Oral History Feature is a series of articles drawn extensively from interviews with individuals who participated in or have personal knowledge about historic Pennsylvania events.

What is a Quaker? Who is a Quaker? Our mind’s eye first brings forth a picture of the plain Friend who accompanied William Penn. The image is of a black and white silhouette cut-out because Friends thought a full picture was too vain. Yet our sense of today’s Quaker may be less focused, even indistinguishable from the general populace – per­haps this is because we seem to vener­ate and value the distant past more than that which is still within our reach.

In what ways were Friends drawn into the general trends of early twen­tieth century society, and what changes within the Friends’ community encouraged this process? Chester County, from which Delaware and Lancaster counties were later created, is one of the three original counties laid out by William Penn as a haven for Friends. Although Friends have long since been surpassed as the largest religious group there, they are still proportionately better represented in the county than almost anywhere else in the state. Chester County, therefore, is indeed an especially appropriate place to search for answers to our questions.

Although Friends’ social and eco­nomic life in this rural southeastern corner of the state for years revolved around the meetinghouse and farm, this was not to last forever. In order to gain a personal perspective on these changes, we need only listen to the generation of Friends born in the county between 1889 and 1910. Their’s is a bridging generation rich in life experiences which reveal ties to an older way of life and suggest changes away from it. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the realms of religion and education. It seems only natural that Friends, who use no ministers in meeting for wor­ship but speak for themselves, should also speak for themselves about grow­ing up a Friend in Chester County.

Their parents had to meet and marry, make a living, a home and, of course, raise children. However, there was a time when one was not just simply a Friend – there were two types. In 1828, differences which had been growing within the Religious Society of Friends became acute enough to cause a separation into the Orthodox and Hicksite branches. Although feel­ings did calm somewhat over the years, even at the time the parents of this generation married, the “type” of Friend one’s intended was could still make a difference. Edith Cooper ex­plains her parents’ situation:

He was an Orthodox Friend and mother was a Hicksite Friend. So then they were very particular about that and they turned him out of meeting [revoked his membership] because he married a Hicksite Friend. He always said it would have been better if he’d named a Catholic.

Some of the people who belonged to the meeting, I’ve heard him say, came to their house and would leave a note probably or something for him. They’d come in the day time when he was working. So then they didn’t give it to mother. They’d put it under the door. When she went into the hall, why, there was this note. I guess it provoked her a little, as you might guess it would and it provoked father very much.

They were trying to make him say he was sorry then because he was mar­ried and they couldn’t stop that …. Finally he said, “Well, this has got to stop.” So he went and told them that he wanted no more notes put under the door, that if they wanted to say any­thing, why to come in and say it ….

Mother was a Hicksite Friend and she had always gone to meeting, and he had always gone to meeting, and so they were, you might say, “Real” Friends, both sides of the family.

Her father was kidding, of course, when he said it would have been better to marry a Catholic, but meeting record books of the 1880s do list many mem­bers who were put out of meeting for marrying someone who was not a Quaker.

During the separation when two Friends from the same branch married, their children were called “birthright Friends.” Traditionally, this was the ideal. “You’re a family,” Dorothy Brosius said, “and when a child is born in that family he is immediately a member.”

In birthright membership, if you ‘re born to parents who are both Friends, Quakers, you are immediately a birth­right Friend. And I like that because from the day you are born you are a part of the meeting and there just can­not help but be a feeling of warmth and belonging.

In addition to spiritual nurturing, Quaker meetings felt a responsibility to nurture their children intellectually as well. Friends, throughout their his­tory, have stressed education in the general sense of becoming a well­-rounded human being. A Quaker edu­cation was also a good way to rein­force Friendly principles while at the same time protecting youths from some of the more corruptive influences of the world. For Quakers of this bridging generation, the value of edu­cation remained, but the means of at­taining it would change.

Lloyd Balderston and Hannah Dar­lington Trescott both received their early education at home, both from classic examples of “the maiden aunt.” Lloyd Balderston’s Aunt Annie and Hannah Trescott’s Aunt Jennie filled a genuine need in farm life. Aunt Jen­nie’s school “began about 1905,” as Hannah Trescott recalls:

I must have been four and a half years old and she began it because father said, “Now it’s time for Hannah to learn to read. ” The school where I would have gone, as a public school, was a mile and half away-too far for a little one to walk or to be taken by busy farmer parents. So Aunt Jennie started to teach me to read.

[Others] were too small to walk alone or to be taken by their parents, because it took too much time from a busy farmer’s life, so Aunt Jennie took in some of them. Some of them came up to Aunt Jennie’s school, and it grew gradually .. .. By the time I was eight, I stopped going there and went on the train … to the Friends School on Church Street …

Neither Aunt Jennie’s nor Aunt Annie’s schools was attached to a Friends meeting, but as Hannah says of her aunt, “she was a Hicksite Friend, and of course there were lots of Friends’ principles taught in that school.”

Almost every meeting in the county al that time did support a Friends school, at least through the primary grades. Some of the smaller meetings, such as Marlborough, had instituted schools but were forced to close them because d1ere simply were not enough students to make them worthwhile. Most who attended, however, were generally pleased with their education. Caroline Spencer, for example, found that during the years from 1917 to 1922, while she attended London Grove Friends School, she developed what she called “a very happy rela­tionship.” She felt that the personal attention she received and the oppor­tunities she encountered to associate with other students enabled her to ac­celerate her studies. Furthermore, it enhanced her attitude toward worship:

Something that was unique in this education was that we had to go to midweek meeting. Every Wednesday the whole school walked across the road to London Grove [Hicksite] Meeting …. Then later on we did one week at London Grove … and the other Fourth Day [Wednesday} we went down to the [ London Grove} Orthodox Meeting for worship. And this is where we were well trained to understand what meditation was.

Nevertheless, it was a sheltered educa­tion. Before Caroline entered the new consolidated high school at Avondale, she left London Grove Friends School for a year of public primary school in order to adjust to the public school system.

As the public schools received in­creased financial support in the early 1920s, smaller Friends schools began to disappear. They began to eliminate the upper grades before most of this generation of change had graduated, so most of them finished schooling in the public high schools. Eventually the schools were closed completely, with the exception of the West Chester High Street Friends School. Today it still holds classes through the eighth grade.

There was at this same time, how­ever, a trend which lasted through the 1920s to send rural students to one of the two excellent Friends boarding schools: Westtown, an Orthodox school in Chester County, or George School, a Hicksite school in Bucks County. Until after 1919 the major entrance requirement at Westtown was that both parents of the applicant be members of the Orthodox Friends meeting. George School, on the other hand, required that at least one parent hold membership in a Hicksite meet­ing. Part of George School’s appeal in the area was that Joseph and George Walton, father and son and consecu­tive headmasters at the school, lived for a time in Chester County and fre­quently visited different meetings throughout the region. George Walton was “a man whose memory is still very, very green in this whole area,” Edith Passmore explained:

He had the gift, in talking with a student or member of the faculty or anybody, of seeing that person not as he was, but as he could become. He saw people a little larger than life. This enabled them to expand into that ex­pectation in an amazing number of cases.

Elizabeth Ford simply stated, “I loved to hear him speak at meeting at George School. … I loved George Walton: he was a wonderful person and a big in­fluence on my life.”

Many students who were unable to attend George School for the full four­-year high school program frequently went there for a year to study before college or before entering the working world. Such was the case with Gordon Pownall Jones:

I graduated from Avondale High School and went one year to George School . … I left there and went to come back to the farm, but I decided I needed a little more education, so I went to West Chester State Teachers College and was there for one year. Finally, I realized it was farming I wanted to do, so I came back perman­ently to the farm in 1919.

His experience also illustrates the strong ties his generation had with the land. There was,in effect,a rural tug of war between the plow and the books.

Others did not return to the land as quickly as Gordon Jones, but taught for a year or two before going back to farming. Some never did follow their fathers’ footsteps into farming. Those who did, generally took over dairy farms; but some committed them­selves to new directions. Mushroom farming on the side, for example, turned into mushroom growing year round. The orchard grew faster than the dairy herd, and soon the green­house got larger than the barn. What were formerly the sidelines in Chester County farming became the mainstays as farmers entered an era of ever increasing specialization.

With education and occupation secured, the next logical step for many was marriage. Religious considerations entered into this matter in a different way than they had in their parents’ era. Certainly by this time Friends were no longer shunned for marrying outside of meeting. In fact, the hus­bands or wives of many who did so were made welcome, and many even­tually joined the meeting to become, as they say, convinced Friends. Others, after having attended meeting for many years without formally be­coming members, decided to join about the time they married. As Gordon Jones said, “I was getting along alright being an affiliated mem­ber until I had prospects for a family. [Then, when we married] we thought we ought to join so that our children would be birthright members of the Friends.”

During the early years of this bridging generation, the core of the Quaker community was its birthright Friends. Before too long, however, members recognized that only though the addition of convinced Friends would their meetings remain vital. As children grew up and took jobs where they found them, more often than not they moved beyond a Sunday’s drive of a meetinghouse. Membership dwin­dled in some meetings to perhaps a handful of regular attenders, reflective perhaps of the dangers involved, as one Friend observed, “when a group is made up so much of one family.”

Dorothy Brosius remembers that shortly after she married Mahlon she was greeted at meeting one First Day by someone whose name she could not recall. “And I guess the dilemma on my face showed, because … he said. ‘Never mind dear. When thee’s in doubt, just say cousin.'” At one time, most of the families in the meeting were related in one way or another. “Fortunately,” she continued, “we’ve had an influx of many new families, which has given new life and blood to the meeting.”

Along with their openness to con­vinced Friends, another new source of strength for Quakers was the resolu­tion of the Orthodox-Hicksite split in 1957. By then the separation had long since become an anachronism any way. Edith Passmore, a member of the Young Friends Executive Committee some years before the split was re­solved, summed it up this way:

Within the Young Friends Move­ment [when those we are interested in here were in their mid-twenties] the young people of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting didn’t give two hoots about whether they were … Orthodox or Hicksite. This was absolutely of no consequence.

In some areas where there were two separate meetings ( one for Orthodox and one for Hicksite), members began visiting each other’s meetings on alter­nate First Days. “You see, we had this interchange to sort of get acquainted,” explained Kathryn Evans. In actuality, meetings such as hers in West Chester had reunited through their own initia­tive even before the Philadelphia Year­ly Meeting (the PYM is the organiza­tional body representing Quakers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Dela­ware) resolved the schism in 1957.

Hannah Darlington Trescott re­members that when her meeting united with its Orthodox counterpart, she felt “a great feeling of satisfaction, for I was no longer what I called a ‘mongrel Friend.'” The reunion of these two branches of the Society of Friends is an illustration, perhaps the most meaningful, of change and con­sistency. In spite of the division, the basic tenets of the Friends, simple as they were, had remained intact. The themes of transition and internal con­sistency are evident in the experiences of this generation in other ways as well. Education, for example, con­tinued to be valued, even though a Quaker education was not as easily attained as it once was. Expenses had climbed so steadily that by the time this generation’s children were ready for high school, fees at George School and Westtown were comparable to tuitions at private colleges. As a result, many parents were forced to forego the former for the latter, and by the 1950s, Friends accounted for less than half of the student populations at these schools.

While the value of birthright mem­bership was reaffirmed, its significance in terms of status in the meeting was not. As time progressed, more and more convinced Friends were wel­comed and joined, becoming an in­creasingly fundamental part of meet­ing. Along with the influx of convinced Friends, there emerged a re­newed recognition that children are truly the lifeblood of the meeting. As one Friend so eloquently said, “the growth of a tree is in the tips of its branches.” Today, where there are children in a meeting, special emphasis is placed on programs for them.

With these changes and others, Friends have become perhaps less dis­tinct as a social group and social force in Chester County. Time, as it almost always does, has demanded adaptation and change. Yet in the midst of this change, Friends have remained con­stant in a fundamental way – in a faith which has carried them through the years.


All quotations in this article were drawn from inter­views done during 1977-79 under two successive grants funded by the Chester County Manpower Programs, under the authority of the county commissioners, and the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Soci­ety of Friends. The Chester County Library and Dis­trict Center, which administered the projects, now houses an oral history collection containing over one hundred and sixty interviews over seventy of which are with members of the Religious Society of Friends. Tape cassette copies of all interviews may be borrowed for a two-week period; transcripts must be used in the library. Requests for an annotated catalog of the oral history collection may be made to: Oral History Pro­gram, Chester County Library and District Center, 400 Exton Square Parkway, Exton 19341.


Nicolette Murray graduated from West Chester State College in 1971, worked on the oral history program at the PHMC in 1975-76, directed oral his­tory projects at the Chester County Library and District Center from 1976-79, and received an M.A. in American history at Murray State University in 1981. Currently she is employed on a Mellon Foundation grant at Mystic Seaport, Connecticut. For any errors in fact or interpreta­tion, she alone is responsible.