A Quaker Take on History

In the above video, archivist Celia Caust-Ellenbogen '09 highlights some of her favorite items in the Friends Historical Library.

From Hamilton’s rise to Confederate monuments’ fall, our culture compels us to re-examine what we consider history. Some resist sieving the past, fearing that we will filter out history itself. But are there stories we can all take pride in? Here on campus, Swarthmore’s Friends Historical Library has something to offer.

FHL was established in 1871, and Quakers, also known as the Religious Society of Friends, have kept records that predate the United States. “When you look at the way that Quakers write about history, they’re attuned to the ways people exercise power and authority over each other, and they’re critical of that,” explains Archivist Celia Caust-Ellenbogen ’09.

A Quaker take on history is rich in counternarratives, accounts that go against the grain of power. Its stories span from classic Quaker figures like Thomas Chalkley to modern-day civil rights movements.

Starting at 1740 and into the early 1800s, the diaries of Quakers like Joshua Sharpless, Joshua Evans, and William Hartshorne detail Friends and American Indians meeting on terms of cultural exchange rather than colonization.

In later records, we see a world where women lead unapologetically, such as Lucretia Mott rallying against slavery or for women’s rights. The scientific illustrations of Graceanna Lewis convey her expertise in botany and ornithology, while her correspondence reveals her activity in the Underground Railroad. The more “recent” papers of women’s rights advocate Mariana Wright Chapman show the strategic side of the suffrage movement, as torchbearers like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton swap input on political tactics.

At points of heightened tension between police forces and liberation groups, Quakers established a “Friendly Presence” to witness, record, and intervene, if necessary. Friends remember the 1970 Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention, organized by the Black Panthers in Philadelphia to bring together representatives of the Black Power, Asian-American, Chicano, American Indian, anti-war, women’s liberation, and gay liberation movements. Other Quakers kept logs of escalating tensions between police and the black liberation group MOVE in the 1970s and ’80s, famously culminating in the police bombing of MOVE’s West Philadelphia rowhouse.

Towards a Quaker View of Sex, published by British Friends in 1963, is considered the first report affirming homosexuality issued by a religious group. The pamphlet expresses acceptance of sexuality in its many forms, reflecting the liberal orientation of many Quaker meetings with regard to their LGBT members, although LGBT acceptance remains a divisive issue among more conservative and evangelical Friends.

Whether you seek to research, revisit, or perhaps even revise the past, these archives of Quakerism and Swarthmore lore are open to all—students, faculty, staff, and everyday citizens alike. “If you’re looking to do research in anything, come in and talk to us,” says Archivist Pat O’Donnell. “We’re here because we really enjoy what we do, and we want to share it.”

Even seasoned staff like O’Donnell are still discovering new treasures—and new lenses for examining them. “Learning on whatever level, not just history, involves thought and looking at things in a new way,” she says.

To explore the collections, visit Friends Historical Library’s website or walk into McCabe Library and turn left.