A TV report showed the first day of school of the Obama daughters going to Sidwell Friends, alma mater of Chelsea Clinton, closing with the phrase that the school was "permeated with Quaker values." This sent me into a reflection of my 14 years in Quaker school in New York City, in a school which was established before George Washington was the president.
It was small, and red bricked, not quite one roomed, but so small that of the 25 in our graduating class, 13 of us had been in kindergarten together. We were all, at that time, of the middle and affluent classes, the tuition being steep, the endowment small, the practice of educating only the children of the Meeting long forgotten or overridden by economics. But the Quaker values were there, although I did not recognize what an extraordinary education it had been until I left and compared it to other types.
The core Quaker value is that there is that of the divine within each being. Quakers, following George Fox, a radical Englishman who lead the movement in the 1650's, seek to contact that divine voice within them so that informs their lives. This was the core of their teaching method. Children, although trained in academic excellence and respect, were held to carry that core within them and were treated therefore with the concomitant respect. Co-operation was stressed over competition.
I remember the very early days, in grammar school, starting the days with a moment of silence. It was a practice that has served me well all my life, although I have wished that it had been more, and more stressed. There was no effort to convert us or proselytize. We had only one brief course in Quaker history, in sixth grade. I suspect that most alumnae of Friends Schools know little of Quaker history. I know more because I became a convert, or a "convinced" Quaker years after my graduation.
By senior year, the rumor about Dr. Hunter's history class was confirmed. There was indeed a quiz every Friday. And, if you were not prepared, all you had to do was to tell him and you did not have to take the test. Just tell him when you were ready. The purpose was that you would actually have done the work and knowthat you had done the work. Radical. Astonishing. Amazing.
When I approached that same Dr. Hunter one day, to explain (with some trepidation) that I would not be in school the following day as I would be marching with the Congress of Racial Equality, he replied: "Good for you, Eames."
In retrospect, I marvel that so many of us assembled a half hour early, before school on Friday mornings, to take a completely non-credit course from Dr. Hunter on Comparative Religion.
Despite the plain grey habits and simplicity exemplified by the smiling face on the oatmeal box, the Quakers are a most radical small (very small and growing sadly smaller) group. Although now there are many forms of the sect, some almost indistinguishable from evangelical protestant churches, the original roots of the group were radical in several aspects.
Quakers are well known as pacifists, as being opposed to war, but are actually among the three traditional "peace" churches in the United States, along with the Mennonites and the Brethren. Perhaps it was because the Quakers were a bit more "worldly" that they have gained more publicity for their stand, helping to establish their rights as conscientious objectors under Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. Quakers are known as pacifists because Quakers are more likely to take public stands, such as shipping medical supplies to Hanoi, or shipping water filters to Iraq, or loading themselves and school supplies into school buses and going to Nicaragua.
I remember one of the seminal moments of my convincement, when I was considering going to Nicaragua (I did not, in the end) with Witness for Peace, which requires that you have a home "congregation" to report to. I was wavering between the two religions Witness for Peace had said "Oh, could you come as an Episcopalian? We have so many Quakers." I went to my local Episcopal Church deacon, who informed me, quite honestly, that she did not think, really, that the congregation "would be interested." I could not imagine a congregation that would not be interested in war.
Perhaps the most radical act of the Quakers did was to completely dispensed with the clergy, asserting that each person has the power to contact the divine within. Some Quakers put this rather as abolishing the laity, making each of us a minister, for indeed each Quaker is expected to shoulder the responsibilities of ministry. This prehaps accounts for the diminishing number of Friends.The challenge of leading a “simple life” in today’s world along with the burdens of running a Meeting can be overwhelming. I had to leave for a “simpler” country, which, ironically, tore me from the active life within the Quakers since, as yet, I am the only Friend here in the Dominican Republic.
Following the abolition of the clergy, the Friends accepted the complete equality of women, following Fox's observation that Paul must have been mistaken since the Old Testament was full of women testifying. The orginial form of worship, followed still by some branches of Quakers, is to sit in Silence, awaiting a “message”- hopefully from “that of God” rather than “that of NPR.“ At its best, a “gathered” Friends Meeting, in which the assembled members are alive in the Spirit and Vocal Ministry, is a powerful spiritual experience, sufficient to nourish the soul through many droughts and refresh the belief in the Living God. Every Friends School is, I believe, under the direction of a Quaker Meeting and has a Quaker Board.
This abolition of the clergy led to the rise and power of women within this religion as I have seen in no other. Quakers were the first to establish co-educational schools in the United States, perhaps in England as well, although I am not sure of this. Every woman leader in the Seneca Falls conference was either a Quaker or Quaker educated: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, the Grimke sisters. Finally, Alice Paul led the radical hunger strike for the final establishment of the right to vote.
Quakers are often given much credit for the abolitionist movement and it is true that they were the first of the established churches to "abolish" slavery, in that by 1790, any Friend who still held slaves was "read out" of Meeting. And Quakers do credit themselves with being the first to educate Blacks. Yet there was still a "brown bag" test for the Meeting Houses, and Quaker Meetings, at least in the United States, remain for the most part, a bastion of white, middle class liberals, although, to our credit, we do work and struggle with this issue. As for the actual "running" of the railroad, a more accurate history reports that the abolitionist movement was not the purview of any one religion.
If you ask Quakers about their "beliefs", we will not be able to answer for others, for we only answer that question for ourselves. We do hold common "testimonies", shared historic witnesses: these are what would be considered the Quaker "values" that Obama daughters will absorb along with their academic courses. Some of these are explicit, some implicit. Quakers have an explicit testimony against war, gambling, alcohol and tobacco, although it is left to each Friend to discern for herself her own direction. We have implicit testimonies for simplicity, for service to others, for hard work, for respect for the earth, for respect for all forms of life.
At Friends Seminary, we had no proms, just dances in the school gym. We had no ski trips, just outings to the museums. We were expected to start volunteering as soon as we were old enough (14). We had no idea of class ranking.
The only actual competition that we had, on a school level was to collect money for charity. That was fiercely competitive, with seniors presenting their pet projects to the vote of the entire upper school. Our graduating class, in 1964, chose a project through the American Friends Service Committee which brought a black student from Florida into our formerly, shamefully, previously all white school.
I am pleased to report that when I went back to address the assembly at Friends Seminary about the Witness for Peace in Vieques in 2002, I was faced with a school twice the size and a sea of mixed colored faces.
We may be a small group but we have been historically blessed from from the Power Within. The children of the President are well placed and will be well nurtured within the heart of Friends.
They will be nurtured to grow up to "answer their Call, which is all in all."
We are honored to have been entrusted with them.