logo Click BACK to return to basecamp
Lost Teachers
Search Info
White beveled edge

Irene Dispatch

Meet Irene

Irene Archive



Quakers -- Trembling and Quaking Their Way into American History


Outside of the Radnor Meeting House, built in 1718.
When I found out that Teddy and I were due to cover the Quakers in early colonial America, I let out a "Yee-haw!" of jubilation, even though I knew it meant we had two days to get from South Dakota to Pennsylvania.

I have known for a long time that sometimes, European Christians in America have acted in very un-Christian ways. But one Christian group who has spoken out for 300 years against suffering and injustice in America are the Quakers. The current number of Quakers in the United States is only 118,000 - pretty small compared to the millions of Baptists, Methodists, Catholics and other Christian denominations. Yet Quakers have had great influence in U.S. history.

Quakerism started in England in the 1640s, when a young man named George Fox began preaching revolutionary ideas. Fox argued that every human being possesses a sacred "inner light," that God is present within each person. This democratic idea challenged the foundations of English society. The Church was supposed to have all the power over your spiritual life - not individual people.

By 1652, Fox had a loyal band of followers. They were first called "Children of the Light," and later "Religious Society of Friends." During the next 40 years, 15,000 Friends were imprisoned for their beliefs, and 450 died in prison. George Fox himself was jailed eight times. During one of his trials, Fox told the judge to tremble and quake at the word of the Lord. When the judge rudely asked if Fox was a "Quaker," Fox quickly accepted the name.

During the first ten years that Quakerism existed, a few Quakers arrived in America. They endured the same persecution they had in England. The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony feared and disliked the Quakers -- which is ironic, since the Puritans had themselves come to Massachusetts to freely practice their own beliefs. Between 1659 and 1661, four Quakers were put to death in Boston for their beliefs.

When I first heard about how despised the Quakers were everywhere they went, I was pretty confused. What was so scary about a band of peace-loving, quiet, simple people? To get a sense of what Quaker worship was like, Teddy and I went to Radnor, Pennsylvania. The colony of Pennsylvania was founded by William Penn, a Quaker and the son of an English Navy Admiral. Penn had a vision of a "Holy Experiment," a place where his Quaker ideals of love, truth and tolerance could be practiced. Unlike the Puritans, he was determined that his experiment would be democratic. Everyone, regardless of religion or ethnicity or nationality, would be welcome.

Today, Pennsylvania retains a lot of its Quaker character. The Radnor Meeting House (Meeting House is the Quakers' version of "church") continues to meet on every "First Day" (what the Quakers call Sunday). I had never experienced anything quite like a Quaker service. There are no stained glass windows, no altars, no minister, no spoken prayer or singing of hymns. Instead, Quakers sit in silence facing one another for one hour, believing this to be the best path towards communicating with God. When people are moved by the Spirit to speak, they speak. Only about three people spoke during our meeting.

Worshipping in silence at a Quaker Meeting.
As I sat there, trying to experience God's presence in the room, I realized why the people in power would find Quakers so threatening. Everything is up to the individual. There are no ministers, priests, popes, or anyone telling you what to do or think. The Quakers don't believe in having a "trained" minister, because they believe everyone's knowledge of God is equally valid -- regardless of race, gender, class or education level.

From the start of Pennsylvania's founding in 1681, it was a different sort of colony than all the others in the "New World." It wasn't founded in the name of royalty, as New York or Maryland were. People did not go there seeking quick riches. Pennsylvania was an attempt to build a more humane and just society. Even the name Penn chose for the capital, Philadelphia, meaning the "City of Brotherly Love," reflected his ideals. Perhaps most remarkable is how William Penn treated Native Americans. Most Europeans considered Native Americans to be "un-Christian savages," but because William Penn believed that God existed in everyone, he treated the Native Americans with respect, insisting that they get a fair price for their land. The treaty he created at Shackamaxon was hailed as the only treaty between colonists and natives sealed only with a handshake and never broken.

Penn's "Holy Experiment" was not perfect. Catholics and Jews, though welcome in the colony, were not allowed to hold office. In 1688, Quakers put out a call for the abolition of slavery, becoming some of the earliest opponents of slavery - BUT William Penn and several Quakers owned slaves. Still, in a lot of ways, Penn's experiment was the trial run for what would become the biggest experiment in democratic ideals of liberty and freedom: the United States of America. Pennsylvania's government would later serve as direct inspiration for the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution. We owe the idea of separating the church and state almost entirely to the Quakers.

Because the Quakers based their faith on an individual's conscience and not on Church or state power, they became thorns in the sides of the powerful. In 1756, when the Pennsylvania governor wanted to fund a war against the Delaware and Shawnee tribes, the Quakers took their first in a long line of stands against the government, resigning from their government positions. During the American Revolution, Quakers refused to take sides, treating the wounded among both the colonists and the British.

Quakers continued to shape American history, always using peaceful means. They helped create the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad, a system for helping slaves escape to free states. Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony were both Quaker women who fought for women's equality and right to vote. Dorothea Dix, representing Quakers' concerns for treatment of the mentally ill, was a pioneer for prison and hospital reform. Quakers, unlike many religious groups, have from the beginning treated men and women as equals. Quaker ideas about nonviolence have influenced Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr.

In 1917, Quakers who refused to fight during World War I formed the American Friends Service Committee to help with war relief efforts in Europe. Whether helping Jewish refugees during World War II, relieving famine in China, or writing books against nuclear weapons, the AFSC does its best to show God's love towards humanity. For all their work, they won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947. The main problem with Quakers is that there aren't enough of them. That's because they make no effort to "convert" people as many other Christian groups do.

But the Quaker influence continues to extend far and wide. One wonderful example is the Olney Friends School, founded in 1837 in the small town of Barnesville, Ohio. In the past, this Quaker boarding school had 100 students, but today there are 47 students, and only about one-fifth of them are Quakers. Teddy and I spent two days talking with the students and attending class. Though the majority are not Quakers, the Quaker spirit definitely pervades every aspect of the school.

Olney Friends School students striking poses in
At the Olney Friends School, people believe that for students to flourish, they must balance the physical, mental, and spiritual. Students take courses in Quaker history, but no one is forced to become a Quaker. Instead, students concentrate on their own spiritual journeys. For some, this means being atheist; for others, it means being a committed Christian. What most impressed me about the students was that they were all deeply spiritual, and searching for answers about who they were and what they believe.

Besides learning about Quaker history, students at the Olney School worship silently twice a day, once after breakfast and once after dinner. Since my life has been so hectic for the past three weeks, I was grateful to have some time to reflect on my journey with The Odyssey. Students also participate in another ritual before every meal: students and faculty hold hands, and only when you feel someone squeeze yours do you let go and begin eating. Students call their teachers by their first names. True to democratic Quaker principles, students do all the chores; Olney has never hired janitors. Instead of a student council that makes decisions by voting, Olney has a Self-government Assembly, where all decisions are made by consensus. Instead of letting the majority rule, students talk until they all come to agreement.

The students we met were all caring people and mature beyond their years. They seemed committed to the Quaker principles of showing love to the world and one another. I don't know if I could have handled living in such close quarters with 47 people my age when I was in school, but I certainly admire the close-knit family atmosphere. These students truly are "Children of the Light," living tributes to the enduring principles of Quakerism.

The famous anthropologist Margaret Mead once said: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." Now that I've experienced the powerful force of Quakerism, I think she was absolutely right.


Please email me at: irene@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Daphne - When greed for money can make a good idea go bad
Neda - The mysterious and spooky disappearance of an entire colony!
Irene - Could we be speaking Dutch instead of English?
Team - Hero? villain? The team gets MAD about Columbus