Do you respect that of God in everyone though it may be expressed in unfamiliar ways or be difficult to discern? Each of us has a particular experience of God and each must find the way to be true to it.
– Advices and Queries #17, Quaker Faith & Practice
The Quaker testimony of equality has its origins in the spiritual experience of Friends that each person has the capacity to know and respond to the will of God. All have equal access to God through the provision within each person of a measure of God’s own light. Early Friends found it in themselves when they despaired of any outward authority to lead them into right relationship with God. They found it in others as they shared the experience of God’s working in their lives.
Robert Barclay, the 17th century Quaker theologian, expressed in Proposition 6 of his Apology, “There is an evangelical and saving light and grace in everyone, and the love and mercy of God toward mankind were universal, both in the death of his beloved Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the manifestation of the light in the heart.” He goes on to say that this saving light is universal, and that “…if they allow his seed and light to enlighten their hearts, they may become partakers of the mystery of [Christ's] death, even though they have not heard of it.”
John Woolman, an 18th century Friend, stated, “There is a principle placed in the human mind which is pure and proceeds from God. It is deep and inward, confined to no religion, nor excluded from any where the heart stands in perfect sincerity.” As lived out, this testimony meant that early Friends recognized the equality of men and women in spiritual terms. Women’s speaking as public ministers was justified by their possession of God’s spirit. Women were encouraged to take an active role in the decision-making of the Quaker movement with the establishment of separate men’s and women’s business meetings. Culturally shy about speaking in front of men, women were thus enabled to develop their own voice and comfort with exercising authority.
From recognizing the Light in women, it wasn’t a leap to seeing it in others who were different from the predominantly European first Friends: the Native Americans who befriended Quakers in the Americas and the native and enslaved Africans who witnessed to a deep and abiding spirit of God in their lives. Friends built the first mental hospital, the Retreat in York, England, to provide a setting for the humane treatment of those formerly locked away as demon-possessed. Friends contributed to a new style of prison, the penitentiary, with the “Quaker model” emphasizing the possibility of redemption and restitution.
Where Quakers are mentioned in social histories of the United States, it is often in the context of reform movements: abolition of slavery, women’s rights, Indian affairs, prison reform, civil rights. This work arises out of a deep response to “that of God” in the other, and a desire to remove the impediments to fully realizing our God-given potential. It is also informed by the biblical injunction of equality, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Expressions of this testimony at Guilford College
First-name basis of all relationships on campus. Friends avoid the use of titles that designate artificial rankings of superiority. Historically, Quakers have used a person’s full name in formal address rather than “Dr.,” “Mrs.,” or “Mr.” In informal address at Guilford, all are on a first-name basis.
Absence of a Greek system. Quakers have long opposed secret societies or other organizations that exclude and include based on perceived worth and place in society.
A welcoming and affirming attitude about different races, nationalities, faiths and sexual orientations. Guilford has committed itself to be an anti-racist, multicultural institution, welcoming of a wide variety of people and opinions, including those hired for College positions. There are strong policies in place regarding harassment, and clubs and organizations on campus are required to be open to all. Consensual decision-making encourages participation. Fair labor practices are openly discussed.
Programs and academic offerings. The Native American program, Africana program, international program, Guilford Council on Religious Organizations, multicultural education, community learning, women’s studies and courses in queer studies, religious studies and African-American studies, to name but a few, all flow out of a commitment to human equality.