(This essay was originally written for Genealogy and Local History at IUPUI.)
“Historic places help people connect with the experiences of people in the past” (Heady, 19)
Tracing family history is often a journey of self-discovery. Unfortunately, data comprised of trees and lists of names, dates and places without the benefit of context does not create meaning. Generating a narrative that resonates and offers insights into family history requires access to artifacts and relics, photographs, or letters to “put flesh on the bones” (Carmack, n.d.). Another avenue to create meaning is via “historic places” that facilitate connections with the “experiences of people in the past (Heady, 19).”
In my own family, the tradition of the Baptist faith is like a weight bearing beam in an old house, it holds it up and keeps it strong. I recall my mother saying that my grandfather (her father-in-law) often proudly noted that the Ballards were the “church builders” of Kentucky. Another saying passed down from my grandfather’s John Ballard’s grandfather (incorrectly attributed to his father) is, “I’m a mason by vocation but a preacher by avocation.” These two-family traditions (craftsmanship in carpentry and masonry and ministry in the Baptist tradition) are physically manifested in two places in Owen County Kentucky: Beech Grove Baptist Church, and Poplar Grove Baptist Church. Beech Grove is the church my grandfather John Ballard attended as a child, its where his grandfather (the mason) preached, and his father (the carpenter) James Hiram Ballard (1860 – 1917) acted as clerk (Jones). James Hiram and his first wife and young son Henry are also buried in the Beech Grove Cemetery, with many related families. Poplar Grove Baptist Church is the place the Rev. Johnson Larkin Ballard (1813-1885) was ordained as a minster of the gospel, according to the 1952 history of Beech Grove Baptist Church written by O.V. Jones. I know these things by following the leads provided by family lore and seeking concrete evidence of their veracity. The leads were based on personal experience and oral history knowledge about the family’s religious traditions and practices.
Recently I visited these churches on a beautiful May afternoon in 2017. Beech Grove’s original log edifice has long since gone and its first replacement burned down. The modern and frankly uninspiring brick building stands on a rise on a little hill above a winding country road, surrounded by woods. The original church was located where the “new” cemetery (which contains many dead relatives) is now. With our backs to the new building, walking the cemetery, it took only a little effort to imagine what it was like to be there in the past. Visiting nearby Poplar Grove Baptist Church was satisfying in a different way. On the sunny quiet afternoon, it was easy to imagine congregants arriving by horse and buggy and walking into the classic country church, which is largely unchanged, except by the growth of the Poplar trees it is named for.
Creating Our Own Place That Matters
Mothers are often the gate keepers of family history; my own family is no exception. Recently two developments occurred that brought the First Friends Church in Noblesville Indiana to my attention as a mother of two young girls. First, my then seven- year- old daughter began asking about God. Second, I discovered Indiana Quakers on her father’s family tree. As a secular humanist and atheist, I consider it a duty to refrain from indoctrinating my daughter into any religion, but as a parent committed to raising a free thinker, my child’s cultural literacy is a paramount concern; religious education is a major component of cultural literacy. The authors of Raising a Free Thinker write, “Children must be made knowledgeable about religion without being indoctrinated into religion (viii). So, a project that was undertaken and then dropped when she was a toddler began again – the search for a neutral tolerant religious tradition that supports our family’s values. Her Catholic father, despite the literal walking distance to the closest Catholic church, has not been zealous to attend even with his atheist wife’s blessing. A single trip to a Unitarian church in Indianapolis was enlightening for me, but he adamantly refuses to return. (I liked it, but I also like sleeping in and it’s a long drive downtown!) The recent discovery of Quaker ancestry led to an investigation of Hamilton county Indiana’s rich Quaker history. After a survey of Quaker churches in our area First Friend’s Church emerged as contender.
Quakers: Origins and Beliefs
“Quakerism is a combination of insights, attitudes and practices which together form a way of worship rather than a doctrine or creed. It rests on the conviction that by looking within, we can have direct communication with our Creator.”- Noblesville First Friends website
Quakers have their origins in Protestant religious movements sweeping England in the 1640s. An intermediary is not required for members who seek the “light” of God “speaking directly to humanity (Hamm, 2003, p. 16).” Unprogramed services can be as simple as a group sitting quietly together, or can involve anyone moved to speak sharing their insights. “They believed that God…could move anyone to speak, that all Christians could and should be ministers (Hamm, p.21).” In England, Quakers were often persecuted. Their beliefs in equality, tolerance and rejection of hierarchy directly challenged the social order. Even other Puritans distrusted Quakerism. In America, Hamm asserts they, “saw…an almost unimaginable threat to the society they were trying to build in the American wilderness” (p.23). The colony of Pennsylvania initially practiced their beliefs in “peace” and “fair dealing” initially by requiring that Native Americans be compensated for any land used by colonists. Later, many Quakers opposed slavery, but not all. After 1800, westward migration fueled by the impulse for “separatism” propelled Quakers into Ohio and Indiana, though some came to Indiana via North and South Carolina. “Friends avoided slave states” (Hamm, p.39). In central Indiana, some became conductors for the Underground Railroad. Modern Quakers are a diverse group, their members span the spectrum from conservative evangelical to new age (Hamm, p.142). Membership has steadily declined since the 1800s. The Quaker “worldview” advocates simplicity, tolerance, pacifism, equality and social justice (Hamm, p.157). They are, “known for trying to change the world: opposing slavery, advocating equal rights for women, reforming schools and prison” (Hamm, p.157).
First Friends Church in Noblesville Indiana was the first church of the Quaker denomination built in the town, which is the county seat of Hamilton county (Centennial History of First Friends Church (1993, p.3). Erected in 1892, the church was intended to provide a space for worship for Quakers who had begun to increasingly work and live in town. New industries powered by the discovery natural gas in the area emerged, drawing in new residents. Travel to other meeting houses had also become increasingly burdensome. The First Friends Church history notes, “The nearest church was six miles in the country”, no doubt referring to Westfield and Carmel (p.3). Westfield, six miles from Noblesville, “was settled largely by members of the Friends Church; in fact, for many years the place was known as a Quaker town” (Finch Shirts, 1901, p. 207).
Massey & Schweikert in Images of America: Noblesville write, “churches were the heartbeat of the community from the early days of the settlement. Services were often held in homes or businesses until a dedicated structure could be erected to meet the needs of growing congregations” (p.8). The shift from a rural, agricultural economic culture in Noblesville can be explained by the “discovery of natural gas in 1887” which provided, according to Massey & Schweikert, “a significant boost to Noblesville’s economy and population” (p.8). Until the early 1900’s, the abundant energy source powered factories, new industries and generated an influx of merchants who served the growing population of the county seat. Massey & Schweikert assert, “…the gas boom exploded, changing the face of the community from farming to business and industry” (p.8). FFCH also notes that as Noblesville grew, many Friends increasingly found employment in town due to the increased activity at the county seat (p.3).
The formation of First Friends Church was due largely to the efforts of two Noblesville citizens, James S. Hollowell and prominent attorney Joseph A. Roberts, who worked together to organize Friends Meetings in Quaker homes. Roberts later became the church’s first clerk. According to Hamm, “the clerk’s responsibilities in a Quaker meeting for business are heavy. He or she has the duty of judging the ‘sense of the meeting,’ (p.11). Quaker ministers from nearby Westfield and Carmel often attended and led such early in home meetings (FFCH, p.3). Also instrumental in the creation of the church were Amos Sanders and his wife Anna, Quaker ministers. Amos Sanders was also faculty member at Union High School in Westfield (now Union Bible College). During the late summer of 1890, local Quaker subscribers raised money to rent space and furnish a room for services at the Fishers Building in Noblesville. Members met here until 1892, when they moved services to a room in the Noblesville Court House.
Sanders, the Friend Church’s first pastor, and his wife Anna, also a pastor, were leading forces in the Noblesville Quaker community. Haines, in his History of Hamilton County Indiana- Her People, Industries and Institutions, writing in 1915 states, “Rev. Amos Sanders and his wife were very earnest workers in the new church. To them is largely due the early growth and prosperity of the church, both in spiritual and temporal things” (p. 328). In Autumn of 1892, the Sanders family hosted famous evangelists Nathan and Esther Frame, who recorded their impressions in a memoir of their evangelical activity. They noted that support for the new church was not entirely widespread in the town, and that some citizens viewed Quakers with suspicion, and as, “old-fashioned” outsiders, who spoke and dressed strangely (FFCH, p.5). According to the Frames, the base of the congregation was drawn from the long established early settlers, those descendants of the “Quaker Migration”, “trained in “old Quaker homes” (p.5). The Frames asserted that a revival led by them during their visit converted “more than one hundred and thirty” and electrified the town on the subject of religion (p.6).
Whatever the actual opposition it may have faced, when the new brick church was dedicated in 1892, “other churches in the area cancelled Sunday services so all could attend” (Massey & Schweikert, p. 32.) Constructed by Noah Earl and built on land on Division Street purchased by Hollowell and the church’s future first clerk Roberts, the church was “42 feet square…with the ceiling reaching to the roof (FFCH, p.10).” At the dedication, Amos Sanders informed the congregation that building cost $3,500 and the “oak pews with light antique finish” were purchased for the sum of $373.00. Sanders also, “donated his parlor furniture of walnut and horsehair to furnish the pulpit. (Note: this furniture is still in the church in what we now call the ‘parlor”.) (FFCH, p.6). Esther Frame, the famed evangelist, gave the first sermon (p.6). Today, with the exception of the removal of the tower which took place between 1911 and 1914, and the addition of a basement, the church seems much the same as it did in 1900.
Individuals Associated With the Historic Place
Rev. Amos Sanders (1845 – 1907) served as the Pastor from the church’s inception until 1899. His salary in 1894 is recorded in the meeting minutes as $600. He and his wife (and fellow pastor) Ruth Anna are buried in Brooklyn New York. Like the other Friends discussed, their families were Quakers, so they belonged by “birthright”. Amos’ parents were both born in Ohio. His wife Anna, also was born in Ohio, but her mother and father were from Pennsylvania and Delaware. Amos’ grandparents were born in Georgia in the late 18th century, but soon migrated to Ohio. His father Daniel and mother Rachel were living in Decatur, Marion County Indiana by 1850. This pattern of migration is commonly associated with Quakers who sought states free of slavery and opportunities to create new and separate communities.
James S. Hollowell (1850 -1937), along with Joseph A. Roberts purchased the land on Division street, where the church was eventually constructed. In the census his profession is listed as “ground” and “fire clay”, then later as “news agent”. It appears he and his wife Sarah encountered some legal trouble in 1900-1901. After residing many years in Noblesville, he returned to his birthplace in Paoli Indiana. His brother Amos’ obituary details the family’s Quaker origins. Like Sanders, he was a Quaker by birthright.
Joseph A. Roberts (1853 – 1935), was a prominent Noblesville attorney. Robert’s boasted an impressive array of achievements in his obituary, but it does not mention the many years he served as the clerk for First Friends Church. As the clerk, Roberts recorded the minutes of the meeting. Hamm writes that clerks were required to have skills of “discernment” and judgment. As an attorney, Roberts no doubt developed these skills. His brother Thomas’ obituary describes their Quaker heritage. According to his brother Thomas’ obituary, Joseph’s grandparents were Quaker pioneers. His grandfather Walter was born in South Carolina, a common point of origin for early Quaker Hoosiers to emigrate from.
Conclusion: Final Thoughts
The Noblesville First Friends Church is a place that matters to the people of Noblesville. (If it doesn’t it should!) Simply by exploring the history of this building, the history of the town of Noblesville, particularly Quaker history, can be uncovered. The individuals associated with the building also tell Hoosier and Quaker stories on many different levels; stories of beliefs and practices, a commitment to equality and tolerance, and to American migration patterns, and finally of the evolving fabric of the community.
This conclusion is evidenced in the lives of the women discussed, Ruth Anna Sanders, and Esther Frame, who illustrate Quakers’ commitment to equality and the belief that all church members, regardless of sex, should contribute to Quaker religious life. A belief and practice that is still evident today in the church staff.
The family migration patterns of the individuals associated with the church illustrate that Quakers emigrated from England to Pennsylvania for freedom of religion, and that once there, they in some cases lived up to their reputations as fair dealers and free thinkers, as when they insisted on compensating Native Americans or refused to participate in slave based economies. Migration from Southern colonies and states, such as Georgia, North and South Carolina, illustrate a desire for separatism on the part of Quakers and their refusal to participate in slavery, and advocacy of non-violence. (Though some Quakers did in fact own slaves, or eschew pacifism.) The life stories of the men and women discussed also demonstrate how Quakerism was a “birth right” and that Quaker families adhered to traditions and values over generations.
The ways in which economic factors impact migration and family movement are demonstrated in the natural gas boom in Noblesville that increased the city population and shifted the economy in that area from rural to urban. This led directly to greater concentrations of Quakers in the town in need of a place to worship. Ultimately, this confluence of events resulted in the creation of the church building on Division street.
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