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Friends since 1652: Shelter Island’s place in Quaker history

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO A sign on Route 114 marks the entrance to the Friends outdoor meeting place.
A sign on Route 114 marks the entrance to the Friends outdoor meeting place.

It was 38 minutes into the one-hour Quaker meeting before anyone said a word.

Gathered on the grounds of Sylvester Manor, seated on a jumble of rough-hewn logs fashioned into long benches in a wooded glade, there were six at the meeting, seven if you count the small white dog on Shelter Islander Jim Pugh’s lap.

They sat largely in silence, until Mr. Pugh gathered the group of Friends together in a circle of hands called the rise of meeting.

In a time when listening is out, venting is in, and most of your friends are people you never actually see, the Quaker approach to worship is distinct, even a bit strange. It must have seemed as strange to the 17th century Puritans of colonial New England, one reason why Shelter Island’s Quaker history, which goes back to the founding of Sylvester Manor in 1652, is relevant today.

The Quaker and Island connection

Quaker practices include plain speech, modesty, avoiding showy things such as flags and grave markers and an unwillingness to swear an oath. Activists for peace and social justice, Quakers have advocated for women’s rights and the abolition of slavery.

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO The Shelter Island meeting takes place in a grove near the Quaker monument at Sylvester Manor, as it has since the 1970s.
The Shelter Island meeting takes place in a grove near the Quaker monument at Sylvester Manor, as it has since the 1970s.

The Religious Society of Friends, known as Quakers, was established by George Fox in England in the mid-17th century, around the same time that Nathaniel Sylvester and Grizzell Brinley married in England and crossed the Atlantic Ocean to become the first European residents of Shelter Island.

The Sylvesters brought with them Quaker practices and beliefs. When the passage of anti-Quaker laws in 1656 imposed punishments such as branding, ear-cropping, imprisonment and later banishment and death, Nathaniel and Grizzell Sylvester made the Island a refuge for persecuted Quakers.

The best known of these was the Quaker martyr Mary Dyer, who left her husband and six children in Boston in the early 1650s, moved to England where she became a Friend, and returned to Boston as a Quaker preacher in 1657 only to be arrested and banished on pain of death.

In spite of her banishment, Dyer went back to Boston, was sentenced to death, but was spared at the last moment in a bizarre public execution in which two fellow Quakers were hanged before her. She was made to stand on the gallows hooded, and then suddenly spared.

She made her way to Shelter Island where she spent the winter of 1659-60, a time the historian Mac Griswold describes in “The Manor,” her history of Sylvester Manor, as “the happiest, most dedicated, least fractured time of her life. Her actions embodied her faith; all the rest of life’s concerns had burned away.”

Ms. Dyer chose once again to return to Boston and her fate. She was publicly executed in June 1660.

Shelter from the storm

Nathaniel and Grizzell Sylvester also harbored Lawrence and Cassandra Sethwick, Quakers from Salem, after they were banished and two of their children ordered sold into slavery. The Sethwicks fled across Long Island Sound to Shelter Island.

Shattered physically and emotionally, they lived out their last days, both dying about a month after arriving. A copy of Lawrence Sethwick’s last will and testament, written on Shelter Island, and witnessed by Nathaniel Sylvester, is dated May 1659.

In 1661, King Charles II issued a royal order meant to stop the executions of Quakers in Massachusetts.

It was personally delivered to John Endicott, the governor of Massachusetts, by a London Quaker and ship captain named Ralph Goldsmith, who later settled in Southold.

Nathaniel Sylvester’s brother Giles, who was living in London, signed the petition listing the sufferings of American Friends, which prompted the royal order. Historians have posited a link between Grizzell Sylvester’s correspondence with her father Thomas Brinley who was in the court of King Charles, and the order to stop the executions of Quakers in Massachusetts.

As joyful as the Sylvesters must have been to see the end of Quaker executions, the arrival of the Quaker founder, George Fox on Shelter Island 10 years later was likely even more satisfying, as an indication of their prominent position.

COURTESY PHOTO George Fox, a founder of the Quaker movement, who visited Sylvester Manor.
George Fox, a founder of the Quaker movement, who visited Sylvester Manor.

Mr. Fox had left England for a tour of America in 1671, and after two months in Rhode Island, finally visited the Island in August 1672. He wrote of preaching to hundreds of native Americans from the porch of the Manor House, and of trying to persuade slaveholders in America, such as Nathaniel Sylvester, to free the people he held in bondage. At the time, about 70 percent of American Quakers were slaveowners.

Nathaniel Sylvester died on June 13, 1680, aged 70. Grizzell, in settling the estate, followed Quaker practice by declining to swear, “being a person that cannot take an oath for conscience sake,” and instead testified to the inventory of her husband’s estate, which included 23 enslaved people.

Grizzell died on June 13, 1687 at 52. In keeping with Quaker practice, the Sylvesters’ graves bore no markers of any kind.

Noticed and remembered

For most of the 19th century and first half of the 20th, the 8th, 9th and 10th owners of Sylvester Manor were members of the Horsford family. They spent summers at the Manor, and lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Eager to recognize the history of the Friends, and the Manor’s role as a refuge and haven, the Horsfords dedicated a monument on July 25, 1884 to their Sylvester forebears.

They made sure it would be noticed and remembered. A large crowd including most of Shelter Island, as well as friends and colleagues from Cambridge attended. A three-piece band and a choir performed.

The poet John Greenleaf Whittier, known for his dramatic poems about Quaker history, and a friend of Professor Eben Horsford, wrote a special ode for the event about The Friends’ ordeal and Island sanctuary, with the lines: “A peaceful deathbed and a quiet grave/Where ocean walled, and wiser than his age,/ the Lord of Shelter scorned the bigot’s rage.”

In 1952, Andy Fiske, the 13th owner of Sylvester Manor, and a direct Sylvester descendant, called on Henry Cadbury, who had recently accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the American Friends Service Committee, to conduct a Quaker meeting on Shelter Island. Cadbury not only came and conducted the meeting, but established a Shelter Island Friends meeting that is still active, albeit with occasional fits and starts.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Friends met at the Garr estate; during the 1960s, at Union Chapel in the Heights; and starting in 1970, outdoor meetings took place in the grove by the Quaker cemetery at Sylvester Manor.

And that is where six people sat last Sunday, with Friends past and present, in silent awe of all that was around them, and in search of all that is within.