The Legacy of the Gurneyite Friends
by Michael Moulton
(Michael Moulton is director of educational technology at Penn Charter, teaches in the religion department, and is faculty advisor to the student technology group. His piece first appeared in the December 2006/January 2007 P.C.P.D. , the Penn Charter Professional Development publication.)
The same picture has been tucked into the corner of my mother's dressing mirror for as long as I can remember. It is faded, showing a boy looking out from a clearing in the woods. The picture is not of me but, if you saw it, you surely would think is was. It is my grandfather looking out from those trees. The picture makes me think about how I might be like my grandfather physically and in ways deeper than looks. How are his values and mannerisms living on through his family? Through me?
In a way, I think schools have grandparents, too. They are people whose beliefs and decisions contribute to shape an institution years after they are gone. With so much already said about our greatest grandparent, William Penn, I have become interested in some of Penn Charter's more recent relatives, the members of Twelfth-Street Quaker Meeting who molded the most recent form of the school William Penn chartered.
To understand where today's William Penn Charter School got its shape, you need to know about two beliefs Quakers hold dear. Quakers believe that people can have a direct connection with God and that God's will (some say Truth) is revealed to us continuously over time. Said in another way, listen carefully and you might hear God. Old understandings and ways-to-live may be confirmed by what you hear. Fresh, sometimes new, understandings of the Truth may be revealed.
Together, these beliefs have led groups of Friends who felt they had come to have a "better handle" on the Truth to split from other Quakers. These splits didn't happen overnight nor were they all permanent separations. In their time, however, the splits dictated everything from where a Friend worshiped to which school their children attended.
One of the largest Quaker splits happened in the early 1800s when groups of Friends picked up energy and meaning from the evangelical movement of the time. While originally keeping to much the same form of worship, decision making and central testimonies, these Friends felt called to leave some beliefs and practices behind to be in closer communion with non-Quaker Christians. By 1827, this calling led these mostly urban Quakers (called Orthodox Friends) to part formally with a more traditional, inward and spiritualistic group of Quakers (called Hicksite Friends after their champion, Elias Hicks).
As the evangelical movement in America and England continued to strengthen in the following decades, Orthodox Friends split into two separate groups. Wilburite Orthodox Friends continued as they had since 1827, and Gurneyite Orthodox Friends, propelled by the energy and work of an active group of young Quakers, embraced further change and a closer fellowship with other Christian denominations.
Understandably, some Quakers kept their distance from Gurneyite Friends, feeling that the best approach to deal with this aberrant group was to not recognize them at all. Others worked actively to discredit the Gurneyites' different ways. The principal home for these "new wave" Quakers was the Twelfth-Street Meeting House located then between Market and Chestnuts Streets in Philadelphia. The Meeting's members were said to be "nearly all… citybred, many of them persons of business success of wealth, of culture, and of prominence."
Following their leading and allowing their young members a great deal of room to be involved in meeting matters, Twelfth-Street Meeting became the home for a different kind of Quakerism with a love of education. These Friends were the first to bring a Sunday school program for religious education to Quakerism (also know as First Day School). Before then, meetings had traditionally stayed out of educating children on spiritual matters, labeling such endeavors "outward learning," leading children away from the truth available through inward reflection.
Gurneyites became involved with Quakers from New England in establishing the first Quaker school for higher education, Haverford College. Having families with close ties to the school, this group of Quakers took on the challenge of restructuring Penn Charter in 1875 to keep a form of Penn's school running when the advent of state-run public school in Philadelphia dramatically changed the region's educational landscape. According to research conducted by Kenneth Finkel and sponsored by William Penn Foundation, "Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, [the Twelfth-Street] Meeting grew to become a fertile center of American political and social activism." The first and second chairs of the American Friends Service Committee (Rufus Jones and Henry Cadbury) were both Gurneyite Friends with strong ties to the Meeting. The Meeting was also one of the first hosts to the Urban League and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Their ecumenical, close fellowship with other Christian groups in the United States and in Europe made it possible to partner with non-Friends and share Quaker testimonies with them.
I am not my grandfather, and the Penn Charter of today is very different to the school of 1875. But, as some of his features live on in me, I wonder in what ways do 19th century attitudes continue to shape Quaker schools? Is today's Penn Charter influenced by the Gurneyite Quakers of the Twelfth-Street Meeting? What does it mean to be from their branch of the Quaker tree? Does this help us know what kind of Quaker school we are? More specifically, do our outreach efforts similarly push for political and social action? Is our school thought of as apart from the Quaker mainstream as Twelfth-Street Meeting was? Does Gurneyite love of scholarship appear in our works? Are we prone, as they were criticized to be, to put more faith in books than in reflection and the search for the inner light? Do we attract the interest of a wide-group of non-Friends and make Quaker testimonies accessible to them as did the Gurnyite Friends? What do we see when we look in the mirror?
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