Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Ask any Swarthmore student or professor what makes the college so special, and there is a decent chance that the Quaker influence on the campus’s sense of justice, truth, and peace will come up. Yesterday, in the Scheuer Room, as part of Religion and Spirituality on Campus Week, a panel of four Swarthmore Friends gave a more in-depth view of what Quakerism has meant and continues to mean at the college.
One need not look far to see the influence of the Society of Friends on the institution. The name of the college is derived from Swarthmoor Hall, an early base for Quakers in England. At that time, Quakers were jailed for rejecting military service, until the authorities eventually gave up and granted them what we today call conscientious objector status. Such persecution would eventually move a convert named William Penn to work to be granted a charter to found a colony dedicated to religious toleration.
Panelist Chris Densmore, the curator of the Friends’ Historical Library, explained that the college officially passed out of Quaker control in 1908. While ever since, the college’s population of Quakers has been steadily declining, the influence of the faith continues to be felt on campus, if subtly. As Vice President Maurice Eldridge noted, “even though we are no longer affiliated with the Society of Friends, something of that ethos is still very much present here.” He offered the renewal of the commitment to consensus-style decision-making by the Board of Managers in the wake of the Athletic Department’s restructuring a few years back as just one example of that ethos.
As Densmore noted, the values of Quakerism are certainly not exclusive to the Religious Society of Friends. However, the way they are embodied here, however subtly at times, is a crucial part of the Swarthmore experience. First-year student Nate Erskine mentioned the egalitarian notions about how to create a community that led to the existence of a single, community-enhancing dining hall, while junior Meg Perry valued the Quaker tradition of addressing everyone by their first name which some professors follow that offers the “opportunity to be on equal footing with the people you are learning from.”
All of the panelists addressed the tension that can exist between life in the broader world, and on a college campus in particular, and the ideals of the Quakers. Abolitionist, suffragette, and Swarthmore founder Lucretia Mott was noted for knitting mittens for soldiers drilling nearby during the Civil War. Individual Friends often differ on which direction their faith pushes their decisions. The first president of the college, Edward Parrish, was notably liberal in his term overseeing the coeducational environment, while his immediate successor, Edward Magill, came down on the side of order, supposedly having enacted 98 rules to govern student behavior.
Even on this panel, opinion, in typical Quaker fashion, was not monolithic. Densmore expressed concern about the secular character formerly Quaker traditions, such as consensus had taken on, while Eldridge noted that “in some of the more intense meetings” he has seen, he’s seen “people striving to do the right thing” whether divinely guided or not. At any rate, they all valued that most students have a basic sense of what Quakerism is about; Erskine recounted an incident in which a young boy at a summer camp asked him what religion he followed, and upon being answered that Erskine was a Quaker, the boy responded, “my God, you don’t have electricity!” That does not seem to be an issue here.
As a modern, progressive institution, Swarthmore College is constantly changing. However, after listening to this panel, it is clear that the question of the proper means of blending the Quaker heritage of the school with what it is today is still a relevant one as we approach the end of our first century of non-affiliation, and that the values the Society of Friends hold dear still have a role in making the school as distinctive as it is.