Quakers and Science continued

by Lorre Gifford

Continued from P.C.P.D.

As the story goes, George Fox received a vision on Pendle Hill . . . a great truth had come to him. When he came down from the hill, he spoke to a crowd that had gathered there, captivating them with words spoken with authority born from, and confirmed by, experience. When he described the “great truth” to the crowd, he added “and this I knew experimentally.” Later, his friend and future wife Margaret Fell describes Fox entering into a church near her home and confronting the presiding priest with these words: “You say, ‘Christ saith this, and the apostles say this,’ but what canst thou say?” (Watson 1). While Fox was obviously not talking about science at the time, he was in both cases challenging his audience to be seekers of truth in all things through personal experience and experiment. Perhaps, though not intentionally, Fox had laid the foundation for Quakers to pursue the sciences with the same vim and vigor they applied to spiritual inquiry and growth. The conflict between science and religion was by no means resolved during the 17th century, but we now have a new, radical religion--Quakerism--dedicated to the untethered pursuit of truth and whose testimonies, for the most part, reflect the very habits of mind and practice employed by scientists, though expressed in a different vocabulary (Levinger).  

Here’s what the research tells us. The Religious Society of Friends seems to have produced scientists out of proportion to its size since its birth in the 1650s (Quakers in Britain). Arthur Raistrick, in his book Quakers in Science and Industry, supports this contention by using the Royal Society as an example. According to Raistrick’s research, Quakers have secured about forty times their due proportion of Fellows (members) of the Royal Society during its long history (222). A similar phenomenon began across the pond during the 18th century in colonial America with The American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia (Hindle 246).

It would be easy to credit Quaker tenets and philosophy to the large number of Quaker scientists, but there were external factors that probably paved the way for early Friends to pursue the sciences, as well. For example, early Quakers were forbidden by the Test Act to attend major law or humanities schools in Britain and were forced to attend “Godless” universities in Europe and in colonial United States. This may have forced Quakers to study science and pursue hands-on scientific experimentation rather than the more hoity-toity philosophies associated with traditional academia. Nevertheless, a focus on inquiry, truth and useful knowledge certainly paved the way for Quakers to make frequent and important contributions to science.

So, how will we use this information?  We decided to employ the following Essential Questions to facilitate discussions in classes and open the door for the introduction of Quaker contributions to science:

1. Can a scientist believe in God?  
2. Is the history of science a racist/sexist story?
3. What impact has Quakerism had on science and scientific discoveries?
4. How does (or doesn’t) religion affect science, education and the policy-making process (politics) today?

In addition to learning about the abundance of Quakers in science, students engage in activities that require them to think about how Quaker Testimonies compare and contrast to the science and engineering practices outlined and punctuated in The Next Generation Science Standards. For example, students see that scientific practice embraces the Quaker testimony of Integrity. A scientist must tell the truth as well as she/he can. Scientists may make mistakes, but scientists are not allowed to lie about their observations or their calculations.  On the other hand, the Peace testimony is in disagreement with science practices. Here, students are encouraged to think about how the questions asked by the two groups might be different!

While this is still a work in progress, we’re excited about it’s potential. Indeed, we hope that as students engage in laboratory work now and in the future, George Fox’s words will stay with them: “...and this I knew experimentally.”

Works Cited:
Raistrick, Arthur. Quakers in Science and Industry. New York: Philosophical Library, Inc., 1950. Print.
Watson, Elizabeth G. This I Know Experimentally. Lebanon: Sowers Printing Co., 1977. Print.
Levinger, Joe. "New York Yearly Meeting." September 2012, Quakers and Science. Web. 14 Aug. 2014. Link
Hindle, Brooke. “The Quaker Background and Science in Colonial America.” Vol. 46, No. 3 (Sep., 1955), pp. 243-250. 

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Whoever rightly advocates the cause of some, thereby promotes the good of the whole.

—John Woolman (1720-1722)









Penn Charter

A Friends School for Girls and Boys, Pre-K to 12

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