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A glance at Swarthmore’s Quaker roots

By
November 14, 2006

In 1864 the “corporation of Swarthmore College” was established after several years of planning on the part of Quakers who were hoping to establish higher education opportunities to both young men and women. Today, though Swarthmore is no longer affiliated with the Society of Friends, the college retains various aspects of its Quaker heritage.

Swarthmore’s Quaker founders had big dreams for the College. In his Presidential Address in 1866, Edward Parrish stated: “We claim a higher mission for Swarthmore College than that of fitting men and women for business- it should fit them for life, with all its possibilities.” Samuel M. Janney, a contemporary of Parrish, observed, “I trust that the institution will be founded on the immutable principles of truth and love, and that it will be a blessing to the youth of our Society, and others who may share in its benefits, not only in our day, but in future generation.”

Within a century of its founding, Swarthmore’s student body would cease to be predominantly Quaker. Today only about ten or twelve students per grade identify themselves as Quaker. But this does not mean that the Friends traditions have disappeared from SwarthmoreÕs campus.

Today, Swarthmore’s Meeting House continues to offer unprogrammed Quaker meeting. Attended largely by Quakers from the surrounding community, the meeting welcomes all students interested to participate. The experience is a peaceful and meditative one, in which one has the opportunity to pray or simply pause and consider one’s life and situation. The silence of meeting is punctuated only briefly when someone feels the need to rise and share something which they have been considering. At the meeting’s close, intentions are called for, visitors are welcomed, and refreshments are offered (this in addition to homemade breakfast offered to all who arrive before meeting.)

In addition to meeting, however, there are subtler ways in which Quaker tradition lives at Swarthmore. Since their creation in the 1600s, the Religious Society of Friends has espoused the values of equality, non-violence, truth, and simplicity. From simple things such as the tradition of eating under one roof and glorifying nature on an arboretum, to greater ones such as the outspoken activism amongst students and faculty for causes such as peace, volunteering, or efforts to better understand the differences between people, the legacy of Quakerism continues.

Swarthmore’s founders were abolitionists, educators, women’s rights activists, and Quakers. The legacy of the latter is so large on this campus that it is often unnoticed beneath the sea of causes and influences that seem to rule our daily lives at Swat. With the upcoming ring discussion this Wednesday on Religion and Spirituality, it is an especially appropriate time to stop and consider that Swarthmore was originally affiliated with a religious society and that spirituality is not only part of our heritage, but also at the basis of much of the philosophy of progress and activism that so many Swatties embrace.