Levellers

Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

A Brief History of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)

It’s time for another installment in my series of historical sketches of major grassroots peace and justice organizations, especially those with religious foundations (and, of those, especially Christian peace groups).  In previous installments to this series, I sketched the history of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR) (concentrating especially on the U.S. branch), and of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). This time around, I’ll highlight the history of Quaker-based American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). (In future installments in this series, I plan to cover the Brethren-related On Earth Peace, the Mennonite Central Committee, denominational peace fellowships (especially where I have membership or a direct connection such as the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, Pentecostals & Charismatics for Peace and Justice, the Mennonite Peace and Justice Support Network and Methodists United for Peace with Justice), Pax Christi International (the Catholic peace movement), Witness for Peace (where I first put my new-found pacifism into practice in ’84), Christian Peacemaker Teams, Every Church a Peace Church (my employer for 3 years), Peace Action, Nonviolence International, Holy Land Trust, Black Voices for Peace (now defunct).  Of the peace groups related to military veterans, I will highlight only Veterans for Peace since it’s members specifically commit themselves to nonviolence.  Some other vocational or occupational groups I plan to highlight include Medicins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Pugwash Conferences on Science and Human Concern. I’d also like to sketch a few faith-based groups from non-Christian religions, especially the Jewish Peace Fellowship, Muslim Peace Fellowship, and Buddhist Peace Fellowship.

For now, we turn to the Quaker-based American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).  As with groups in our previous installments (F.O.R. and WILPF), the AFSC began as a specific response to World War I.  The Religious Society of Friends (nicknamed the Quakers) began as a Christian movement out of radical Puritanism in the mid to late 17th C.  Although it’s founder, George Fox, seems to have been a pacifist since his conversion, the Friends as a whole did not adopt the Peace Testimony as a defining characteristic until 1660.  Since that time, Friends have been a powerful force for peace and justice–making an impact well beyond their numbers. (There are less than 1 million Friends/Quakers worldwide–the majority in Africa.)

Especially in the U.S., the 19th C. was a troubling one for Friends–leading to several schisms between various Yearly Meetings.  This fragmented the peace witness after the Civil War, but numerous Friends played key roles in the development of the international peace movement in the late 19th and early 20th C.  When the U.S. decided to enter World War I, Quaker Meetings formed the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in order to give young Quaker men an alternative form of national service to war. During AFSC’s very first year of existence, it sent women and men to France (along with British Friends) where they worked and cared for children who were refugees because of the war. They also founded a maternity hospital, repaired and rebuilt homes destroyed by the war, and provided returning refugees with the necessities to rebuild their lives.

Over the years, AFSC has been open to hiring non-Quakers, but everyone associated with AFSC must share the Quaker belief in nonviolence and peacemaking rooted deep Quaker convictions about the dignity and worth of all persons (Quaker evangelists–called Publishers of Truth–were instructed to answer “that of God in every person”), in the power of love, service, and nonviolence, and in the ability of the Light (a biblical symbol of God) to speak to all people.  Quakers see their responsibility in opposing war, militarism, and other systems of domination as a calling to “Speak Truth to Power.”

The AFSC continued its work after the end of WWI.  Some major highlights from the early years (1917-1938) include:

  • Feeding 1 million starving children in Germany and Austria in 1919.
  • Feeding and reconstruction work in Poland, including buying 1000 horses from the Polish army to lend to farmers for plowing in 1920.
  • Distributed food, milk, and clothing in famine relief in Russia in 1920-1921. (This work in famine relief saw the rise in leadership of a Friend in business named Herbert Hoover who went on to become U.S. president–and then see his famine relief experience prove fruitless during the Great Depression–though he remained convinced that the New Deal’s programs were the wrong answer.)
  • 1925-1934, helped with poverty relief among Native Americans, African-Americans and immigrants in the inner cities, and poor whites in Appalachia.
  • 1937, provided relief to both sides of the Spanish civil war.
  • 1938, sent a delegation to Germany to rebuke the new Nazi government for its treatment of Jews and worked to get it to allow Jews to leave the country.

As WWII loomed near, Friends, along with Mennonites, the Church of the Brethren, and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, managed to get Congress to pass exemptions to the draft for conscientious objectors to war (although the law limited this to those whose pacifism was “based on religious instruction”) and for COs to perform “alternative service of national importance” in work camps run by the peace churches.  Many other WWII -era Conscientious Objectors, religious and otherwise, went to prison, instead.  During these years, the AFSC worked to try to maintain a consistent peace witness around the world in the midst of war.

  • 1941, provided medical help to civilians on both sides of China’s civil war.
  • 1942, provided alternative service for conscientious objectors to war in mental hospitals, conservation programs, and training schools.  Provided relocation help for Japanese-Americans and worked to protect the property of Japanese-Americans interred for the duration of the war.
  • 1943, sent food to relieve severe famine in India.
  • 1944, led the reconstruction efforts in post-war Europe and Asia.

In 1947 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to both the AFSC and the British Friends Service Council on behalf of Quakers everywhere.

  • As the Cold War began, the AFSC published Speak Truth to Power(1955) as a pacifist alternative to the arms race.
  • 1961, sent volunteers to work in developing countries.  This began earlier and, along with similar programs run by Brethren and Mennonites, was the inspiration for John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps program.
  • Following the 1962 ceasefire between France and Algeria, AFSC worked in Algeria to develop garden and poultry projects, milk stations, and clinics to fight poverty-related diseases.
  • 1965 –worked to place 7, 000 African-American children in previously all-white Southern public schools and pushed to keep school desegregation a front burner issue. (Friends had pioneered here.  Even during the days of slavery, Friends schools were open to everyone. When segregation laws in many Southern states forbade teaching white and black children together, Friends founded numerous private schools for African-Americans because of the horrible quality of the state-run “Negro schools.”  Rosa Parks attended such a Quaker primary school.)
  • 1966, provided free medical aid to civilians in North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and areas held by the NLF. (This led to official investigations of the AFSC by the House Un-American Activities Committee which, thankfully, no longer exists.)

And on and on it goes.

Today, the AFSC has programs seeking economic justice both globally and in the USA, programs on immigration rights, equality for LGBT persons, the Wage Peace campaign to end the war in Iraq and rebuild Iraq justly, a program to combat the militarization of American Youth (including counter-recruitment), work for fairer patterns of international trade, programs to end weapons build ups and the international weapons trade (especially work to end nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, and work against weapons that mostly harm civilians, such as landmines), programs for debt cancellation and debt relief in Africa, a program for a just two-state peace in Israel-Palestine, reforming the U.S. criminal justice system (including abolishing the death penalty and ending police abuse).

A glance at these many programs shows that the AFSC’s peace witness is not just a negative peace (the absence of war or armed conflict), but a positive peace built on the presence of justice and human reconciliation.

November 28, 2009 - Posted by | American Friends Service Committee, church history, Friends (Quakers), Historic Peace Churches, nonviolence, pacifism, peacemaking

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