The Sound of Silence

From charities and hospitals to colleges, private schools and places of worship, Quakerism’s mark on the Main Line is as unmistakable as it is immeasurable. Why, then, is it so often misunderstood?

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Merion Friends Meeting is the oldest Quaker meetinghouse on the Main Line.There are few campus settings more idyllic or functional than Swarthmore College’s Scott Outdoor Amphitheater. In this sanctuary built by Philadelphia landscape architect Thomas Warren Sears during World War II, 10 half-moon banks of ancient stone-slab seating rise above a grassy stage area under the columnar canopy of some of the tallest poplar trees in Delaware County.

The amphitheater is the setting for First Collection, the candle-lit culmination of Swarthmore’s freshmen orientation program. The reincarnation of the decades-old Quaker practice of Collection began on campus in 1994. A candle is distributed to each freshman; one is lit at the end of each row and passed along to light the others. “Perhaps it could symbolize the light within each of us,” says Maurice Eldridge, a Swarthmore alum and its vice president for college and community relations. “But it also establishes a bond in a band of beautiful light between all present.”

You’d think that Swarthmore’s young intellects might find the First Collection ceremony hokey. Some do. But most find it moving. They sense the passion, the invitation to personal engagement, the sense of community—and the Quaker influence of the prestigious institution they’ve sought out.

It’s impossible to compress Quakerism’s vast religious and social history into a few pages. Quakers have been meeting along the Main Line since arriving here in the 17th century. That’s nearly two centuries before there was a Main Line.

While spiritually rooted, the Quakers are probably noted more for their social activism—for their ministry of reaching out to the underprivileged, the poor and minorities. The acronym SPICES represents the Quaker testimonies; it’s how they witness faith in their lives. “S” stands for simplicity; “P” for peace; “I” for integrity; “C” for community and inclusiveness as to race, creed and sexual orientation; “E” for equality and social justice; and “S” for stewardship, mostly of the Earth.

“When I talk to people about why Quakers are significant in American history, I mention the abolition of slavery, the equality of women, fair treatment of Native Americans and religious toleration,” says Christopher Densmore, curator of the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College. “These are quite basic to our society today—though the abolition of war hasn’t made much headway in the larger world.”

Among the lasting influences in Philadelphia, Quaker compassion helped establish some of the best hospitals and charitable institutions anywhere. William Penn, a Quaker against his English father’s will, affected the revolutionary principles of religious, social and political tolerance, and the limitation of governance. All were reflected in the country’s founding and living documents.

Modern-day Quaker luminaries with Main Line ties include Rufus Jones, Thomas Kelly and Douglas Steere. Jones, in particular, defined modern American Quakerism. He taught philosophy and religion at Haverford College, wrote 58 books, co-created the American Friends Service Committee and was influential in early efforts to reunite Quakerism’s disparate branches.

When it comes to the Quaker faith’s lengthy and rich history in this state, misunderstanding common. Alice Hoffman is a Friend at Merion and a docent for Philadelphia’s Arch Street Meetinghouse—the world’s largest, with room for 1,000 Friends. She cites the significance of Penn’s 1701 Charter of Privileges for its fairness to Native Americans, democratic values, and principles for the separation of church and state. “The Liberty Bell was created to commemorate the 50th anniversary of that charter,” she says.

But Hoffman says recent history books either downplay Penn or try to redefine the early founder. “Institutions want to talk about the birth of this country, but not its gestation; it makes the story more complicated,” she says. “Quakers, of course, didn’t support the [American] Revolution.”

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