In the fall of 1672, two Quaker ministers, searching for a home free from religious persecution, stopped along the Long Island Sound near what is now known as Rye, and began holding meetings in the area. Soon, more Quakers began to settle in the area, and by 1865, they established a congregation.
To accommodate a growing population, Quaker John Harrison purchased land from Native Americans between Blind Brook and the Mamaroneck River, the area that is today known as Harrison. “Harrison’s Purchase” or “The Purchase,” as it was called (“Purchase” today), became home to Quaker farmers who’d been living on Long Island.
After creating a formal meeting, the Quakers used each other’s homes as meetinghouses, and, for a long period of time, Quakers were the majority of Harrison’s residents. A meetinghouse—which stood for nearly 250 years—was built in 1727 at the corner of Lake Street and Purchase Street on land donated by local resident Anthony Field.
Around the same time, more meetings formed in the Hudson River Valley. Eventually, about one-third of Scarsdale was a Quaker community and Chappaqua was largely settled by Friends, or members of the Quaker community. The Chappaqua meetinghouse remains New Castle’s oldest documented building and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, while Horace Greeley High School retains the Quaker mascot.
The origin of the Quaker religion actually dates back to the 1600s, when founder George Fox , then an English shoemaker’s apprentice, became disillusioned with the state church. Fox began to preach, amassing a small following known as the Religious Society of Friends, who abided by strict values of respect, appreciation, morality guided by conscience, and a belief that an attack on one group’s humanity is a threat to all humanity.
Britain did not respond favorably. Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland Oliver Cromwell, and later King Charles II, had the Friends arrested and expelled. Hundreds more died in jail. At one point, Fox was brought to court. After telling the judge he should “tremble before the word of the Lord,” Fox was derided as a “quaker.” The moniker stuck.
Seeking refuge, the Quakers sailed to the New World. When the Massachusetts Puritans denounced the Quaker dissenters, the Friends turned to other colonies. Rhode Island had codified religious tolerance in its laws, and successful Quaker William Penn had founded the colony of Pennsylvaniawith land bestowed by the British monarchy to level debts. Westchester’s rolling hills also became a magnet for upstart meetings.
Simplicity became a hallmark of Quaker life in Westchester. The Friends denounced alcohol, tobacco, dancing, and ornate clothing and became stewards of their communities. Early records from North Castle show that those with Quaker names often held top government posts.
But, promoting human rights may be the strongest legacy of Westchester’s Quakers. They rallied against slavery, poverty, and prejudice in all forms. They championed the Underground Railroad, supported the Civil Rights Movement, and defended conservationism and environmental protection. As early as 1767, the Purchase Meeting denounced slavery as non-Christian. To aid the abolition movement, Quakers donated a plot of land northeast of White Plains to freed blacks.
Further demonstrating a commitment to human rights, the Purchase meetinghouse served as a hospital for George Washington’s soldiers following the Battle of White Plains during the Revolutionary War. Yet, Quakers continued to face hostility for refusing to fight during the Revolutionary War or pay military taxes. Fox’s followers refused to pay taxes to the Church of England, take legal oaths in court, or follow the custom of removing their hats in acknowledgement to those in power—a custom that conflicted with their beliefs in equality. Some of the same Westchester Friends who helped at the Purchase hospital were arrested for refusing to fight with the Continental Army.
But those early tribulations did not shake Quakers from their beliefs or passion for social justice. Civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who had been raised as a Quaker, organized the 1963 March on Washington, when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Other prominent Quakers include President Richard Nixon, reporter Edward R. Murrow, actor James Dean, folk heroes Annie Oakley and Daniel Boone, and singers Bonnie Raitt and Joan Baez.
Today, there are an estimated 358,000 Quakers worldwide and hundreds of Friends schools across the country. And Westchester Quakers continue to work for social justice. The Scarsdale Meeting, for example, has aided the Hiroshima Maidens, supported displaced persons from Central Europe, and provided support for Westchester’s homeless. Currently, the Scarsdale Friends help provide pretrial services for individuals accused of crimes and run a worship group at Sing Sing Correctional Facility for inmates and Friends.