(WGHP) — There are somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 Quakers in the United States, but their influence has been that of millions.
Their influence is seen particularly in the Piedmont Triad, which is where many Quakers settled in the latter part of the 17th and early 18th centuries.
“One of the things that helped us really grow in this area was our tremendous interest in education,” said Josh Brown, a Quaker historian who is pastor at Springfield Friends Meeting, which is celebrating its 250th anniversary this year.
“Starting in 1818, we had the first Sunday School in the entire state,” said Brown of the classes that were among the first to teach busy farm kids to read and write throughout the region.
When the Civil War left most of North Carolina in economic ruins, Quakers rebuilt 60 schools and trained the teachers to staff them. Allen Jay, who had a school in High Point named for him, led the way.
“He was very good at talking with businesspeople and getting them to donate funds,” Brown said. “One of the principal sources of funding was a guy named Johns Hopkins, who was a Quaker and who owned half of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. And he and other Quaker industrialists like the Cadburys and the Rowntrees…Lloyds were all very generous donors to the relief work.”
Most people know the Quakers as fierce abolitionists.
“The Underground Railroad was mainly run by the slaves themselves, but the Quakers proved to be very strong allies,” Brown said. “The Underground Railroad was tremendously secretive. It was very, very illegal. The penalty for helping one slave to escape here in North Carolina was $1,000. And since the average working wage for a healthy man at that time was a dollar a day, a $1,000 fine was designed to bankrupt anyone who worked on the Underground Railroad.”
Much of the Quakers’ other contributions go unnoticed because of the way life was. At the time, they were very resourceful.
“Any kind of cloth was precious, and so they didn’t just throw it away. It was torn in narrow strips and rolled up in balls then woven on a loom to make rugs and carpets,” Brown said.
Their ingenuity took off when the famous Plank Road opened commerce to the area beyond where a horse could go in half a day.
“The Plank Road ran all the way from Fayetteville up to Winston-Salem and Bethania,” Brown said. “The Plank Road…was a narrow, one-way road which ran on opposite directions every other day.” This is a milepost from the plank road and is you see those notches, those are to help even an illiterate driver how far it was to the next stop on the plank road.”
Quakers’ education went beyond reading and writing to farming. They began the first Model Farm to teach modern practices. It’s a farm on which WGHP-TV now sits.
“The idea was: instead of planting the same crop year after year, they would rotate the crops. They would introduce fertilizer. Instead of living in flea-infested cabins, they could live in a modern, well-ventilated house. All those kinds of things to help induce people to stay here and rebuild their lives,” Brown said.
And you don’t have to live in the Triad to have felt the influence of the Quakers.
“Quakers have had an outsized influence on the United States Constitution, for example,” Brown said. It was written in Philadelphia, but a lot of the things which we take for granted now as rights…was founded in the persecution of Quakers in the 1600s. The freedom to not quarter troops in your own home. The freedom not to have to testify against yourself. Those are all things which Quakers paid the price for in colonial times which are now enshrined in the constitution.”
See more on the Springfield Friends Meeting and its contributions in this edition of The Buckley Report.