GUILFORD COUNTY, N.C. (WGHP) — This year, Quakers are celebrating the 350th anniversary of Quakerism in North Carolina. While their numbers have diminished, Quakerism has had a continued presence in the state both physically, as well as in its history.
“George Fox really began preaching and gathering people in the 1650’s in England,” said Gwen Gosney Erickson, Quaker Archivist and Special Collections Librarian at Guilford College.
In 1672, Fox landed in North Carolina after visiting some northern states and making his way down the east coast.
“We know from his journal that he was in the Albemarle region, he describes the swamps and encounters with Native Americans,” Gosney Erickson explained.
Fox came across a Quaker family that was already in the state, but his visit attracted even more people to the denomination.
“North Carolina was kind of much more kind of frontier hinterlands and noted in historical records of a bunch of fairly irreligious folks,” Gosney Erickson added.
As Gosney Erickson explained, Quakerism, or “The Society of Friends,” believes in priesthood of all believers, and equality and direct access to God’s teachings.
“Also recognized gifts of ministry from women as well as men, which was very controversial at the time, would still be controversial in a number of denominations today,” she said.
The denomination is also well-known for its belief of not devaluing human life.
“Coming to a passivist belief of saying if there’s that of God in everyone, then we want to act with kindness and understanding towards everyone,” Gosney Erickson said.
At first, Gosney Erickson detailed, there were no clear statements against slavery in Quakerism. She added some Quakers were major slaveowners. As the decades passed, however, that began to change.
“That led to – about a century later – some more widespread changes of actually then becoming a more abolitionist faith tradition,” she said.
As Quakerism took hold, families moved westward. Notably, to Guilford County, where the Religious Society of Friends established a co-educational boarding school. Originally for Quakers, it accepted non-Quaker students by 1841, before it rechartered as Guilford College in 1888.
The site would come to be known as a first stop on the Underground Railroad.
“You can find notices that enslavers would post, saying ‘we suspect they went to New Garden,’ because they knew that this was a place that people might seek out,” Gosney Erickson added.
As wars were fought in the area, some Quakers decided to fight, despite their passivist ways.
“The local community was impacted by those battles, whether they were engaged in war directly or not,” Gosney Erickson said.
The denomination has changed over time. In Greensboro alone, Gosney Erickson says Quakers can worship in more traditional styles, and there are other Quaker churched which seem very similar to other Protestant services.
One of the most notable changes is where Quakerism has reached modern-day prominence.
“The largest international populations of Quakers are now in Africa and Latin America,” Gosney Erickson said.
While, when compared to other denominations Quakerism is still relatively young, Gosney Erickson believes its willingness to change will serve it well in the future.
“It’s survived for 350 years,” she said. “It’s not the same, but we’ll continue to remix and address the world’s needs as it may see.”