When Lynn and Steve Newsom moved to Bluffton from North Carolina in 2017, they began attending a Quaker meeting in Savannah because it was the closest one in the area.
Formally known as The Religious Society of Friends, the Quakers use the term “meeting” instead of “church.”
“The reason for that is that the founder … believed that the whole world was a church and that we should worship God anywhere, and that there should not be a separate place for worship,” said Lynn, who is the clerk of Palmetto Friends, the Religious Society of Friends in South Carolina.
After driving to Savannah for a few Quaker meetings, the Newsoms, who recently retired as directors of Quaker House in Fayetteville, N.C., decided to start a worship group in Bluffton.
Bluffton Friends Worship Group began gathering in February 2018. Since the local group has no building of its own, members were meeting once a month on a Sunday morning in each other’s homes prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since they have been unable to meet with their local worship group over the past few months, the Newsoms have been attending Zoom meetings with their former groups in Charlotte and Cincinnati. The couple hopes to start hosting their own meetings on Zoom soon. There are currently only seven or eight people in their group, but all others are welcome to join them.
Lynn said traditional Quakers practice what is called “unprogrammed worship,” which means they have no minister, and they worship God by sitting in silence for an hour in prayer and meditation. The Bluffton group is traditional. She said the larger meetings have “Second Hours,” or forums, to discuss topics of interest after the hour of silence.
“Prayer is talking to God,” Lynn said. “Meditation is listening for God. And that is fundamental in our worship. We worship corporately to invite the spirit of God to speak to us.”
Known for spreading a message of peace, Quakers have long pushed for equal rights among different races, genders and economic classes. They were an integral part of the abolitionist movement and in the history of South Carolina.
Steve said some Quakers did own slaves, but the leaders of the organization denounced the practice in the mid-1600s because it was inconsistent with Quaker beliefs.
“They basically started the worldwide movement to abolish slavery,” Steve said. “It took hold in England because of the Quakers, and it spread to the United States.”
Since they opposed slavery, Steve said, most Quakers in South Carolina moved to the North prior to the Civil War.
In 1862, Quaker women from the North came to South Carolina to care for and teach newly freed slaves. The first school in the South for freed slaves, the Penn School, was established in 1862 on St. Helena Island, according to the Penn Center website. The school was named after a Quaker man named William Penn, and was supported by a private charity made up of mostly Quakers from 1865 to 1877, the website said.
In 1948, the school closed and became a community agency. In 1950, its name was changed to Penn Center. Since then, Penn Center opened the first daycare center for blacks, launched a community health care clinic, hosted interracial conferences on civil rights, was a training center for the Peace Corps, and was a retreat for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other human rights activists.
Penn Center wasn’t the only school Quakers started for freed slaves in South Carolina. Martha Schofield, a Quaker woman from Pennsylvania, founded a public high school in Aiken called Schofield Normal and Industrial School.
Another Quaker woman, Cornelia Hancock, a Civil War nurse from New Jersey, started Laing Industrial School in Mount Pleasant, according to the Digital South Carolina Encyclopedia. The school was named after Henry M. Laing, treasurer of the Friends Association for the Aid and Elevation of the Freedmen of Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, both of which supported the school financially, the digital encyclopedia said.
After all these years, Quakers are still standing up for racial equality in South Carolina. On May 8, the Newsoms and others in their group participated in the nationwide socially distanced walk for Ahmaud Arbery, the black man who was killed by two white men while jogging on Feb. 23 in Brunswick, Ga.
Five members of their group also attended a peaceful protest against racism on June 6 at Campbell Chapel AME Church, where hundreds of concerned citizens gathered to hear remarks from organizers before marching through Old Town Bluffton.
“Of all the religious organizations I know, I feel the Quakers try very hard to live according to Jesus’ teachings – in simplicity, in integrity, in working for equality and freedom for all people, and in believing that there is God in everyone, so therefore, one should not kill another person,” Lynn said. “This is the reason that we are pacifists and work hard for peace.”
For more information on the Bluffton Friends Worship Group, email Lynn at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the group’s Facebook page.
Amy Coyne Bredeson of Bluffton is a freelance writer, a mother of two and a volunteer with the Tuberous Sclerosis Alliance.