The Religious Society of Friends, also known as Quakers, originated during the chaotic time of the English Civil War in the 1640s. They were considered a radical form of Christianity because they rejected the authority of the established Church, its clergy and its outward forms and rituals. Instead, Quakers sought a “restored” Christianity based on the plain and simple teachings of Jesus and the witness of the primitive Church. They emphasized the direct leadership of God in their lives, believed in the spiritual equality of women and men, acknowledged the “light of God” in all people, and developed habits of nonviolence, decision-making based on the unity of the community, plainness and absolute honesty and integrity.
In 1837, Guilford College opened as New Garden Boarding School, an institution intended to serve the children of the Religious Society of Friends living in and around Guilford County, N.C. New Garden Boarding School provided a “guarded” education, one in which children of Friends could be formed in an environment shaped by the Quaker testimonies. The first students at the school used the “thee’s” and “thou’s” of Quaker plain speech, dressed plainly, worshiped in the silence of the Quaker meetinghouse, and were schooled in the simple truths of the Bible and the Quaker community. As Quaker society changed and the school grew into a less separated and more diverse college, Guilford constantly interpreted and reinterpreted what core Quaker testimonies were important in its life.
Today, it’s rare to find anyone on campus who uses the plain speech, wears the “Quaker grey,” or expresses their religious faith in any recognizable form of 19th century Quaker orthodoxy. Yet, Quaker testimonies remain central to most facets of the school. Five “normative” testimonies— integrity, simplicity, equality, peace and direct and immediate access to God/Truth—have been incorporated into the school’s curriculum. Guilford College’s seven core values, which are community, diversity, equality, excellence, integrity, justice and stewardship, are clearly based on and consistent with these testimonies.
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.
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.
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.