Although the Arch Street Meetinghouse is not the Quaker Meetinghouse where Ben Franklin first slept in Philadelphia (that one was at 2nd & Market), the site was around during Franklin’s time, and is a part of the Quaker network set up by William Penn. In fact, Penn deeded the land that today’s Meetinghouse is built on to the Society of Friends in 1701 to be used as a burial ground (although burials had been taking place on this lot as early as 1683, making it the oldest burial ground in Philadelphia, and one that was in use during Franklin’s time in Philadelphia).
There are as many as 20,000 burials here, although you wouldn’t know it just by looking around the enclosed space. Until the late 1800’s Quakers discouraged headstones, so the church yard is simpler than most cemeteries of the period. However, you can see the difference in height of the ground level inside and outside the wall, due to all the underground burials.
The interior of the meetinghouse also looks very different from traditional churches. Since Quaker worship consists of silent contemplation, with only occasional speaking from those so moved, the space is filled with plain wooden benches with no altar, pulpit, or other religious symbols – just a sounding board to help project the voices of those who do speak.
It was the silence of their meetings that encouraged Franklin’s nap:
“I walked again up the street, which had by this time had many clean-dressed people in it, who are all walking the same way. I joined them, and thereby was led into the great meetinghouse of the Quakers near the market. I sat down among them and after looking around a while and hearing nothing said, being very drowsy thro’ labor and want of rest the preceding night, I fell fast asleep and continued so till the meeting broke up, when one was kind enough to rouse me. This was, therefore, the first house I was in, or slept in, in Philadelphia.”
The current building dates from 1804, with an addition added in 1811. The building is still used for monthly worship, and is now open as a museum Thursday-Sunday. The west room still looks very similar to its original set-up, and even the horsehair in the cushions dates back to the originals.
The east room is now used as a museum, detailing Quakerism and the lives of famous Philadelphia Quakers.
As you walk along the perimeter brick wall, notice the late 18th century addition that raised the height to prevent bodies from being tossed over during the 1793 yellow fever outbreak.
Just up the street, at 5th & Arch, is the meeting house of the Free Quakers (or “Fighting Quakers”). Built in 1783 to house a group of Quakers who split off due to differences in their interpretation of the non-violence tenet of Quakerism, the Free Quakers went on the take up arms and fight in the Revolutionary War. Their meetinghouse is part of Independence Park.