Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

The founder of Pennsyl­vania stands atop Philadelphia’s City Hall, seemingly sur­veying a “Holy Experiment” he nurtured out of the ideals of his Quaker faith. William Penn, the political theorist, is still remembered for his daring experiment in establishing a colony dedicated to pacifism, civil liberty and religious free­dom in a seventeenth century world conditioned by violence, religious intolerance and arbi­trary authority. Few realize, however, that the continued success of this Holy Experi­ment would be determined by “a virtuous education of youth.”

William Penn understood that many of the colony’s settlers would not be members of the Religious Society of Friends and so he attempted to ensure the practice of Quaker ideals by the establishment of a school system based on those values. Within one year of his arrival in the New World, the proprietor, in his 1682 Fundamental Laws of the Province of Pennsylvania, pro­vided that “all persons having children shall cause such to be instructed in reading and writing, so that they may be able to read the Scriptures and to write by the time they attain to twelve years of age and that then they be taught some useful trade or skill.” The gov­ernor and his provincial council were to “erect and order all public schools” established under this provision.

At a time when education was almost universally consid­ered a function of the home and the church, Penn’s plan was exceptional. Not only would his colony attempt to provide for universal compul­sory education, but also for universal compulsory voca­tional education. Furthermore, this program would reflect Penn’s unique vision as a pro­gressive educator, emphasiz­ing the Quaker values of community, equality, pacifism and simplicity.

Although a statewide systern of education did not emerge until the 1830s, Penn’s vision provided inspiration to those Quaker reformers who helped to establish that sys­tem, as well as to the founders of the independent schools which, today, come under the care of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, the main administra­tive body of the Religious Society of Friends. This year marks the three hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Commonwealth’s first school and William Penn’s vision of “what love can do.”

Originally, William Penn’s Holy Experiment in education was based on the inextricable combination of city govern­ment, the Quaker meeting hierarchy and the administra­tion of public education. Responding to the need for a school system addressed by Penn’s Charter, the Quaker­-dominated Provincial Council appointed Enoch Flower, a “school master for the instruction and sober education of youth in the towne of Philadel­phia.” Flower taught reading, writing and the casting of accounts to the children of the early city. Unfortunately, Flower died in 1684, only a year after his appointment, but the school he supervised be­came the model for a primary educational system in Phila­delphia.

In 1689, Philadelphia Monthly Meeting provided the foundations for a secondary educational system when it founded a host of schools under its care. The Provincial Council collaborated with the Meeting when it placed George Keith, a Quaker reli­gious reformer, in charge of educating both the rich and the poor of the city. Disen­chanted with the close bonds between the Meeting hierarchy and the local government though, Keith often quarreled with the overseers who estab­lished the schools. He served as master until 1691, turning that office over to his assistant, Thomas Makin. When Penn granted a charter to the City of Philadelphia in 1701, he pro­vided for the incorporation of these schools.

Because public education was fundamental to Penn’s vision of the Holy Experiment, he made a number of revisions in the administration of the Commonwealth’s first schools. Although he gave Philadelphia Yearly Meeting control over the appointment of the overseers of the system in his 1701 char­ter, Penn amended th.at provi­sion in subsequent documents. A new charter, granted in 1708, expanded the power of the overseers. Under this charter, the Pennsylvania proprietor would appoint fifteen men to serve as the overseers of the school-but they would have the power to name their own successors, thereby removing some of the Yearly Meeting’s control. These overseers were required to be members of the Religious Society of Friends. This, too, was amended in 1711 when Penn drafted a third and final charter for the school system, one which still governs the William Penn Charter School today. According to this docu­ment, the overseers did not necessarily need to be Friends, a provision which not only reflected Penn’s strong convic­tion in religious toleration but one which would insure a truly public education for a variety of ethnic and religious groups.

The overseers were in­volved in virtually all aspects of the educational system and reported on the conditions of the schools to the Philadelphia Monthly Meeting on a regular basis. Among the first overseers were James Logan, a secretary to Penn and acting lieutenant governor of the colony; Edward Shippen, the first mayor of Philadelphia and speaker of the Provincial Assembly; and Samuel Carpenter, a wealthy merchant who served as the first treasurer of Pennsylvania. The credentials of their successors were no less impressive. Before 1725, nine overseers served as mayors of the city, nine others were members of the Provincial Council and several were recorded Quaker ministers. This trend reinforced the intimate connection between civil and religious authority that existed in the management of Philadelphia’s educational system during the late seventeenth and into the early eighteenth century.

By 1742, the overseers were operating four different kinds of schools in the City of Brotherly Love: primary schools for teaching the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic; a more advanced secondary school teaching English and mathematics; a vocational school which trained pupils for business, surveying and carpentry; and a Latin school which prepared students for college. All of these schools were Quaker-founded and open to the general public. They operated on the two-fold principle set forth by Penn in his 1708 Charter and incorporated into the seal of the public school: “Good Instruction is Better than Riches” and “Love One Another.”

Penn realized that the success of his experiment in transplanting Quakerism onto American soil was not only dependent on the religious and practical training of the city’s youth, but also on a virtuous education of those children whose families had settled in the wilderness surrounding Philadelphia. The founder encouraged the earliest monthly meetings in Bucks, Chester and Old Philadelphia (now Montgomery) counties to establish schools of their own. His plea was underscored, in 1746, by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, whose jurisdiction extended to those monthly meetings located throughout southeastern Pennsylvania. The Yearly Meeting urged these monthly meetings “to assist each other in the settlement and support of schools” and to employ “such masters and mistresses as are concerned not only to instruct your children in their learning but are likewise to bring them to a knowledge of God and one another.”

Abington Monthly Meeting was the first to act on Penn’s advice as it established and “maintained a school under the direction of Friends” in 1697. While the William Penn Charter School – the descendent of the first schools founded by Penn in the city of Philadelphia – holds claim to “the oldest school in the Commonwealth.” Abington Friends School maintains the distinction of being the oldest school in Pennsylvania to be continuously operated on the same plot of ground and un­der the same management. During the eighteenth century other monthly meetings estab­lished schools at Frankford, Newtown Square, Valley Forge, Plymouth Meeting and Westtown. Whether they were located in the City of Philadelphia or in the neighboring counties, the schools operated on the same principles in­spired by William Penn.

Despite his extensive edu­cation, Penn repudiated. much of what he had been taught as a young child after his conver­sion to Quakerism. Like the early Friends, he adopted a more progressive approach to education, challenging the traditional English emphasis on classics and foreign lan­guages. Instead, he stressed the practice of equality, sim­plicity and pacifism in the educational process. As a result, Pennsylvania’s early “Friends’ schools” were pio­neers in education in at least three ways: the equality of educational opportunity re­gardless of sex, race or creed; the introduction of scientific and practical subjects into the curriculum; and the attempt to apply a non-violent method of discipline.

The enrollment of the early schools reflected Quaker atti­tudes toward equality. Since Friends believed that God resided in each person, re­gardless of sex, both male and female were provided with religious and academic train­ing at the elementary level. Although the few secondary schools that existed were not co-educational, there were attempts made to provide a quality education for both sexes on this level as well. In the 1740s, Anthony Benezet, a Quaker educational reformer, established a girls’ school in the City of Philadelphia to provide an “advanced learning in English” for young females. Penn also encouraged Friends to let their “light shine among the Indians and Blacks” so that “truth may be answered in them.” In a colony where character and morality were to be the measures of one’s worth, Quaker educators took Penn’s advice quite literally. Initial attempts were made to educate Blacks and Indians in the homes of individual Quak­ers and at their personal ex­pense. By the 1780s, however, many of the rural Friends schools were practicing inte­gration while the Black chil­dren of the city were educated in schools specifically de­signed for them.

The curriculum of these early schools reflected Penn’s bias toward a religiously­-oriented and practical educa­tion. In his Advice to His Children (1699), Penn coun­seled his offspring to “re­member, fear and serve God” so that they may “live to glo­rify Him in [their] genera­tions.” Moreover, he urged that their “learning be liberal” but to “let it be useful knowl­edge as is consistent with truth and godliness.” Specifi­cally, Penn recommended the “useful parts of mathematics, as building houses, measur­ing, surveying and agricul­ture.” More impressive, for the time period, was Penn’s belief that this practical curriculum be flexible enough to adapt to the needs of the child. At a time when conventional edu­cational practices emphasized subjects meant to shape the behavior of a youngster into that of a more refined gentle­man, Penn believed that it was necessary to respect the child for his needs as a youngster rather than to impose adult expectation on him. His devel­opmental philosophy was most clearly stated in Some Fruits of Solitude (1693).

We are in pain to make them scholars but not men, to talk rather than to know, which is true canting. The first thing obvious to children is what is sensible; and that we make no part of their rudiments. We press their memory too soon, and puz­zle, 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 knowledge uncultivated and neglected; which would be of exceeding use and pleasure to them through the whole course of their lives. To be sure, languages are not to be despised or neglected, but things are still to be preferred.

Children had rather be making tools and instruments of play; shaping, drawing, framing and building than getting some rules of propriety and speech by heart …. It were happy if we studied nature more and in natu­ral things, and acting according to nature; whose mies are few, plain and most reasonable.

Consistent with these ideals, the curriculum of the early schools reflected simplic­ity and religious training. Quaker schools did not at­tempt to teach religious truths directly, rather they were to be “experienced through the indwelling spirit of Christ.” The schools provided a setting in which religious feelings could be developed by con­ducting weekly meetings for worship and daily readings from the Bible and devotional works of Quakers, such as George Fox, Robert Barclay and even Penn himself. These readings would always be followed by periods of silence in order to allow the child to contemplate the meaning of those writings. These methods employed by religiously­-sensitive and dedicated teach­ers accomplished the schools’ primary objective of providing a moral education.

Although the academic curriculum placed a primary emphasis on the bare essentials of reading, writing and arithmetic. the Friends’ schools were among the earli­est to introduce science to their students. The subject, a logical extension from the manner of Quaker worship itself, stressed knowing religion experientially through the Inner Light. In keeping with this practical curriculum, Penn saw little reason for higher education. Most colonial colleges were founded to educate a hireling ministry but since the Society of Friends placed a primary importance on the experience of religion, rather than the rote memorization of it, there was little need for such an institu­tion. Having the experience of a university education, Penn believed 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.” Not surprisingly, the Pennsylvania Quakers focused on a moral and vocational education and did not estab­lish a college until the mid­-nineteenth century.

Equality and simplicity were balanced with a strong emphasis on pacifism in the nature of discipline in colonial Pennsylvania’s educational system. Although not always successful, the Friends did try to heed the words of their proprietor: “Force may sub­due, but love gains.” This philosophy was to replace the corporal punishment that characterized other schools of the period, most notably those of Puritan-dominated Massachusetts. Instead of using tactics of intimidation, the Quaker schoolmaster at­tempted to appeal to the student’s conscience, realizing that an individual is neither naturally good nor evil, but rather innocent. The student, therefore, inherently maintains both tendencies and can choose to follow either one. The goal of the school, in this case, was to encourage youth to hear the good principle and follow it, while ignoring the bad. This is not to say that the Friends’ schools failed to set a code of behavior; rules did exist to encourage a more positive disposition among students. As early as the 1730s, a stringent set of rules set the standard for behavior at Abington Friends School.

Endeavor to be at school at the appointed time and when there take your seats quietly and sit still until by intimation from the master the exercises of the school commence; refrain from laughing, talking, whispering or making a noise with your feet or otherwise; but learn your lessons in silence and when you repent them to the master speak audibly, slowly and distinctly.

If strangers come to the school, be diligent in your studies, do not gaze at them; if they speak to any of you give modest audible an­swers with your face turned to­ward them. Speak the plain language, thee and thou, to a single person; call the days of the week and months of the year after the Scripture example of first and second and practice it in writing.

On all occasions manifest a becoming deportment towards your teachers and strangers, avoid mocking the aged or deformed, and during the hours of recreation observe moderation, decency and civility in all your conduct toward each other. Throwing stones, sticks or snowballs or striking or vexing one another or calling nicknames should be avoided, but call each other by your proper names and be courteous and lov­ing to one another.

Revenge not, but leant to forgive injuries, earnestly endeav­oring to fulfill that command of Christ which enjoins us to “do unto all men as we would they should do unto us.” And it is seriously recommended that you maintain a sober becoming behav­ior when going to, returning from, and whilst in our religious Meetings, keeping your bodies still and erect, not giving way to restlessness and uneasy disposi­tion.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the three values of equality, simplicity and pacifism were nurtured in the religiously-oriented schools of southeastern Penn­sylvania and formed the basis of Penn’s Holy Experiment in education.

Although William Penn succeeded in laying the foun­dations for a public school system in the City of Philadel­phia, the changing circum­stances of the Commonwealth, as it entered the nineteenth century, prevented the realiza­tion of a statewide system of public education based on the proprietor’s Quaker ideals. Politically, the Pennsylvania government became embroiled in a host of problems, making it impossible to fulfill the founder’s intentions of estab­lishing such a system. The appointment of non-Quaker governors inevitably led to quarrels between that office and an assembly which was strongly influenced by Friends. Public education became a minor issue among a multitude of more explosive concerns. Socially, Pennsylva­nia experienced a massive influx of immigrants during the early decades of the nine­teenth century. Most of these immigrants were non-Quaker, illiterate and settled primarily in the rural area of the Com­monwealth. They maintained a fierce allegiance to their personal religious convictions and, although they did send their children to schools oper­ated by the Friends, did not help to reinforce the Quaker values of the educational sys­tem. Additionally, the several schools established by Quak­ers, in the city as well as in the country, could not meet the demand for education. Eco­nomically, the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution dra­matically changed the urban life of Philadelphia. Women and children entered the work force and those youngsters who failed to do so turned to crime to avoid utter poverty. Under these circumstances, a public education-for both the rich as well as the poor-was necessary. Unfortunately, due to their own difficulties as a religious body, nineteenth century Quakers were unable to fulfill William Penn’s vision and offer a more comprehen­sive system of state-supported education.

In 1827, the Society of Friends witnessed a schism which had a devastating effect on not only the religious practices of, and relationships between, Quakers but also on the educational system they had managed to create over a century’s time. The Hicksite Separation, a conflict between the principles of individual liberty of conscience and the right of the meeting to control what it believed, caused two groups to emerge: the Hicksite Friends, who retained control over many of the rural monthly meetings, and the Orthodox Friends, those more worldly Friends who domi­nated the City of Philadelphia. The inability of these two groups to come to an agree­ment on differences in theol­ogy and on administrative matters led to the re­arrangement of the Quaker Meeting hierarchy. Usually whichever side was in the majority continued to hold the existing meetinghouse, while those of the other view eventu­ally built a separate place of worship. Schools, too, were divided, for neither group would entrust the education of its youth to the other.

While a secondary educa­tion was available to young Friends in the city of Philadel­phia, most of those schools under the control of the Ortho­dox body, rural Friends had a more difficult time providing their children with an educa­tion beyond the elementary stage. From 1799, the year it was established, until 1827, the Westtown School in Chester County, a Friends’ boarding school, provided a secondary education for the children of rural Friends. Following the Separation, though, the Orthodox Friends retained con­trol of the Westtown School. As a result, some Quaker meetings established boarding departments, such as Abington Friends in 1888 and Newtown’s George School in 1893. Other meetings estab­lished their own schools and gradually extended them through the secondary level as did Germantown Friends in 1845.

If the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were characterized by a strong rela­tionship between the local government, the Yearly Meet­ing hierarchy and the adminis­trators of the Quaker-founded schools, the nineteenth cen­tury was illustrative of the irreconcilable unravelling of those bonds. Both the Hicksi­tes and Orthodox Friends were skeptical about the plans for a statewide system of public education as they viewed it as a threat to their existence as religious bodies. Instead of furthering the common school movement, the majority of Quakers retreated into their own religiously-guarded, fiercely independent schools to concentrate on the spiritual development of their own children. Although the Quaker-founded schools of southeastern Pennsylvania had advocated a religiously­-guarded education from their beginnings – shielding their children from influences con­trary to Quaker practice, in­cluding music, drama, the fine arts and text books that might challenge Quaker doctrine­ – nineteenth century Friends became even more sensitive to this screening because of the obvious differences in theol­ogy within the Society. Not only did they feel vulnerable to non-Quaker influences, but also to Quakers who main­tained a different set of beliefs. Throughout the nineteenth century, Quakers trained their children to stand apart from the larger society as a “peculiar people” with a distinctive speech, dress, custom and conviction, rather than to adjust themselves to that society.

On the other hand, there were still those Quaker educa­tors who were genuinely com­mitted to William Penn’s idea of public schooling and be­came leaders in the state’s common school movement. One such individual, Robert Vaux, an overseer of the Friends schools, saw educa­tion as valuable not only for the individual but necessary for him to function in a demo­cratic society. In March 1818, Vaux proposed an Act to provide for the education of children at public expense within the City and County of Philadelphia. Passed by the state legislature in 1834, the bill provided for school houses, the appoint­ment of teachers and the su­pervision of the schools by state controllers. This legisla­tion was amended in 1836 to become the basis for a system of free, tax-supported general education in the Common­wealth.

Another Friend, Joseph Lancaster, contributed to the growth of the public school system in Pennsylvania. An English Quaker committed to the schooling of the poor, Lancaster arrived in Philadel­phia in August 1818. He imple­mented his educational theories in the ungraded schools opened under Vaux’s legislation. Through a system of strict discipline, constant evaluation of pupils through a series of tests and the training of younger students by their older peers, Lancaster estab­lished a guiding philosophy for the operation of the Com­monwealth’s schools for the next two decades.

The success of these two Friends in establishing Penn­sylvania’s public school sys­tem, lead to a reduction of independently operated Quaker schools. By 1875, most of the Friends schools in the City of Philadelphia were combined into one called the William Penn Charter School. “Penn Charter,” whose roots date to 1689, celebrates its three hundredth anniversary this year.

The nineteenth century also witnessed the founding of three Quaker colleges in Penn­sylvania. In their effort to strengthen the religious life of their community, and to pre­vent their youth from attend­ing colleges controlled by non-Quaker denominations, Orthodox Friends established a “school for advanced learn­ing” in 1833. Later known as Haverford College, the school provided its all male student body with a curriculum grounded in Latin, Greek, science, ancient history and literature. A women’s college at Bryn Mawr was established in 1885 to uphold a Quaker commitment to the equality of educational opportunity. Not to be outdone, the Hicksite Friends opened a co­educational college at Swarthmore in 1869. Together these Friends’ colleges insured the propagation of the Quaker faith well into the twentieth century.

Today, Quaker education is no longer divided by the theo­logical differences that insti­gated the Hicksite Separation. But the three colleges and the thirty-four Friends schools under the care of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting continue to wrestle with the challenges of providing an education based on Quaker ethics in a largely, non-Quaker society: promot­ing social diversity in schools that operate at a high tuition rate; attracting dedicated, competent teachers without pricing Quaker education beyond the means of all but the affluent; and maintaining Quaker values in schools where less than ten percent of the students and fewer faculty members belong to the Reli­gious Society of Friends. Nev­ertheless, Friends’ education is still distinguished by its at­tempt to cultivate an atmos­phere for the moral and intellectual development of the individual without losing sight of values inspired by Penn and the Early Quakers – equality, simplicity and pacifism. The three hundred year success of this Holy Experiment in education serves as a testimony to “what Love can do.”


For Further Reading

Brinton, Howard H. Quaker Education in Theory and Prac­tice. Wallingford, Pa.; Pendle Hill Publications, 1967.

Bronner, Edwin B. William Penn’s Holy Experiment. New York; Scribners, 1962.

Endy, Melvin B. William Penn and Early Quakerism. Prince­ton: Princeton University Press, 1973.

Frost, J. William. The Quaker Family in Colonial America. New York; St. Martin’s Press, 1973.

Gunmere, John F. Old Penn Charter. Philadelphia: The Wil­liam Penn Charter School, 1973.

Hole, Helen. Westtown Through the Years. Westtown, Pa.: The Westtown School, 1942.

Mulhern, James. A History of Secondary Education in Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1933.

Wildes, Harry E. William Penn. New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1974.

Woody, Thomas. Early Quaker Education in Pennsylvania. New York: Columbia University Press, 1920.


William C. Kashatus III, Philadel­phia, received his bachelor of arts degree from Earlham College and was awarded his master of arts degree by Brown University in 1984. A teacher at Episcopal Academy, he has been employed by the National Park Service at Independence National Historical Park and at Valley Forge National Historical Park. His articles, primarily dealing with the Quaker involvement in the American Revolution and education in the United States, have appeared in Quaker History, The Indiana Military Historical Journal and the Valley Forge Historical Journal. He is a regular contribu­tor to Pennsylvania Heritage.