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Image Delaware Learning Ways: Quaker Ideas of Learning and the Light Within

The faith of the Society of Friends, for all its heavy stress upon the spirit, was also solidly grounded in reason. “Since nothing below a man can think,” Penn wrote, “man in being thoughtless must needs fall below himself.”1 Quakers believed that reason was part of the inner light. This idea of the “light within” led them to think about learning in a special way. Their attitudes toward knowledge, books, reading and schooling were curiously mixed—a classical study in cultural ambivalence. Even that most literate of Friends, William Penn, warned the young members of his family that “much reading is an oppression of the mind, and extinguishes the natural candle, which is the reason of so many senseless scholars in the world.”

This idea of reason as a “natural candle” led Penn to advise his own children not to read too much:

Have but few books, but let them be well chosen and well read, whether of religious or civil subjects … reading many books is but taking off the mind too much from meditation. Reading yourselves and nature, in the dealings and conduct of men, is the truest human wisdom.2

That opinion must be taken in context. It was typical of William Penn to declare his dislike of “much reading” by writing a book against it. He clearly expressed a conflict within Quaker minds between the light within and the enlightenment of learning.

Another ambivalence about reading in this Protestant culture arose from the central place of one book in particular, which diminished the relative importance of all others in the minds of Friends. Thus, Thomas Chalkley in 1727 scolded his son-in-law, “I perceive thou art inclined to read pretty much: I pray thee, that thy chief study in books may be in the holy Scriptures. Let all other books (tho’ of use and good in their places) be subservient to them.”3

Yet a third sort of ambivalence also appeared in Quaker attitudes toward the act of reading itself. In 1744, an American Friend named Elizabeth Hudson rended herself for “having some taste of books, and indeed found I had too high a relish for them, they being very engrossing of our time.” Elizabeth Hudson found books to be curious, interesting, even enticing. But she regarded them as “needless” distractions from the serious business of life.4

All of this was very different from normative attitudes in both Massachusetts and Virginia. The Quakers never shared the obsessive interest in learning which was so strong in puritan New England. At the same time, they disagreed with the first gentlemen of Virginia, who favored higher learning but feared common literacy. The Quakers reversed these judgments. By and large they favored literacy and feared learning but were painfully ambivalent about both attainments.

Those Quaker attitudes were transplanted to the Delaware colonies, and entered deep into the cultural grain of middle America. Their operation may be observed in actual levels of literacy and schooling in the Delaware Valley. For the entire population, rates of literacy in the Quaker colonies ranked below Massachusetts, but above Virginia. In Chester County and also Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, roughly half of all adults were unable to sign their own names, a proportion intermediate between New England and the Chesapeake colonies. Similar patterns appeared among German pietists and English Quakers. Historian Alan Tully finds that rates of literacy among these two ethnic groups were “not radically different,” and very slow to change through the first century of settlement.5

The distribution of literacy in the Delaware Valley showed large differences by gender; surprisingly so, given the Quakers’ concern for the spiritual equality of the sexes. The proportion of women who were unable to write their own names was twice that of males in the Pennsylvania counties of Chester and York. In urban Philadelphia, the disparity between men and women was not so great, and rates of literacy were generally higher than in the rural counties. But inequalities of gender were striking even there.6

Large differences also appeared in literacy by social rank. At the top were Quakers such as James Logan, an enthusiastic bibliophile who collected one of the largest libraries in the British America. “Books are my disease,” he once confessed. Logan lovingly assembled a collection of 3,000 volumes which were left as a public trust called the Loganian Library in a special building near the State House. One scholar who has studied this collection writes that “no collection of books in colonial America … was better chosen for breadth and catholicity; none was nearly so rich in rare editions of the classics, or the great works of the scientific tradition.”7

In lower ranks, however, illiteracy was very common, and also highly persistent in the Delaware Valley. As late as 1837, long after literacy was universal in New England, a legislative committee in Pennsylvania found that among factory children throughout the state, “not more than one third can either read or write.”8

Here was a social paradox which rooted itself in the regional life of the Delaware Valley. The egalitarian ideas of the Inner Light and liberty of conscience weakened the formal institutions of literacy. That weakness in turn created cultural inequalities—for the rich had many resources and the poor had few. This paradox of egalitarian inequality became a central part of the culture of middle America.9

Another expression of this paradox were the rural school ways of the Delaware Valley, which were a product of Quaker ideas and English experiences in the American environment. In England’s North Midlands, as we have seen, many humble people who became Quakers regarded educational institutions as alien growths. Throughout that region, churches and schools were in the hands of a foreign elite. As a consequence, ordinary people tended to be strongly hostile to institutions of formal education. This attitude contributed to the Quakers’ suspicion of a learned clergy, and indeed of learning itself. It was reinforced by their religious beliefs. Historian Frederick Tolles observes that the Quakers made “all men bearers of the Inward word, a belief which diminished the importance of outward words.”10

These beliefs shaped the school ways of the Quaker colonies in an extraordinarily persistent way. Pennsylvania and West Jersey had nothing like New England’s school laws, or the comparatively high rates of enrollment that existed in Massachusetts. But at the same time, there was nothing comparable to the Virginia elite’s fear of education. Schooling was perceived in Pennsylvania as a matter of conscience which every sect, family and individual was expected to work out in its own way.

This is not to say that Quakers were hostile to schooling. Both William Penn and Thomas Budd wrote at length about education—a subject on which they had strong views. They did not like the prevailing practices in English schools. “We press their memory too soon,” Penn himself wrote, “and puzzle and strain and load them with words and rules to know grammar and rhetoric and a strange tongue or two that it is ten to one may never be useful to them; leaving their natural genius to mechanical, physical or natural knowledge uncultivated and neglected, which would be of exceeding use and pleasure to them through the whole course of their lives.”11

Pennsylvania’s “Frame of Government” empowered the governor and council to “erect and order all public schools” in the province. An act of 1683 required that all children must be taught to read and write by the age of twelve and trained in a useful trade or skill, no matter where rich or poor. Stiff fines were threatened for noncompliance, and a “Friends Public School” was opened to poor children without fee.12

Some Quakers wished to go much farther. Thomas Budd in 1698 proposed a system of Quaker schools in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and a requirement that all children attend every day (half session on Sunday) for seven years. Budd also proposed that both girls and boys should be educated (in separate classes), and that the schools should offer vocational training “in all the most useful arts and sciences. …” The boys were to be “instructed in some mystery or trade, as the making of mathematical instruments, joinery, turnery, the making of clocks and watches, weaving, shoemaking or any other useful trade.” The girls were to learn “spinning of flax and wool, and knitting of gloves and stockings, sewing, and making of all sorts of useful needlework, and the making of straw work, as hats, baskets, etc.” Budd believed deeply in educational equality. “To the end that the children of the poor people, and the children of Indians, may have good


Hexagonal schoolhouses were commonly used in the Delaware colonies by both English Quakers and German Pietists. They were smaller than New England schoolhouses and different in their interior design. The children were seated in circles rather than rowsan arrangement that by its very nature was less hierarchical and more communal and an expression of different attitudes toward learning, authority and children in the Quaker colonies. Many of these hexagonal schools were constructed of wood, and have disappeared. This example was made of stone, and survived to the twentieth century near Newtown, in Chester County. The drawing follows an old photograph made before 1930 by Eleanor Raymond, and published in Early Domestic Architecture of Pennsylvania (1930, rpt. Exton, Pa., 1977).

learning with the children of the rich people,” he wrote, “let them be maintained free of charge to their parents.”13

This plan failed to find broad support in the Quaker colonies. On the subject of education, no public laws of any importance were passed in Pennsylvania from 1700 to 1776. John Woolman observed, “ … meditating on the situation of schools in our provinces, my mind hath at times been affected with sorrow.” But the remedy that he recommended—private charity in place of public support—was itself part of the problem.14

The result of these Quaker attitudes was a profusion of sectarian schools, supported by the private efforts of individual religious groups. Quaker education itself developed as a series of local schools, which were attached to individual meetings and neighborhoods. A great many of these schools were founded. One historian estimates that approximately 60 regular schools were run by Quaker meetings by 1776, and an equal number of neighborhood schools were also supported by Quakers.15 As other ethnic and religious groups were invited to settle in the Delaware Valley, they were encouraged to found their own church-related educational institutions. In the process, many sectarian school systems developed in Pennsylvania. They were less comprehensive than New England’s town schools, but more so than Virginia’s hierarchical system which created one track for the elite, another for ordinary English people, and a third for black slaves.16

Another consequence of these Quaker attitudes was a cultivated disinterest in higher education. Of all the major Christian denominations in early America, the Quakers were the slowest to found colleges. Every major Protestant denomination was more active in this field. Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Baptists, Dutch Reformed and Methodists all founded colleges before 1800. The Quakers had no requirement for a learned ministry, and little respect for higher learning.

This also became part of Pennsylvania’s folkways. Of all the northern colonies, Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Jersey were comparatively inactive in the field of higher education. Before the American War of Independence four colleges were founded in New England, and three in New York and East Jersey. But only one existed in the Delaware Valley—the present University of Pennsylvania, which had little support from Quakers. Higher learning was regarded with suspicion even by Quakers as erudite as William Penn. His aphorisms often returned to this subject:

[Universities are] signal places for idleness, looseness, prophaneness, prodigality and gross ignorance.

We are at pains to make them scholars but not men, to talk rather than to know, which is true canting.

We pursue false knowledge and mistake education extremely.

Children had rather be making of tools and instruments of play, shaping, drawing, framing, etc., than getting some rules of propriety of speech by heart.

If man be the index or epitome of the world, as philosophers tell us, we have only to read ourselves well to be learned in it.17

At the same time, Penn gave strong support to practical education:

Let their learning be liberal. Spare no cost, for by such parsimony all is lost that is saved, but let it be useful knowledge such as is consistent with truth and godliness, not cherishing a vain conversation or an idle mind; but ingenuity mixed with industry is good for the body and mind too. I recommend the useful parts of mathematics, as building houses, or ships, measuring, surveying, dialing, navigation; but agriculture especially is my eye. Let my children be husbandmen and housewives.18

These opinions could easily be misunderstood. They developed not from an absence of concern for education, but from the very opposite. Anne Whitall Cooper wrote in 1761, “as the right education of children and the nurture of youth is of good consequence to them and the succeeding generations, we pressingly exhort Parents and Heads of Families to preserve such useful learning for their children, as their abilities will admit, and to encourage them, as well by example as Precept.”19

That attitude gave more encouragement to families and meetings than to schools and the state. It also supported sectarian schools better than public schools, and lower schools more than higher education. It rested upon the belief that education like politics was a matter of conscience. These priorities had a central place in the pantheon of Quaker values, and entered deeply into the culture of an American region.

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