Around the Island

A friendly meeting in a grove of trees; Shelter Island Quakers gathering every Sunday

The Shelter Island Friends Meeting is held every Sunday, as it has been all winter, at 10:30 a.m. at the Quaker monument on the Sylvester Manor grounds, 116 North Ferry Road.

Jim Pugh of the Meeting said the gatherings take place under the trees, in a clearing of the woods, with log benches and a pavilion if it rains. Mr. Pugh said the Friends, also called Quakers, “are not solicitous,” and their faith doesn’t believe in proselytizing, but “all are invited.”

The Sunday gatherings are known as “silent meetings.” There’s no clergy, no hierarchy for direction. Anyone in the Meeting can speak about a spiritual matter, a personal observation or express a point of view, with the only rule being that when they’re finished, there be a period of silence so people can consider the speaker’s point of view without immediately responding.

“We believe people should be contemplative rather than reactive,” Mr. Pugh said, adding that many people find silence uncomfortable. “People feel a need to talk. Silence is foreign to most people. It can be disturbing, but also rewarding.”

As Charity Robey noted in the Reporter several years ago, “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.”

Those ideas were (and still are by some) considered extremely radical. Quakers have paid a price for their religion, beginning with their origins in the 17th century in England and in North America. Ralph J. Duvall, in his “The History of Shelter Island,” writes of persecutions of Quakers in New England that began in 1656 and lasted for years, because their beliefs challenged the religious, and therefore the governmental, power structure.

The Friends, Duvall wrote, were “subjected to cruel persecutions including imprisonment, starvation, banishment from their homes, flogged and branded with hot irons … John Rouse, son of Thomas Rouse, who was once owner of Shelter Island, had his ears cut off for being a Quaker.”

In Mac Griswold’s history of Sylvester Manor, “The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island,” she writes about the Quakers’ belief of “a war against darkness within. When a Massachusetts inquisitor asked … [a] Friend where this ‘dark place’ was, the prisoner placed his hand over his heart and answered, ‘It is under my hand.’”

Duvall tells the story of an elderly couple who had been imprisoned, whipped and nearly starved in Boston but were taken in and cared for, as were other Quakers, by the Sylvester family of Shelter Island.

John Green Leaf Whittier was inspired to write a poem about their ordeal and final 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.”

Mr. Pugh said he was raised a Southern Baptist in Virginia, and became an Episcopalian because that congregation had a church nearby. He became a Quaker when his wife, Donna, suggested he attend a meeting in the grove under the trees. “She said it might be rewarding, and she was right,” he said.

The Friends are not looking to expand the Meeting, but merely letting people know that everyone is welcome at 10:30 Sunday mornings.

Mr. Pugh spoke about the contentious times in which we live, and how silence and contemplation are a welcome relief. Even visiting one time, Mr. Pugh said, can provide a sense of fulfillment.