By the early 19th century, the majority of Quakers in North Carolina were living in and around Guilford County in an area they called “New Garden.” In 1837, they opened New Garden Boarding School, a coeducational institution intended to serve the children of the Religious Society of Friends. Although operated by Friends, its charter, approved by the state in 1834, did not mention the word Quaker or any connection with the Religious Society.
Guilford’s campus is noted as an historical site where famed abolitionist Levi Coffin, a New Garden Quaker who grew up on the land that would become part of the boarding school a decade later, began his Underground Railroad activities. Escaped slaves came to the woods of New Garden and were aided in their flight to freedom in the North by Quakers in the New Garden community. Guilford is one of very few college campuses listed by the United States Department of the Interior as a National Historic District. The school remained open throughout the Civil War, and, with support from Friends in the North and Great Britain, gained strength during the Reconstruction era.
Over the years, New Garden Boarding School evolved into an institution that served young people of every religious affiliation or those with none at all. By the late 1800s, the school had transitioned fully into a four-year liberal arts college. In 1888, New Garden Boarding School officially became Guilford College under an only slightly revised version of the original 1834 charter, making it the fourth-oldest degree-granting institution in North Carolina.
While it remains the only Quaker-founded college in the southeastern United States, Guilford is independent of formal ownership by any Quaker body. The school, its customs, administration and even its curriculum continue to be profoundly shaped and influenced by Quaker values, principles and testimonies. However, Guilford College looks beyond its North Carolina roots and Quaker heritage to welcome students from all regions and nations, faith traditions and life experiences.