The Religious Society of Free Quakers – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Meeting House, Betsy Ross Flag and Timothy Matlack

 In 1780 a small group of Quakers who were disowned by the Society of Friends for various reasons, including support of the Revolutionary war effort, met in the home of Samuel Wetherill, a carpenter and merchant. They discussed forming their own Society, which they did the following year, and requested permission to meet for worship and business in existing Friends’ meeting houses. Their request was denied and, for a time, they continued to meet in one another’s houses. Happily for the infant Society, membership expanded and they resolved to build their own meeting house, purchasing a lot on the southwest corner of Mulberry (now Arch) and Fifth Streets in summer 1783. Construction began immediately. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Robert Morris were among the contributors to the building fund.

The building is a more or less square brick structure facing Fifth Street. The façade features Flemish bond brickwork with glazed headers, a double brick belt course, molded water table and substantial pilasters at the corners. The large 8/12 sash windows are topped with lintels and keystones. Decorative elements include a wide box cornice with dentil molding and a pedimented wood doorway with recessed paneling. There is an “inscription stone” in the north gable that reads: “By General Subscription/for the/ FREE QUAKERS/Erected in the year/of OUR LORD 1783/of the Empire 8.” The reference to Empire offers evidence of the unsettled political climate in the years immediately after the war and before the Constitution.

The Free Quakers were practical men who designed the meeting house to be income producing. The building had two unusual cellars, one beneath the other, and the sub basement was double vaulted with a paved brick floor.  These spaces were rented to merchants as storage. In 1961 the building was moved 38’ west and 8’ south to allow for the widening of Fifth Street. The cellars survive under the roadbed but are inaccessible.

Contemporary accounts document the first meeting for worship in June 1784. Disaffected Quakers and others flocked to the new space but by 1788 many of the reasons for forming a new society disappeared – some members regretted their perceived transgressions and returned to their old meetings and others drifted away. The remaining Free Quakers authorized dividing the building by constructing a second floor with an exterior stair so the space could be rented. The Society continued to gather on the first floor but held its last meeting for worship in 1836. Afterwards, tenants occupied the entire building; they included schoolmasters, the Grand Lodge of the Freemasons and the Apprentices’ Library in the 19th century and “mercantile companies” from 1897 until 1957 when the building was acquired by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for the Independence Mall Project. During the move south and west in 1961, all 19th and 20th century alterations and additions were removed and the building was restored to its 1788 appearance, with the exception of the addition of the second floor balcony where none originally existed.


Meeting House, 1917
Southwest corner of Fifth and Arch Streets showing the Meeting House in 1917 when it was let to “mercantile companies for ordinary business purposes.” (Courtesy of the Philadelphia Historical Commission)


Meeting House, 1959
East front of the Meeting House in January 1959 from the Christ Church Burial Ground. (Courtesy of the Philadelphia Historical Commission)


Meeting House Sign
Sign on the east wall of the Meeting House showing Flemish bond brickwork in which headers and stretchers alternate in each course.


Meeting House
East front of the Meeting House showing a conservative 18th century symmetrical façade with a pedimented doorway, rusticated stone lintels and a dentil cornice.


Meeting House
After demolition of nearby buildings and post-18th century additions, the Meeting House was moved west to its current location in 1961. This view, looking northeast, shows the restored south and west walls.


Samuel Wetherill (1736-1816)
Samuel Wetherill came to Philadelphia from Burlington County, New Jersey at age 15 as an apprentice to Quaker carpenter Mordecai Yarnall. He became adept at his profession, serving as both a surveyor of buildings and director of The Philadelphia Contributionship, a fire insurance company. However, it was as a merchant and manufacturer that Wetherill made his mark. His factory produced fabrics made of wool, linen or cotton and he supplied a large quantity of woolen cloth to the Board of War during the Revolution, an activity that conflicted with the Peace Testimony of the Society of Friends of which he was an active member. In 1779, Wetherill was disowned for “disunity” because he “deviated from [the] ancient Testimony and peaceable principles by manifesting himself a party in the public commotions prevailing.” That same year, he assumed the role of Clerk for a small group of Quakers who were disowned for supporting the Revolutionary cause or for other reasons. They sought to continue to worship and meet as Friends in established meeting houses but were turned away. The group organized their own Society of Free Quakers in 1781. Wetherill served as Clerk, supervised the building of a meeting house at Fifth and Arch Streets, and traveled to other cities to visit similarly disenfranchised groups. He published religious tracts but continued to be actively involved in advancing American industry, moving beyond textiles into the manufacture of white lead pigment. He is considered the founder of the Religious Society of Free Quakers.


Timothy Matlack (d.1829)
Timothy Matlack arrived in Philadelphia from Haddonfield, New Jersey around 1745 and listed his occupation as merchant. He was disowned by the Quakers in 1765 for “frequenting company in such manner as to neglect business whereby he contracted debts, failed and was unable to satisfy the claims of his creditors.” Despite this rejection, he considered himself a member of the Society of Friends. Matlack was an early supporter of the Revolution, worked as assistant to Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress, was a member of the Constitutional Convention for Pennsylvania, served as secretary of the Supreme Executive Council, and was elected colonel of a battalion in 1776. He saw action at Trenton and Princeton and when not in the field was occupied by the duties and responsibilities of his many government offices. He was among the small group that met at Samuel Wetherill’s house in 1781 to consider forming a Society of Free Quakers and is credited with the design for the storage vaults under the 1783 meeting house. These vaults were leased to merchants to provide a source of income for the religious society. Colonel Matlack is remembered as a patriot, soldier and original member of the Society of Free Quakers. He and his first wife, Ellen (d. 1791), are buried in the Free Quaker Burial Ground at Fatland Farm in Montgomery County.


Lydia Darragh (1729-1789)
Lydia Darragh was a nurse and midwife who moved to Philadelphia after her marriage to William Darragh in 1753. She is remembered as a spy who supported the Revolutionary effort and thwarted the plans of British General William Howe in December 1777 by warning General Washington of a proposed attack at Whitemarsh. Her brother, Charles, a lieutenant on General Washington’s staff, was disowned by the Friends “for engaging in matters of a warlike nature” but only Charles and Lydia’s husband knew of her activities during the war. The Darraghs are listed among the original members of the Free Quakers. Philadelphia diarist Christopher Marshall noted in October 1783 that Lydia was dismissed by the Society of Friends for attending “the meetings of the disowned friends” and that her earlier “crimes” were not mentioned.


Betsy Ross (1752-1836)
Betsy Ross was widely known for her skill as a seamstress. She and her first husband, John Ross, operated an upholstery shop on Arch Street in Philadelphia. She was raised a Quaker but married “out of meeting.” Betsy and her third husband, John Claypoole, joined the Free Quakers in 1785. She is described as an industrious woman who, with the assistance of her daughters, granddaughters and nieces maintained the family flag making and upholstery business. Philadelphia historian Margaret Tinkcom traced Betsy’s fame as maker of the Stars and Stripes to a paper read by her grandson William J. Canby at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1870 recounting her 1776 meeting with General George Washington, Colonel George Ross, an uncle by marriage, and Robert Morris. “Whether or not she made the first flag, Betsy certainly did make pennants and ensigns for the State Navy Board…” A more recent, 2002, account of Ross and the flag by another of her descendants, John B. Harker, makes the same claim: “today we are reasonably convinced that Betsy’s flag was a naval flag, with a simple ‘in line’ arrangement of the stars…” Photo courtesy of the Betsy Ross House.

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