The establishment of Friends World Committee for Consultation was an attempt to mend a fractured faith. In the first four decades of the 20th century, different forces pulled Quakers in opposing directions. One group, largely liberal Friends, favored forming connections among Quakers, seeking ways that they could work together, confident, perhaps naïvely, that that patience and seeking would overcome differences. They took the lead in forming united meetings, holding conferences of Friends of varying views, and forming groups like the American Friends Service Committee. Friends World Committee for Consultation was a fruit of this impulse.
Opposed was another impulse, essentially conservative but equally anchored in Quaker history and practice, that emphasized the maintenance of doctrinal purity. One sees this to some extent among the three Conservative yearly meetings of Iowa, Ohio, and North Carolina. More numerous and articulate were pastoral Friends of strong evangelical if not fundamentalist views, who resisted any organizational or official ties with those they deemed unsound on issues such as the divinity of Christ and the authority of the Bible.
Between these two forces was a third group of Friends, probably a majority of those in North America and Europe, and certainly embracing nearly all of those in the Quaker mission fields of the Caribbean, Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Honesty requires us to acknowledge that most Friends by the 1930s, in many cases struggling simply to survive a worldwide depression, simply had little interest in Quaker affairs beyond their own meetings and churches and only a vague notion of Friends whose beliefs and practice were different from their own. Patching up ancient quarrels in North America had little relevance to Friends outside North America and the British Isles.
In order to understand these forces, one must understand some Quaker history. In the 19th century, Quakers divided in ways that continue to affect us. First, in the 1820s, U.S. Friends separated into Hicksites, who were skeptical of what they saw as unquakerly evangelical tendencies, and Orthodox, who saw the Hicksites as dangerously heterodox. In the 1840s and 1850s, Orthodox Friends split into Gurneyites, who were avowed evangelicals open to ties with non-Quakers, and the more primitivist Wilburites.
Developments after 1860 produced more fragmentation, as most Gurneyites moved closer to the larger culture in North America. This came to a head in the 1870s, as meetings from New England to the West Coast were swept up in waves of holiness revivalism. By 1890 most Gurneyites had laid aside traditional Quaker peculiarities, such as plain dress and plain language, and had adopted a system of programmed worship and pastoral ministry not much different from other Protestants. Some Friends who had sided with the Gurneyites in the 1840s and 1850s found such innovation too radical, and so formed ties with the older Wilburite bodies, which became known as Conservative Friends.
Even as they fragmented and divided, Friends paradoxically sought means beyond the traditional traveling ministry to tie different yearly meetings closer together. In 1882, four of the Hicksite yearly meetings formed the Friends Union for Philanthropic Labor. By 1894, all seven Hicksite yearly meetings were involved in it, and as separate groups took up matters of First-day school, education, and ministry at about the same time, the ground was laid for consolidation into Friends General Conference in 1900.
Meanwhile, in 1887 the representatives of the Gurneyite yearly meetings met in Richmond, Indiana, to try to rationalize a Quakerism that had changed so radically over the past two decades. One result was the Richmond Declaration of Faith, which many Friends still regard as an authoritative statement. Another was a proposal for the formation of a legislative body to bring together all of these yearly meetings under a uniform discipline. Conferences in 1892 and 1897 expanded the idea, resulting in the formation of Five Years Meeting, now Friends United Meeting, in 1902. Not only did it produce a uniform discipline, but it took responsibility for Quaker missionary and humanitarian work around the world.
Even Conservative Friends relaxed tradition enough to issue a common statement of faith in 1913.
Five Years Meeting did not prove the unifying influence many Friends hoped. A new generation, mainly associated with Quaker colleges, began to articulate a new vision of Quaker faith. It accepted evolution and critical study of the Bible, was skeptical of revivalism, and, while emphatically Christian, focused more on Christ’s life as model than on his death as the means of salvation. The most visible proponent of this vision was Rufus Jones. Jones and like-minded Friends were inspired by the growth of a new liberalism in London Yearly Meeting, led by Friends such as John Wilhelm Rowntree and William C. Braithwaite. Five Years Meeting became a new battleground, as Friends debated whether the Richmond Declaration of Faith was part of the Uniform Discipline. Jones and his like-minded successors at the American Friend faced ferocious denunciation from evangelical Friends who saw them as "unsound." Quaker colleges also became battlegrounds. Earlham, for example, found itself in December 1920 at the center of what was essentially a heresy trial conducted by a committee of Indiana and Western yearly meetings.
These attempts at union had involved Friends with a common history growing out of the 19th-century schisms. Slower and more tentative were attempts to reach across these boundaries.
In the 19th century, Friends showed some ability to work together at the local level. Most Orthodox Friends, however, whether Gurneyite or Wilburite, refused to acknowledge Hicksites as Friends. As Gurneyites embraced revivalism and pastors after 1870, most Hicksites returned the skepticism.
Between 1895 and 1915 more formal attempts at unity took place. In 1895, for example, the two New York Yearly Meetings held a joint bicentennial observance. Most important and symptomatic of the future was the American Friends’ Peace Conference in Philadelphia in December 1901. The conference was an attempt "to declare ourselves anew today—and in a united way, as we have never done before—on the great and pressing question of the peace of world, of the rescue of mankind from the awful iniquities and crushing burdens of modern militarism." The conference attracted what was without question the most diverse and representative group of American Friends assembled since the 1820s: Gurneyites, Conservatives, Hicksites, pastors, liberals, and evangelicals. By 1915, the peace committees of no less than 14 different yearly meetings were in regular correspondence with each other.
A parallel development came from younger Friends with the Young Friends’ Conference in America at Winona Lake, Indiana, in 1910. Although at first limited to members of Five Years Meeting, it subsequently expanded to include Friends of all persuasions.
War drew U.S. Friends together to find common cause. In 1917, as the United States entered World War I and federal law left the status of conscientious objectors murky, Rufus Jones took the lead in trying to provide a means of alternative service for Friends who refused to bear arms. That alternative, of course, was American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). It invited representatives of all yearly meetings to join in its governance and recruited Friends of all persuasions for "Reconstruction," as it became known, first in France, and then after the war in parts of Germany. Many of its veterans came away from their experience impatient with old barriers that separated Friends.
One manifestation of this impatience was the founding of new independent meetings. Always unprogrammed, they considered their lack of formal yearly meeting ties testimony to their refusal to participate in old quarrels, embracing Friends of all views. (By the 1930s, some Friends were suggesting that AFSC might actually found meetings or take them under its care. As a practical matter, however, such meetings were invariably liberal in theology and held little appeal for more evangelical Friends.)
After the war, another conference, focusing on peace and justice, in retrospect, seems a natural development. Held in London in 1920, it was the first truly international Quaker gathering in history. In all, 936 delegates attended, at least 350 from the United States and Canada, an equal number from the British Isles, and also, as the official record put it, "Friends from many other parts of the world, including Japan, China, India, Madagascar, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Syria, and several countries on the continent of Europe." One observer said, "The greatest harmony and good feeling prevailed throughout the Conference, though on many questions strong differences of view were manifested."
Some of this harmony was possible, however, because of the absence of the most strongly evangelical U.S. Friends. They looked askance at contact with Hicksites that was not evangelistic. Work with those who did not preach salvation through the Blood of Christ seemed to them a dangerous compromise. Such Friends criticized the AFSC because it was not avowedly evangelical. They denounced what they saw as heresy in the American Friend and Quaker colleges and founded alternative institutions such as Friends Bible College. Finally, they moved toward separation. Oregon Yearly Meeting withdrew from Five Years Meeting in 1925, and at the same time fundamentalist Friends in Indiana withdrew from Indiana and Western yearly meetings and formed Central Yearly Meeting.
The All-Friends Conference held in 1929 in Oskaloosa, Iowa, illustrated the problems of working across such barriers. Originally, Friends University in Wichita, Kansas, was to be the host, but fundamentalist Friends there were so critical that the school rescinded its invitation. The organizers were clear that they were not working toward formal reunion, but for more light and knowledge: "Present day responsibilities call for a closer acquaintance among all our groups in order that we who are living may properly appraise our own strength and weakness. We ought not to acquiesce in the decisions of the past without first knowing how the living members of the Society feel." When Edward Mott, the minister who had led Oregon Yearly Meeting out of Five Years Meeting, accepted an invitation to speak on the subject of "Christ the Evangel," he found himself facing criticism "on the ground that to take part would be to recognize the conference as beneficial, and its objectives as worthy." Mott’s address was a strong defense of the Atonement and the Virgin Birth. Many Friends expressed their unity, while others remembered it as "having to be got through, . . . and relief felt that it was over."
The worldwide economic depression that began in 1929 in some cases caused, and in other cases coincided with, new issues for Friends. It gave fresh impetus to challenge free-market capitalism. Some English Friends had moved in this direction by World War I, and seeming endorsements of socialism at the 1920 London conference had given rise to intense discussion. By 1932, some theologically liberal Friends found socialism the only alternative to a failed capitalism. Walter C. Woodward, the editor of the American Friend, wrote sympathetically about the presidential candidacy of Socialist Norman Thomas in 1932, despite the fact that Thomas was running against Quaker Herbert Hoover. A Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Orthodox) conference on ministry in June 1933 concluded: "A ministry that does not take into account glaring economic, political, and ethical imperfections in society, and also offenses of individuals against all that contributes to good, has no real reason for being, and leaves a distressing impression of weak evasiveness." However, other Friends were outraged by what they saw as attempts to politicize Quaker faith. At the 1935 sessions of Five Years Meeting, Earlham College President William C. Dennis, a staunch Republican, gave a widely quoted address that condemned identifying Quakerism with a certain kind of politics.
With the rise of totalitarianism in Europe and the outbreak of war in the Far East, Friends found themselves rethinking the implications of the Peace Testimony. For many, that meant support of the League of Nations and opposition to rearmament. In 1932, for example, Walter Woodward dismissed Democratic presidential candidate Franklin Roosevelt as a "Big Navy man" who could not possibly appeal to Friends. By 1936 AFSC was sponsoring Peace Caravans to carry an antiwar message across the United States, and Friends in Great Britain committed themselves to the "Oxford Pledge" never again to participate in any war.
In the face of these challenges, Quaker responses differed. Some Friends simply discarded pacifism as unrealistic. Others urged Friends to abstain from bearing arms, but recognized that this did not preclude others from doing so who felt it right. The most radical view came from peace activists like Bertram Pickard, who called for what he labeled a "revolutionary politics" of peace, in which Friends would remove the causes of war by campaigning against injustice, and would refuse cooperation with state-sponsored violence.
Finally, by the early 1930s a new awareness of racial justice was taking hold among Friends. In many respects, the 1920s represented a nadir for Quakers. In the Midwest some Friends actually joined the Ku Klux Klan, apparently indifferent to its prejudices but drawn by its staunch support of Prohibition. In the East, Quaker schools still systematically excluded nonwhite children. African American Friends were few.
Still, by 1930 some Friends were now publicly questioning such attitudes. When Westtown School refused to admit two black children in 1933, many Friends were openly critical. Dorothy Biddle James concluded that in the past Friends "had deserved the confidence of the American Negro, for we had proved ourselves during the days of abolition. But those days have gone by and with the coming of the ‘New Negro,’ the man who asks simply for cooperation and not for philanthropy, most of us have failed as individuals and as a group to do our part." AFSC began to develop an interest in race relations, and yearly meeting committees on the subject acquired new energy.
So it was, on the eve of the formation of Friends World Committee for Consultation in 1937, that Friends found themselves facing new challenges and dealing with the implications of older differences. In that sense, they lived in a world not that much different from our own.