world at war and seeking a means of continuing friendship which would unite them in the light and love of God. Delegates from Friendsville, TN, Charleston, WV, and from Lexington, Louisville, and Berea, KY, met with members of the Nashville Meeting and others to discuss a means of increasing spiritual unity of Friends in the area and to study the implications of Civilian Public Service and other social action. At this time the Nashville Meeting assumed the responsibility of editing The Monthly Epistle of South Central Friends. The Epistle furnished a medium of expression for personal and Meeting concerns, and its spiritual ministry was of immeasurable value to those who were isolated or were unable to attend regular Meetings. When the transfer of a number of members of Nashville Meeting made it impossible for the remainder to carry on publication, it was with deep regret that the Epistle was laid down after nearly three years of service."

After Marian and Nelson Fuson arrived in Nashville in 1949, Nelson as a Fisk Faculty member. Quaker Meeting for Worship was held in their home, usually on Saturday evenings. These meetings drew from the Vanderbilt-Scarritt-Peabody area, as well as Fisk. In 1956, just as the Fusons left for three years in France, several others joined the worship group including returning attender Hibbard Thatcher and his wife Ruby. Meetings were moved to the Vanderbilt-Scarritt side of the city in the Wesley Foundation building across 21st avenue from Vanderbilt. Soon this group held a Monthly Meeting for Business, kept minutes, and acted like a Monthly Meeting even though it was only a worship group.

During the early 60s Nashville Friends gained unity and strength, particularly as they worked together on social action concerns centering on the non-violent actions to remove racial segregation in downtown businesses. When the "sit-ins", the "stand-ins" and the Freedom Rides of the Student Non-violent Movement to end segregation were taking place, Nashville Quakers acted as a Meeting by writing letters to the editor of the Tennessean, meeting with the Mayor of Nashville as representatives from the Nashville Friends Meeting, etc. Upon realizing that as merely an informal group with no official affiliation, indvidiuals might get into difficulties if questioned, the community wrote to Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PYM), which was in session in March 1961. PYM was asked if they would back up the Nashville group if they were legally challenged. Since many were members of different Monthly Meetings in the Philadelphia area, the Secretary of PYM came to look over what was happening in Nashville with regard to civil rights. As a result of his report, PYM assured Nashville area Friends that they would stand behind the group if anyone got into any trouble.

No other yearly meeting was established within hundreds of miles to sponsor Nashville as a fully fledged Monthly Meeting, so the Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC)'s New Meetings Committee was approached and they agreed that Nashville was ready for Monthly Meeting status in January 1963. The charter included 13 members, made up of transfers from other Meetings and active Nashville attenders joining for the first time. Fall weekend retreats gathered Friends from an even wider area as well, meeting at Camp Dogwood each year from 1961-80, then at Camp Rauwood from 1981-5, and finally at Montgomery Bell Park from 1986 onward with only a few exceptions. By the mid 60s meetings had moved to Sunday mornings and were held in the Scarritt College social rooms. In 1968, the fall FWCC national meeting was hosted at Scarritt.

In 1970, after negotiating amendments to the Tennessee Marriage Law to include Quaker weddings "without benefit of clergy", the first Quaker wedding under the care of our Meeting was held in March of that year. In September 1971 the Meeting occupied a residence on 18th Avenue South, renting half of the property. The Meeting also sponsored and housed a Consumers Cooperative and the Nashville Draft Counselling Center in that space during the week, and all children's religious programs (First Day School) took place in a single large room upstairs. By November 1974 a meetinghouse was purchased at a duplex on Acklen Avenue just east of the Belmont area, which accomodated about 60 people in the worship space and had additional rooms for First Day School. This building enabled hosting of the FGC central committee fall 1976 meeting which required meeting space for 75 persons. By 1980 the official membership had grown to 34, plus many active attenders and three age levels of First Day School.

By the 1990s the Meeting had minuted support for same-gender unions, and since then has conducted three such marriages under its care. In the early 2000s, as attendance continued to grow the Meeting decided to purchase a large space off of Charlotte Avenue at the present 26th Avenue North location in a previous AME church building with a full kitchen, a library, and four bathrooms including some with full showers. There are three separate rooms other than the worship space that allow for First Day School age groups to spread out. This has accomodated a large number of outside groups to use the meetinghouse as community space over time, including the Nashville Peace and Justice Center, Occupy Nashville, various yoga and dance groups, etc. In 2014 the purchase of a cottage across the street was completed, affectionately known as Quaker Cottage. A resident there has built ties with the surrounding community which is emerging as new construction and renovation is reaching this part of the city.

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