Great Friends Meeting House
The Great Friends Meeting House is a Quaker house of worship and historic building built in 1699. The meeting house, located in downtown Newport, is the oldest surviving house of worship in Rhode Island, and it is now part of the Newport Historic District and open as a museum owned by the Newport Historical Society. The Society of Friends, a Quaker organization, spread to the New England colonies in the 1640s. At the time, the Quakers were persecuted for their then-radical beliefs, but in the Newport area in the 18th century, the Quakers dominated local political, social, and economic life. The meeting house was the center of this activity until the departure of the New England Yearly Meeting of Friends in 1905. The building was used as a recreational center for some time after, and eventually became the prominent center for the African-American community (it was used as the Martin Luther King center up until the 1970s). The Meeting House, now a museum, is a contributing property to Newport’s U.S. Historic District.
Backstory and Context
History of the Great Friends Meeting House
Although the Great Friends Meeting House dates back to its construction in 1699, its history began with religious dissident George Fox, who preached the concept of “inner light,” fundamental to Quakers, throughout England in the 1640s. Fox’s beliefs spread to the colonies and appealed to many of Newport’s early settlers during this time, and many flocked to Fox’s Society of Friends. Nonetheless, Quakers were widely persecuted in the Puritan majority New England of the 17th century. Well-known Newport Quaker, Mary Dyer, was even executed for her beliefs and for defying a Puritan law that banned Quakers. Despite persecution, the Quakers found slight refuge in Newport. By 1672, Newport Quaker Nicholas Easton was even elected to be governor of Rhode Island; Quakers could also find attractive political, economic, and social opportunities in Newport.
The building that would eventually become the Great Friends Meeting House was first built in 1639, and at the time, it was Nicholas Easton’s home. The first house burned in 1641 and was rebuilt shortly thereafter. Upon Easton's death in 1676, he bequeathed the home to the Newport Society of Friends, and it probably became the Friends’ first permanent place of worship. A new building (the current one) was built in 1699 to serve as the congregation house of the well-established Quaker community. During the first few decades of the 17th century, it was the largest and most recognizable building in town, often appearing as a landmark in early paintings of Newport. The Great Friends Meeting House served as a congregation until 1905.