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Sandy Spring Meeting House — carrying the spirit of its forebears at 200 –

by Audrey Partington
Special to The Greater Olney News

The Sandy Spring Friends – and friends of the Friends – gathered Nov. 12 at the Meeting House that has been at the center of the local Quaker community for 200 years.
“We gather to honor the beauty and simple elegance of the building … and the spirit of our forebears,” said long-time Sandy Spring resident Lorne Garrettson, who moderated the program. “They were farmers who built their own homes and barns.”
Master builders John Thomas and his nephew William, along with a cadre of forward-looking, industrious local Quakers, planned, financed and constructed the building.
“There was no architect but there was good workmanship,” said architect Miche Booz, whose slide show presentation focused on the construction of the federal-style building.
The walls are brick, made on the nearby Avalon farm, and set in a Flemish Bond pattern — ornate by Quaker standards. The wood came from the Chandlee Mill on the Hawlings River. Many of the windows are original, made from blown glass. There are no defects in the plastered walls.
The building was once divided by a moveable panel to separate men from women. While both genders worshiped together, they often met separately to discuss meeting business.
Later additions include a front porch in 1868, modernized heating and lighting in the 1930s and a balcony in 1968. The outdoor privy was replaced with indoor plumbing.
“The building should last at least another 200 years,” Booz said.

Principles to live by

According to the Meeting’s presiding clerk, Natalie Finegar, the Sandy Spring Friends are not just defined by a building. The congregation would continue to exist “if this building was to go away.”
“The building was designed to serve for generations to come,” she said. “But we are not defined by anything earthly.”
Nor are the Quakers just a sect that used to live in the area. “The Quakers are still very much here,” Finegar added.
The Sandy Spring Friends are concerned with education and are very involved with the nearby Sandy Spring Friends School, established in 1961. They are also concerned with the plight of refugees. And they continue to reach out to the Sharp Street Church, a local African American congregation established in 1822 on land donated by Sandy Spring Quakers.
She suggested the acronym “SPICES” as a way to remember Quaker principles: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality and Stewardship.
“Stewardship refers not just to the building but good use of the earth,” she added.

A place to meet

When it was completed in 1817, the Sandy Spring Friends Meeting House was the largest church building in Montgomery County, according to local historian Sandy Heiler. Prior to its construction, the congregation met in a smaller frame meetinghouse from 1753 on the property. The meeting itself dates to the early 18th century.
“The first white people settled in the Sandy Spring area in 1728,” Heiler said. “Native Americans had been living in the area for hundreds of years prior to the arrival of the Quakers. Sandy Spring was not a town and was never incorporated. It was established as ‘a meeting’ – a spiritual center for Quakers in the surrounding areas to meet.”
In Quaker lore, the building is not called a church.
“There were no good roads, only farm roads, and when they flooded, there were muddy tracks,” Heiler said.
Members of the congregation mostly walked to the meeting or traveled by horse and buggy when the roads were passable.

Movers and Quakers

How did the early settlers afford to construct what was, at the time, the largest religious building in Montgomery County?
In today’s dollars, the structure’s $4,134 price tag would be several million.
“They were educated, cosmopolitan and investors,” Heiler said.
Area Quakers were quite prosperous as farmers and mill owners. Area mills were the main source of food, building materials and textiles for the nation’s new capital city, Washington, D.C. They supplied cotton thread to weave sailcloth for ships in Baltimore harbor. Their use of scientific methods in farming and productive approach to manufacturing were skills recognized by those at the seat of power.
Isaac Briggs, an engineer and surveyor, was a friend of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, Briggs surveyed the boundaries for the capital city. He was surveyor general of the Mississippi Territory and chief engineer on the Erie Canal project. He addressed Congress about the need to strengthen the domestic economy amid growing concerns over foreign imports.

Marking the occasion

Many descendants from the area’s founders participated in the bicentennial event, most notably from the Brooke and Thomas families.
The milestone also was marked with the publication of “Elegant Simplicity,” a history of the Sandy Spring Friends Meeting House. The publication includes images of the Meeting House that were on display at the Sandy Spring Museum in June in honor of the 200th anniversary.
Beth Miller Garrettson read selected passages from the records of the building’s centennial celebration in 1917 and sesquicentennial in 1967. Her family, the Millers, descended from area founder James Brooke. Her ancestors are among the 950 people buried in the adjacent church cemetery, which dates to 1753.
The 1917 program remembered “those noble zealots” who built the Meeting House. “All honor to them and their descendants.”
They expressed their hope that 100 years hence members would still “worship in harmony … and that the spirit of love and friendship shall prevail through the society.”
They hoped for “perfect tolerance” and “carrying out of the golden rule.”
Congregant Linda Garrettson concluded the bicentennial program by demonstrating that the Meeting House is “acoustically marvelous.”
She led those who attended in singing “Tis the Gift to be Simple” and “Lord Prepare Me to be a Sanctuary.”

“Elegant Simplicity” is on sale for $15 at Sandy Spring Museum, 18001 Bentley Road, Sandy Spring.

Audrey Partington is a freelance writer in Olney. She is a founding member of the boards of Project Change and Olney Home for Life. She serves on the Olney Town Center Advisory Committee and the Olney Library Advisory Committee.

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