The Quaker Inheritance

The Quaker meeting house at Countersett has become one of my favourite places of worship.  An hour of quiet meditation there is so enriching- the walls of that building seem to have become suffused with the prayers and peacefulness of 300 years of Quaker meetings. I often find myself meditating on what I see as that special inheritance that the Quakers have bequeathed us. I believe they played a significant part in making it possible for single women in the early 19th century to go and start the first schools for girls in Africa, India, China, Singapore and Malaysia as I hope will be obvious from the following article:

In its first year the Society for Promoting Female Education in the East (SPFEE) sent four single women to work overseas – a remarkable feat at a time when it was generally believed that a woman’s place was in the home. But then the SPFEE had gained the support of some very aristocratic ladies as well as  those related to Elizabeth Fry, the Quaker prison reformer. Women in the USA would also receive an appeal from the Rev David Abeel to set up a similar female organisation but were discouraged by Rufus Anderson, the powerful secretary of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). Mary Webb in Boston, USA,  may have led the world in setting up the first women’s missionary society but that was okay so long as it raised funds to send male missionaries overseas.

The first meeting of the SPFEE was chaired by a leading Evangelical, the Rev B W Noel but soon after that it became an all-female affair with the Duchess Dowager of Beaufort as the president, and the Duchess of Gordon  among the vice-presidents. The committee had close links with the Baptist Missionary Society, the London Missionary Society and the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). They brought to the work evangelistic fervour mixed with  very practical skills and experience. One of the essential skills was how to set up a well-functioning women’s committee – a skill which the Quakers had two centuries of experience and had been used to great effect by Elizabeth Fry in her campaign.

She formed the all-female committee of the Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners in Newgate in 1817 and went on to motivate women throughout Britain and Europe to set up ladies’ committees. One was even formed by the ladies of the Russian court. In 1818 she was the first woman called to give evidence to a committee of the British Government’s  House of Commons.

Women’s committees became an essential part of the Quaker experience because its founder, George Fox (1624-1691), having immersed himself in reading the Bible, recognised that before God men and women were equal. He wrote in his journal: “I saw that Christ died for all men, and was a propitiation for all; and enlightened all men and women with his divine and saving light.” Under his leadership there were committees for women and men  to assist with the affairs of the Society of Friends.

Both he and Margaret Fell (who became his wife) used Biblical texts to prove that women were treated as equal by God, a key verse being “And it shall come to pass afterwards, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.” (Joel 2:28).  Quaker women, therefore, shared in prophesying, preaching, teaching, mission work overseas, and education as well as suffering imprisonment and persecution. Anna Stoddart wrote in 1899 that to the Quakers women owed “the inception of reverence, of education, of recognition in administrative and executive work, and of co-operation in ministerial and pastoral work.”

With the assumption of spiritual equality the Friends were among the first to start schools for girls as well as boys and by the 18th century in England the literacy rate among Quaker women was far higher than among the general population. The Quakers also recognised the need to provide education for the poor well before universal education was encouraged in Britain. It wasn’t until Evangelicalism became a powerful force in the early and mid 19th century that educating the poor became a political issue – and yet again women’s committees played their part.

At the beginning of the 19th century  two church-based groups, the British and Foreign Schools Society (BFSS)  and the National Schools Society, began opening day schools. Both used the monitorial system as there were so few trained teachers. Under this system a small group of children were taught simple lessons by the teacher until they were able to instruct others. Throughout each school older children taught the younger ones in small classes in a very regimented system. As a major objective of the National Schools Society was to promote the disciplines and doctrines of the Church of England the BFSS, founded by the Quaker, Joseph Lancaster, in 1808, was mainly patronised by the nonconformists such as the Baptists, Congregationalists and Methodists.

The general practice was for the girls’ schools to be separate from those for the boys and to be run by women’s committees. For instance the Maidenhead National School for Girls in Berkshire was founded in 1820 and run by a ladies’ committee which oversaw the curriculum, appointed the teachers, and the administration. The fees paid by the children were minimal with most of the money being raised through public subscription. Lessons included reading, writing, arithmetic, knitting, making up and mending clothes and household work as well as religious studies.

An essential element of Protestantism which began in Europe in the 15th century was that each individual could commune directly with God and that was facilitated by reading the Bible. The revival of the Christian churches in the late 18th century led to an increased emphasis upon literacy and to even more women being called by God into spheres of work not usually open to them. And so the leaders of the Evangelical movement which included John Wesley were, like Fox,  confronted by the revolutionary action of the Holy Spirit which treated women as equal with men. Wesley did finally accept that some women  had been called by God to preach but unlike Fox he did not embed this into the doctrines of the Wesleyan  Methodist church. This meant that after his death the Wesleyan Conference in 1802 decided it was “contrary to both scripture and to prudence that women should preach or exhort in public.” Yet again the freedoms  gained by women during a time of revival were being curtailed.

So when the SPFEE was formed it had to be careful not to be seen to be usurping the “headship” of men. The women on that committee did, however, believe in the liberating ethos of the Bible and had little doubt that if they shared that with girls in the East they could transform lives. In his appeal which led to the founding of the SPFEE Abeel (an ABCFM missionary who was on his way home to the USA after four years in the Far East) spoke of the degradation of women in China and India due to lack of education and being locked away in their homes. He asked how Christian women could not respond and assist a Society whose aim was “to rescue the weak from oppression, and to comfort the miserable in their sorrow – to give to the infant population of India and of China the blessing of maternal wisdom and piety”

The  SPFEE was careful to publicise its work in Christian periodicals as what could be defined as “Women’s Work for Women” and so be an acceptable occupation for pious women. This enabled it to send single women overseas as a natural evolution of organising and superintending  girls’ schools in England. It also needed good role models and for those it looked to women like Mary Ann Cooke Wilson and Martha  (Mary) Weitbrecht who were superintending girls’ schools in India.  And it was to them that two of the first SPFEE agents were sent in 1835.

Footnote: Joyce Goodwin in “Disposed to Take the Charge” records that a Quaker, Hannah Kilham from Sheffield, went to the Gambia (1822-23) and then to Sierra Leone (1827-28 and 1830-32) to organise schools for girls who had been liberated from slave ships. In this article Ms Goodman provides more information about women’s committees running schools in England in the early 19th century.

Copyright P Land 2012


The Female Advocate magazine in England in 1844 told women that their job was to make the home an oasis, and that girls should be educated so that the could achieve ‘elevated standards of morals’ and fulfil their duties to society and to their own children.

Rufus Anderson and women’s committees: Ruth A Tucker’s essay “Women in Missions: Reaching Sisters in ‘Heathen Darkness’, in Earthen Vessels – American Evangelists and Foreign Missions, Eds J A Carpenter and W R Shenk,   W B Eerdmans Pub Co 1990 pp251-252.

Founding of the SPFEE : The History of the Society for Promoting Female Education in the East published by Edward Suter in London, 1847  pp1-10; Rev Abeel’s appeal – pp261-265; the society’s rules and objectives – pp275-285.


Religious Society of Friends :

Journal of George Fox, Friends Tract Association, 1891, pp35-36, 202,386.

E B Emmott, The Story of Quakerism, Headley Brothers, London, 1908.

W A Campbell Stewart, Quakers and Education, The Epworth Press 1953.

Adrian Davies, The Quakers in English Society 1655 to 1725 Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2000  p 119-22

A M Stoddart, Elizabeth Pease Nichol, J M Dent and Co, 1899.

Elizabeth Fry : see

Education in England:

Berkshire Records Office, Minutes of Maidenhead National School for Girls, 1838.

C P Hill , British Economic and Social History 1700-1964, Edward Arnold, London, 1970

Andrena Stiles, Religion, Society, Reform 1800-1914, Hodder & Stoughton 1995.

J Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain Routledge, London 1995

J Goodman “Disposed to Take the Charge” 1999…/1589/1678


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