Quakers in Howard County: Birth and Rebirth

by Ken Stockbridge*

Quakers played a key role in the early growth of what is now Howard County, but no Quaker meeting existed here from roughly 1850 to 1970. What became of the meeting in the mill town founded by the Quaker Ellicott brothers? And what now brings a Quaker meeting back to Howard County?

Several histories have documented the role of the three Ellicott brothers, who came in 1771 from William Penn’s colony and chose a site on the Patapsco River for their flourmill. The Ellicotts’ generosity helped build not just a Quaker meetinghouse but also houses of worship for other denominations. They founded schools not just for Quaker boys but also for girls and all children, including Native-Americans. They also helped recognize African-American Benjamin Banneker and invited him to help survey Washington, DC. Banneker also worshiped occasionally with the Quakers.

Histories have also described how Quakers helped shape the state’s and the nation’s early history, especially regarding religious freedom, and local Quakers played their part. Quakers helped establish the right to affirm rather than to swear oaths, as their religious convictions dictated. They refused to support military activities or to pay tithes to the state to support Anglican churches and priests. And throughout the 1700s, their opposition to slavery grew; by 1790, Quakers in Maryland did not hold or trade in slaves.

However, few histories have noted that a Quaker meeting existed in this area forty or more years before the Ellicotts arrived. None have been clear just when and why the meeting was discontinued.

Quakers may have lived and worshiped as early as 1698 at Elk Ridge Landing. Quaker records document that the Peirpoint family was the Elk Ridge meeting’s core until the Ellicotts arrived. One traveling minister reported on a meeting with the Peirpoints at their home “up the Patapsco” in 1722. Charles Peirpoint and his wife, Sidney Chew, both came from Anne Arundel Quaker families. They had fourteen children, and before 1770 virtually all the Elk Ridge meeting families were those that married into the Peirpoint family.

While the Peirpoints had apparently settled at Elk Ridge Landing by 1722, their Quaker group did not apply to be taken under the care of a “monthly meeting” until 1739. Monthly meetings held “meetings for worship with a concern for business” (of the meeting) once a month, as they do today. They generally consisted then of a few scattered meetings. Monthly meetings were organized into quarterly meetings and quarterly meetings into a yearly meeting for Maryland, at the time. This scheme provided for mutual support and solidarity. Any meeting other than an informal one would probably not have existed at Elk Ridge Landing much before 1739.

One role of monthly and quarterly meetings was to nurture meetings and individuals in their understanding of Quaker practice. The Elk Ridge meeting received such attention in 1746 after a visitor found several people speaking at once rather than one at a time out of the silence of worship. A committee then visited the meeting, perhaps more than once. Nine months later, the meeting submitted a letter acknowledging their “misconduct” and the “good advices” they had received. Fifteen people signed the letter–all of them named Peirpoint.

When the Ellicotts arrived, several Quakers came along to work with them, and others established their own mills. Meanwhile, Elk Ridge Landing was declining as a port due to siltation and the increasing importance of Baltimore. In 1798, the Elk Ridge meeting built a meetinghouse in Ellicott Mills, keeping its original name.

The meeting flourished only briefly. Many Quaker meetings were discontinued during this period, especially the early tidewater meetings in Anne Arundel County, due to several factors. Many Quakers left with the vast westward migration, though many also moved to Baltimore or back to Pennsylvania. Many farmers moved on due to soil depletion from tobacco or their difficulty working in a slave economy while opposing slavery. However, in Ellicott Mills, many Quakers were part of the Ellicotts’ industrial revolution, and the Ellicotts had helped renew agriculture by providing a market for wheat and introducing the use of fertilizer. Some left the meeting due to the rigors of Quaker discipline, which disapproved marriage with non-Quakers, military service, and distractions like drinking, dancing, and theater. Revival movements also lured some away to other faiths. Still, other meetings in the area survived, such as those at Baltimore, Sandy Spring, and Gunpowder.

The arrival of America’s first passenger train at Ellicott Mills in 1830 may have helped spur further growth of the town, but it also made Baltimore’s larger Quaker meeting closer. While the Ellicotts remained active here through the mid-1800s, they also became very active in Baltimore, establishing an export trade. Faced with Baltimore’s ascendancy, the Elk Ridge meeting may have simply lacked the necessary critical mass.

In 1826, the meeting asked that its contribution to support the monthly meeting be reduced, and in 1831, it raised a concern about its small size. A committee then regularly visited the meeting until 1836. The visitors included Philip E. Thomas, who was the monthly meeting clerk as well as a founder and the first President of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. In 1836, discontinuing the Elk Ridge meeting was proposed but not approved.

In 1851, a new meeting was established at the Diamond Ridge home of Thomas Hartley, just upstream from Ellicott Mills in Baltimore County. Finally, in 1853, the Elk Ridge meeting was discontinued. Some had proposed replacing the Elk Ridge meeting with the new one, but others persisted in trying to keep Elk Ridge alive. Ultimately, the decisions regarding the two meetings seem to have been made independently, but Diamond Ridge’s creation may well have been the final blow.

One hundred and twenty years later, a new Quaker meeting was established in Columbia, another new town that brought growth. The county may have always had at least a few Quaker residents, and new ones were drawn to this progressive experiment of planned development. However, it was the 1970s fuel crisis that motivated the new meeting, to conserve fuel used driving to distant meetings. Initially, the group met in Friends’ homes. As the numbers grew, it sought larger space, which was at a premium for Sunday mornings. So it met for a while at Wilde Lake Interfaith Center on Sunday evenings. Later, it met on Sunday mornings at the Phelps Luck Neighborhood Center.

However, the small group had difficulty finding the time and energy needed to support the meeting. Providing children’s programs proved challenging. Also, some did not find the center suitable for worship. The group did continue for five years or so, but gradually Friends returned to older, more established meetings, and the group was discontinued by about 1979. In the 1980s some proposed a mid-week evening worship, but the response was not sufficient. Still, Quakers continued to participate in local peace and social concern activities.

Then, in mid-1996, several Friends once again felt led to start a Quaker meeting in Howard County. They had the benefit of past experience, the hope that an even larger county population might provide the needed critical mass, and the vision of having their spiritual community where they live. They committed to having worship on Sunday mornings, adequate children’s programs, and space well suited to silent worship. In November 1996, they started to meet at the Columbia Art Center in Long Reach. However, as Quakers say, “the way opened” that the historic and beautiful Mt. Hebron House became available as its owner, Mt. Hebron Presbyterian Church, finished a new addition and moved its Sunday School out of the old manor house. The Quakers began meeting there in January 1997.

Initially, the group’s attendance was quite regular at about 20 adults for worship and from 5-15 children. Since then, attendance has more than doubled. The meeting has had regular business meetings from the beginning and a variety of study and worship groups. The various activities have deepened the spiritual life of the new religious community and its members. In 1999, the group officially became the Patapsco Friends Meeting under the care of Sandy Spring monthly meeting. In August 2002, the meeting became a full, “monthly meeting” under the care of Chesapeake Quarterly Meeting. The group hopes to follow the advice that George Fox offered in a 1676 epistle, “be patterns, be examples … that you may come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every [person].”

*© 1999, 2002 by Ken Stockbridge. For a more extensive version of this history, use our contact form.  Thanks to Emma Byrne and Susan Norris Rose for their help.