Francis G. Brown, Quaker activist

Posted: June 04, 2012

Francis G. Brown remembered a conversation in the late 1940s or early ’50s with his father, who feared that their Quaker meeting, Downingtown Friends, would soon die out for lack of members.

"We never really zeroed out," Fran recalled, "but we reached pretty low status."

It was a different story by 2003, when Fran talked about that conversation for an oral history project marking the bicentennial of the Downingtown Friends meetinghouse.

The meeting was thriving. It had hundreds of members and attenders, often a full house on First Day (what you would call Sunday), and a jam-packed children’s program.

"We’re getting too big even for the facilities we now have," Fran said.

He had various theories about the change. More and more young couples moving to the area. The meeting’s array of outreach programs, from a lively fall festival to supplying meals for the local Salvation Army. And, of course, the silent meetings for worship, as well as the Quaker testimonies — how they put faith into practice — on truth and integrity, equality and community, simplicity and peace.

All true to an extent. But there are plenty of other churches for newcomers to Chester County. Lots of Friends meetings, too. What was so different about Downingtown Friends?

He wouldn’t say this, but I will. It was Fran Brown himself, and, of course, his wife, Enid, by his side that day of the interview as she had been for the more than 50 years of their marriage.

They enthusiastically greeted people in meeting as if welcoming them into their home. And maybe they wouldn’t get the name exactly right the next time, but they knew who you were, and would be just as gracious and friendly from then on. Then, whether you became a member or attended infrequently, you were part of the group, pulled into any number of community activities, from potluck dinners to work bees.

By the time of the ’03 interview, they were both in their mid-80s and in the process of letting younger Friends take on more responsibility. But, still, they were the heart of meeting, as they had been since their marriage in the 1940s.

"All my life and when we got married, our lives together, the meeting’s just been front and center," Fran said in the interview. "That was our life, our community. Of course, we had other friends, but the meeting was our world, so to speak."

Meeting was also home base for Fran’s forays into the larger world, starting with the public-service camps that he, as a conscientious objector, was sent to after being drafted in 1941. Sixty-two years later, during a very different war, his views hadn’t changed.

"If there is that of God in every person, then every person has a divine thing," he said. "The position I took during World War II and still take is that I just simply cannot be part of killing a person because there is that divinity in that person. That is the bedrock position that I hold."

His later work with the National Council of Churches had him on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, with a front-row seat for Martin Luther King Jr.’s "I Have a Dream" speech.

"When he finished that speech, and said, quoting the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty we’re free at last,’ the place erupted in a way that I have never experienced," Fran remembered.

He became general secretary of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting the next year, just in time for the tumult of the 1960s and ’70s.

"I’ll almost humorously say that I can hardly count the number of times that I’ve gone to Washington with others and demonstrated around the White House and around the Pentagon in opposition to war in general and, at that time, the Vietnam War, in particular," he said.

He officially retired in the early 1980s, but he never slowed down, and his infectious enthusiasm never waned. There was always another project. For example, the long-dormant Caln meetinghouse is now active again, thanks in large part to him.

To actually catch him being still, you had to attend meeting for worship, where he settled in weekly on the facing bench, awaiting the spirit.

"Prayer is a quieting of your mind and an opening of yourself to a larger awareness," he said in 2003. "And that’s exactly what I do when I go into Quaker meeting. First of all, I just try to quiet my body. ... But the hardest thing is to quiet your racing mind, you know, your thinking and intellectual pursuits, and quiet your spirit and just open yourself up to a larger awareness — that’s the presence of God — and take it from there."

Fran Brown, age 94, died last weekend, together again with Enid, who preceded him by a few years.

Hold them and their family in the light, as the Quakers might say.

Contact Kevin Ferris at or 215-854-5305.

comments powered by Disqus