The Religious Society of Friends was originated by George Fox (1624-1691) during a period of political upheaval and social change in England. The established churches, Catholic and Anglican, were at a low ebb at this time, caught up in conflicts and preoccupied with forms and power struggles rather than religious witness. Neither provided much help to the victims of upheaval in a violent century, and so there were thousands of "seekers" who were looking for something that they could believe in and that would give meaning to their lives.
One such seeker, George Fox, after years of spiritual questioning, had a revelation on Pendle Hill, in the heart of England's Lake District. This revelation led to the birth of the Religious Society of Friends and has been at the heart of its life and witness ever since. From this revelation, George Fox derived his essential insight, which was that there is "that of God" in everyone, and that one can gain access to the God within through stillness and the practice of silence.
The belief that there is that of God in every person led as well to the Quaker practices of careful listening, compassion, non-violence, full equality of women, and social action in pursuit of social justice. Fox also believed that decisions in the religious community should be made by the "sense of the meeting," a spiritual step that seeks truth and is distinctive from consensus and voting, which seeks compromise or majority rule.
Quakers came to America very early in their history — the first Quakers came on preaching missions in 1656 to Maryland. Also, as a result of the persecution of Quakers in England, many friends emigrated to the American colonies. William Penn arrived in America in 1681 and founded Pennsylvania as the Holy Experiment, a colony governed on the ideals of the Religious Society of Friends.
Quakers first established schools in England to provide their children with a "guarded" education, one that protected the children from the influences of the larger society. When Friends arrived in America, they immediately founded schools to educate both boys and girls. Friends schools were founded in Philadelphia in the late 1600s. Believing that spiritual, social, and intellectual growth are closely linked, Friends have always stressed the importance of an education that supports the overall development of the child.
[Excerpted from What Does a Friends School Have to Offer? with permission from the Friends Council on Education]