We are indeed blessed today to be gathered in a truly hallowed place. This building in which we worship today is one of the oldest in Burlington County. It is representative of a group of buildings, most of them Quaker Meeting Houses, which have outlived almost every other kind of structure in the county. The fact is, this is the oldest continuously used meeting house in the county.
What makes this building so unique among this select group of places of worship? First of all, this Mount Laurel location is the first place of public worship in this part of Burlington County. At the time of the construction of this building in 1760, replacing another building that sat here since 1717, this township or constabulary was known as Evesham: 67,000 acres that encompassed present day Mount Laurel, Medford, Medford Lakes, Evesham, Hainesport, and parts of Lumberton and Shamong, - - - and this Meeting of the Society of Friends was known as Evesham Meeting.
We are celebrating the 250 th Anniversary of the Eastern wing. This community of Quakers grew so fast that within 38 years, there was need to add the Western wing - - accomplished in 1798. But the Colonial history of this place began almost 100 years prior to the construction of the original Eastern wing, when William and Elizabeth Evans walked the Indian trail from Burlington to claim their 300 acres here and took up residence across the road in a cave in the mount which we today recognize as the namesake of this community. It was William Evans who in 1717 transferred a little over one acre of his land by deed to the Society of Friends for the purpose of establishing a meeting and a place to bury their dead.
Over the years this area was known by several names. It was known as Mount Pray to the Indians, and then to the pioneers as Mount Evans, and later, Mount Evesham, until Miss Hannah Gillingham, a teacher at the Friends School named it after the Laurel that grew in great proportion over the land here. The Friends School in which Miss Gillingham taught was the first school in Mount Laurel and was housed in the older building on this property in 1783.
As evidence of the friendship engendered between the natives and the settlers, the Indians freely pitched in during the construction of the building. The Jersey Sandstone and Ironstone, which are distinct features of this structure, was quarried across the road at the Mount.
An interesting vignette about this particular Quaker Meeting house centers around the Hicksite separation in 1828. Although some dispute the story, it has been passed down as factual in several historical commentaries that during the separation, in an expression of Quaker civility, the Orthodox Friends occupied the 1760 or Eastern part of the meeting house, while the Hicksites occupied the newer 1793 or Western addition.
Another significant contribution of the Quakers of this particular meeting was the pro-active role of many of its members in the Underground Railroad movement. Colemantown Meeting, just down the road on Elbo Lane, currently Jacob’s Chapel, owes its existence to the actions of prominent local Quakers who created a safe haven for freed and escaped slaves in this area. Stories are told of local Quakers who even traveled south to re-capture slaves who were re-captured by bounty hunters.
This building has stood these 250 years as the most prominent billboard for the widespread Quaker presence in Burlington County. I have been told that of all 21 Burlington County Quaker meeting houses, this is the most frequently painted by artists.
But beyond its architectural attractiveness, because of its prominent location and unique physical features, this building serves as a symbol Quakerism in Burlington County – a symbol of the moral standards and the principles of liberty that are the hallmark of the Society of Friends. Much of what is good about Burlington County can be attributed to the manner in which Quaker principles were practiced by those who exercised leadership in business and government during the laying of the foundations of the county.
I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on the natural beauty and serenity which surrounds this structure. It is not without purpose that Quakers took care to cultivate the grounds on which their meetings were constructed, reminding them of the creative benevolence of the God of nature who dwells within each of us.
This building survived a brief military occupation during the American quest for liberty in 1778 as the British evacuated Philadelphia and traversed Burlington County as they headed to New York. It was occupied by General Clinton’s soldiers over June 19 th and 20 th that year. At another time, even the Colonial Militia saw fit to commandeer the building for its needs. Yet it stands today as a witness to the alternative to war, in the Quaker tradition that loudly proclaims, “There is no way to Peace…. Peace is the way!
On this 250 th Anniversary of this building, we celebrate not the stones and mortar that have withstood the passage of time, but the determination and faith -- the fortitude and the spirit of the members of the Society of Friends who have worshipped here all these many years and who have contributed so much to the quality of life of Burlington County that we value so dearly.
Happy 250 th Anniversary!