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Bill Samuel, August 4, 2002
Bill Samuel

Friends (Quakers) and Education
by Bill Samuel
Originally published September 1, 1998 at

[Author's Note: This article draws heavily from Elbert Russell's The History of Quakerism, Friends United Press, 1979. I regret that this excellent work is now out of print.]

Early Friends Ideas about Education

George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, had spent much time going to people with a formal theological education to try to understand matters of the spirit. He found this effort most frustrating, and eventually found the Inward Teacher, Jesus Christ, to be the one who could help him. With this background, one might expect that Friends would be suspicious of organized schools. Indeed they were quite suspicious of theological education, but this suspicion did not extend to other schooling.

Early Friends applied what they learned from revelation from Christ Jesus and the scripture to the matter of education. Fox himself early proposed the establishment of "a school to teach languages, together with the nature of herbs, roots, plants and trees." Fox's own conversion experience opened creation up to him, undoubtedly sparking his interest in nature study. Fox proposed the establishment of both boy's and girl's schools, reflecting Friends' concerns that the gifts of people of both genders be nurtured.

William Penn, an early Quaker leader whose grant of land from the king became Pennsylvania, was also much concerned about education. Typical of early Friends, he emphasized the need for education to be practical, preparing children for later life, and not about "vain arts and inventions of a luxurious world."

Schools Established by Early Friends

Early Friends moved to implement their ideas about education, despite many obstacles. In England, education was considered a function of the established church, and laws impeded the efforts of Quaker teachers and schools. English universities were closed to those outside of the Church of England until well into the 19th century. But Friends did not allow these obstacles to prevent them from establishing schools.

The educational efforts of early Friends were concentrated in elementary schools. By the end of the 17th century, they had founded a number of schools, which often met in Friends meeting houses. Initially, these were primarily for Friends children. While Friends could not go to university, the first generation of Friends included people who had gone to university before becoming Friends. Some of these became excellent schoolmasters in Friends schools.

Friends and Popular Education

During the 18th century, many Friends schools came to be largely schools for the affluent. As a result, Friends moved to provide for the education of less affluent children. In 1779, Friends established a school in London with a small fixed fee for boys and girls 7-13 emphasizing reading, writing and arithmetic. They added geography and grammar early in the 19th century.

Joseph Lancaster (1778-1838), who joined Friends as an adult, was an important force in popular education. Lancaster was concerned for the education of the children of the poor. He began schools for this population, receiving many children of poor parents without fees. However, he was an impractical enthusiast. He wound up in debtor's prison, and Friends formed an organization to carry on the work that Lancaster started. This educational movement spread rapidly through England, and extended to Ireland and America.

In New York City, a group of Quaker women opened a public school for poor children of the unchurched in 1801. The City later took over these schools. In Philadelphia, a school on the Lancastrian model was established in 1809, which became a school for Negro children after nine years.

In England, later in the 19th century Friends developed the Adult School movement. Friends concern for the popular classes was carried out in part by providing for the education of adults who lacked the educational opportunities as children that more affluent people had.

In the United States, Friends were concerned in the 19th century for education of children on the frontier. Most Friends meetings in frontier towns established schools. They were generally poorly equipped and had inexperienced teachers, but nevertheless became centers of literacy and educational inspiration. In some states, these schools laid the foundation of the public school system.

Growth of Friends Education at Higher Levels

For a long time, Friends educational efforts were concentrated at the elementary level. But in the 18th century, American Friends began establishing academies to continue the education of students. Many of these were boarding schools. They emphasized teaching of the Bible and Friends principles, and were based on the idea of a guarded education protecting children from contact with the evils of the world. While established primarily for Friends children, most of them also admitted non-Friends. Several of these academies later became colleges.

Friends and the Education of Freed Slaves

After the Civil War, Friends were greatly concerned for the needs of the former slaves and their children, who were destitute and uneducated. One area in which they were especially active was schools for this population. They raised considerable funds to establish schools in many parts of the South educated many thousands of blacks. The national government welcomed the efforts of Friends.

Later Developments

As public elementary and secondary education expanded in the United States, many of the Friends schools and academies were displaced or absorbed into the public systems. However, in the East, well established Friends schools generally continued, often independent of Friends meetings. They have often become among the academically best of the schools in their areas. Similarly, a number of excellent Friends schools have continued in Great Britain.

In the second half of the 20th century, there has been renewed interest in Friends schools in some areas of the United States. Motivations for the establishment of new Friends schools include concern for the values in public schools, and desire for greater attention to the needs of individual students than can be provided in increasingly large public schools.

In the 20th century, the population concentrations of Friends have shifted from Great Britain and the United States to less affluent countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia due to missionary efforts. In many of these countries, there was, and often still is, no system of universal, free education. As they did earlier in the West, Friends have responded in these areas by providing schools for children who would otherwise lack educational opportunities.

Further Information

Some information about current schools and developments is available from the following U.S. based groups:
© by Bill Samuel. Do not reprint in whole or in part without prior permission of the author, except for limited quoting in accordance with "fair use" principles. You are welcome to link to this page.

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