An Open Letter to NYYM: An Explanation, An Invitation

by Renee Fogarty
Amawalk Meeting


It felt like awkward performance art… when artists attempt “edgy & creative,” but come off  “odd & ill-timed.”


Dressed in bonnet and plain dress I entered the auditorium and sat in the front as NYYM’s Opening Worship for Summer Sessions began.  I immediately regretted my outfit choice, wondering if my playful intent was seen as disrespectful.


To explain: I’ve been dressing in the character of Sarah Underhill (1734-1812) while giving tours of the historic Amawalk Meeting House, Yorktown, NY, where streets and burial stones bear names of Sarah’s contemporaries: Purdy, Underhill, Birdsall, Tompkins, Carpenter, McKeel, Hallock.  


Sarah lived in times when Quaker families were torn apart by divisions between loyalists, patriots or pacifist neutralists. During her lifetime Friends were encouraged to treat their African American servants with “moderation,” to bring them to meetings, to see to their education and to begin freeing them. Sarah, like all colonial women, could not own property, control her own money, or divorce her husband. 


I recently found a memorial online, published by NYYM in 1814, that described Sarah’s “cheerful disposition,” her countenance “grave and sweet,” her “thankfulness in the enjoyment of the divine presence, and her sympathies directed to the suffering of the Africans and their descendants, in a state of bondage.


Now this is a weighty Friend to embody! 


And finally, playing a bit part in recorded history, Sarah served a porridge breakfast on Sept. 22, 1780, to Major John Andre, head of the British Secret Service. He was traveling through Yorktown en route from a clandestine meeting with Benedict Arnold in treasonous cahoots to surrender West Point. Andre was captured later that day in Tarrytown and hung months later by orders of George Washington.


I’m tickled to pretend to be Sarah, and to imagine Friends who came before me. As I gaze through the wavy window glass of my meetinghouse, I feel her presence—and that of others who have sat on the same horsehair-filled cushions and hard benches.


I invite you to share the delight and whimsy I find in knowing our ancestors and feeling a connection to them.