Swarthmore College was created out of a desire by the liberal Hicksite branch of the Society of Friends (Quakers) to establish a place "under the care of Friends, at which an education may be obtained equal to that of the best institutions of learning in our country." The yearly meetings of Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York aided in establishing the college on 300 acres of wooded land 11 miles southwest of Philadelphia where students would have the advantages of "healthful country living as well as intellectual and moral training."
Interested Friends in these meetings summarized the needs they saw for a Hicksite college. Three were essential: coeducation, in keeping with Quaker teaching about equality of the sexes; emphasis on natural sciences, which were seen as a source of much practical knowledge; and a place where Quaker children could receive a "guarded" education.
Among the leading proponents of the new school were:
Benjamin Hallowell (1799-1868), an educator and Quaker minister who wrote the first pamphlet advocating the creation of Swarthmore College. A conscientious objector during the War of 1812, Hallowell ironically once counted future-general Robert E. Lee among his students at his school in Alexandria, Va. In 1859, he was named the first president of what became the University of Maryland and accepted the position on condition that the school's farm not use slave labor and that he serve without salary.
Lucretia Coffin Mott (1793-1880), a Quaker minister and major figure in the reform movements of the 19th century who devoted her life to the abolition of slavery, women's rights, school and prison reforms, temperance, peace, and religious tolerance. Her home in Philadelphia was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and her support of women's education also led to the founding of what became the Medical College of Pennsylvania and Moore College of Art, both in Philadelphia.
Martha Ellicott Tyson (1795-1873), an anti-slavery advocate, supporter of women's rights, and elder of the Hicksite Quaker Meeting of Baltimore. She is also the author of the first biography of inventor and scientist Benjamin Banneker. In 1860, the meeting she held at her home led to the campaign for the college.
Samuel Willets (1795-1883), a successful Quaker businessman who supported the anti-slavery movement and women's education. His substantial financial support helped establish the school and rebuild Parrish Hall after the fire of 1881. In his will, he bequeathed $100,000 to the college for the education of "poor and deserving children."
Although non-Quakers have served on the Board since 1938, and although Friends now compose a small minority of students, faculty, and staff members, the college still values highly many of that Society's principles. Foremost among them is the individual's responsibility for seeking and applying truth and for testing whatever truth one believes one has found.
As a way of life, Quakerism emphasizes hard work, simple living, and generous giving as well as personal integrity, social justice, and the peaceful settlement of disputes. The college does not seek to impose on its students this Quaker view of life, but it does encourage ethical and religious concern about such matters and continuing examination of any view that may be held regarding them.