Ask Tom: How were children expected to behave in traditional Quaker worship?

quaker children
Quaker children

Ask Tom: How were children expected to behave in traditional Quaker worship?

My sense is that one of the major changes in Quaker worship over the past century-and-a-half, aside from the introduction of programmed worship (definitely a biggie!), has been the growing sense that young children should not be present for the whole period. It began with the creation of nurseries, where parents could leave very young children. This was apparently done because crying or fussy children were viewed as disrupting worship. (A confession—my parents did not believe in the nursery, and it was a source of resentment for me to have to sit quietly in worship at New Castle First Friends in the early 1960s when I might have been playing with the toys I saw in the nursery.) In some places, “children’s church” has become standard for younger children in pastoral worship, usually after the “children’s story” has been presented. Variants have become common in unprogrammed meetings.

In earlier times, children certainly attended and were expected to sit through meetings for worship that could be held completely in silence. A favorite Quaker story is that of the children of Reading Meeting in England in the 1660s, who kept up the Meeting when all of their parents had been taken to jail. But by the nineteenth century, at least some Friends saw meeting as inappropriate for very young children. Revealing are comments by English ministers traveling in the United States before the Civil War who were puzzled by the presence of infants in worship. They did not understand why the mothers did not leave them at home with the servants!

Generally, the expectation was that children were to be seen and not heard. We have one memory of Richsquare Meeting in Indiana in the 1840s, when a young boy felt moved to stand and say, “He who will not work shall not eat.” An acceptable sentiment, probably, but he was nonetheless quickly jerked back onto his seat by his father before he could offer further testimony. Other accounts speak of daydreams, carving initials into benches, and counting windowpanes. Doubtless many children found the silence puzzling and trying. And that may explain in part why some were drawn to more lively forms of worship. But the persistence of silent worship also testifies to generations of Quaker young people who came to appreciate its meaning and beauty.

3 Responses to "Ask Tom: How were children expected to behave in traditional Quaker worship?"
  1. Thank you, Jim Schultz. Your remembrance, like mine, is of a friendly place where silence was golden.

  2. When I was a little boy, at one time we lived fairly near an old traditional Conservative meeting. There everyone of all ages were at meeting for worship, males on one side and females on the other. I appreciated that meeting.

    But my parents decided to go to a liberal meeting at some distance. There, the rule was that all children were to leave worship after 20 minutes and go to First Day School. I didn’t like FDS and would escape it and go back to meeting for worship. The adult age bigots at that meeting thought I was a bad boy and were upset that my parents let me get away with worshipping. But I persisted, and eventually they gave up on forcing me into FDS and not allowing me to worship.

  3. When I saw this article I immediately thought of the story of the King and his new clothes. My experience with children is that they are very open to the presence of God and will sit quietly in His presence. However if His Presence is missing they are not afraid to point that out by getting bored and acting out.

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