WAIT, WHAT? THERE’S QUAKERS IN FAIRHOPE?
story Richard H. Schmidt photography George Fuller
Their worship includes no sermons, no choirs, and no liturgical texts, not even the Lord’s Prayer. They don’t ordain pastors, ministers, elders, or priests and have no bishop, moderator, or superintendent. There are no creeds, catechisms, or doctrines. Worshipers often just sit quietly in their pews while nothing much seems to be happening.
But something is happening. They are Quakers, and they are waiting on the Lord. Before long, the Spirit will move someone to speak and then everyone will listen politely. Peaceful relations and courtesy to one another – and to everyone else – are hallmarks of the Quaker tradition. When one speaker sits down, the quiet resumes until the Spirit moves another to speak. Arguments, disputes, debates? Quakers don’t do that.
But occasionally someone does do that, usually a visitor. When a speaker at the Fairhope Quaker meeting promotes a personal or political agenda, worshipers listen, but after the meeting someone speaks privately to that person and explains the purpose of the meeting.
“We have had people attend for a period of time and some have been vocal, not disturbingly so, not contentiously, but they finally decided it wasn’t something they wanted to continue with,” says Homer Singleton, with typical Quaker humility. Homer is longtime clerk of the Fairhope meeting, though the meeting now functions with no official clerk. Through gentle guiding, members try to maintain the spiritual focus of the meeting. Usually, that’s not a problem.
It’s not that Quakers never disagree or cover over their differences. But they promote a spirit of loving acceptance and avoid theological terms and doctrines that can pit people against each other, embracing instead simplicity, peacefulness, integrity, truthfulness, community, equality, care for creation, and respect for all living things.
The Quakers began when an uneducated English shoemaker named George Fox (1624-1691) began listening to an inner voice that guided him to eschew violence and argumentation and to treat all people gently and equally – lay and ordained, women and men, rich and poor, unlettered and scholarly. This voice, he was convinced, was that of the Holy Spirit. God dwelt, Fox said, in every human heart. This was “the true Light, which lighteth every man” (John 1:9). The inspired word could come to anyone.
Fox traveled throughout Great Britain and later the American colonies preaching this simple message, and a powerful preacher he was, attracting crowds of a thousand or more on street corners and by the roadside. So moving were his sermons that Fox’s listeners often shook with emotion, giving rise to the derisive nickname “Quakers.” They called themselves the Society of Friends.
Fox left an account of his experiences in his Journal, dictated to others at the end of his life. It shows a man of granite-like persistence, never compromising or admitting to error, accepting persecution with patient serenity, and confident of the ultimate triumph of right over wrong.
The Fairhope Friends meeting is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. It shrank to just two persons who sometimes didn’t meet at all after seven leading families emigrated to Costa Rica in 1951. The Fairhope Friends still maintain contact with the Costa Rican settlement, called Monteverde.
“I was drafted in the Second World War,” says Marvin Rockwell, 96, one of five original Monteverde settlers still living there. “I would not carry a weapon, so they put me in the Medical Corps. I was trained as a surgical technician. That training was very valuable the first few years here in Monteverde.”
Marvin and the others moved there after the U.S. began drafting men to fight in Korea in 1950. “I and three other young men of the Fairhope Friends meeting refused to register (for the draft) as a protest,” Marvin recalls. “We were sentenced to one year and one day in prison. We served a third of the sentence in a prison in Tallahassee, Florida, and were then released on parole. I had an honorable discharge from the army when I went to prison for refusing to register.”
Following his release, Marvin drove a Jeep with a trailer from Fairhope to Monteverde. The journey took three months. A group from the Fairhope meeting, led by Hubert Mendenhall, had scouted out possible locations for a Friends settlement. They chose Costa Rica because the nation had abolished its standing army in 1946. It still doesn’t have one.
The Fairhope Quakers purchased a large tract of land that became Monteverde, on a mountaintop 4,600 feet above sea level. Most of the original settlers were Quakers, but other pacifists and conscientious objectors also joined the group.
Mendenhall, a dairyman, immediately set up a dairy in Monteverde. “The dairy plant started very small
and they hired a manager from Germany,” recalls Phyllis Wallace, who lived at Monteverde from the 1950s until she returned to Fairhope in 1981 and who still has children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren there. “The dairy grew and they kept increasing the milk they produced. They made and sold various cheeses and it became a lucrative business, the mainstay of support for the residents.”
Nearly a thousand people live at Monteverde today. Most are not Quakers, though the spirit of peacefulness and courtesy remains strong. The dairy was eventually sold. Tourism is now the settlement’s major industry, with as many as 250,000 visitors a year. A main attraction is the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, a large private nature park created in 1972 by scientist George Powell and Quaker Wilford Guindon. It offers walking trails through one of the most ecologically diverse environments on the planet.
Meanwhile, the Fairhope Quakers journey on. They still gather where they always have, in the white clapboard Friends Meeting House on Fairhope Avenue, just east of County Road 13, on Sundays at 10 a.m. Some arrive an hour earlier for informal study.
Never large, the Fairhope meeting today typically draws a dozen or so worshipers, often including some who drive from Biloxi, Miss., and Milton, Fla. Occasionally no one speaks for the entire hour. This “expectant waiting” isn’t heavy or awkward, and even when no one is speaking, the Spirit is often present and heard.
The Fairhope Quakers also participate in local efforts to feed the hungry and resolve conflicts peaceably. Community groups often meet during the week at the Friends Meeting House. These include Alcoholics Anonymous, the Eastern Shore Institute for Lifelong Learning, Alabama Rise, and other groups whose purpose aligns with the Quaker commitment to peaceable relations among people of all races, beliefs, and lifestyles.
Most Quakers don’t evangelize. (Actually, there are three branches of Quakers, and the “Conservative” Quakers, including the Fairhope meeting, don’t evangelize, though one branch does.) If you become “convinced” that you are a Quaker, the Fairhope meeting will happily receive you, but they won’t try to convince you. That might seem argumentative.
Richard H. Schmidt is a retired Episcopal priest, author, and editor. He lives in Fairhope.