Before the 1937 Friends World Conference, Friends from throughout the world and across the various branches of the Religious Society met at an All Friends’ Conference in August 1920, hosted by London (now Britain) Yearly Meeting. London Friends had issued the invitation in 1916, in the midst of the Great War, from a concern for a thorough consideration of Friends’ testimony against war.
It was a bold move. The Quaker world in 1916 consisted of several almost entirely separate networks or "circles of correspondence." Following the 19th-century divisions among North American Friends, Friends followed diplomatic conventions as finely tuned as those now required for travel between Israel and Arab countries. Minutes regularly referred to "those with whom we correspond," "others in this city who use the name of Friends," "the other body," or "our Yearly Meeting" and "their Yearly Meeting." Each group barely acknowledged the existence of other Friends even in its own region.
Friends General Conference linked Hicksite yearly meetings in the U.S. and Canada. The Five Years’ Meeting claimed to draw together "all the American Yearly Meetings." That meant, in practice, all the Orthodox or Gurneyite meetings that corresponded with London Yearly Meeting, minus Philadelphia (Orthodox) and Ohio (now Evangelical Friends International-Eastern Region), which declined to join. The small Wilburite and conservative groups had their own circle of correspondence, which sometimes included Philadelphia (Orthodox). In California, the independent College Park Meeting started by Joel and Hannah Bean spawned daughter meetings up and down the Pacific coast, unaffiliated with any other body though corresponding with many. Meetings in Latin America, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa were still mission fields; even Australia and New Zealand remained part of London Yearly Meeting.
But the new century brought vitality and interest in cooperation. Younger Friends at the 1895 Manchester (UK) Conference urged the Religious Society to broaden its message and activities, and sparked a search for "authentic Quakerism." Rufus Jones in Philadelphia and John Wilhelm Rowntree and William Charles Braithwaite in England undertook a new history of the Quaker movement, hoping to reawaken the vital prophetic stream of the first generation. Modernist views found widespread acceptance among Friends of the several branches, although Holiness and evangelical Friends pointedly disagreed.
Younger Friends in Philadelphia and elsewhere reached out to their counterparts in "the other body," and found much common ground. As these Friends took on leadership roles in their yearly meetings, they maintained these links. Some yearly meetings began to send epistles to meetings with which they had not corresponded for several generations. New meetings, many in college towns, brought together Friends from diverse yearly meetings. By midcentury these new meetings would attract large numbers of seekers with no Quaker background. During the war, Friends from all parts of the United States, working through the newly formed American Friends Service Committee, joined British Quakers to do relief work in Europe. Not surprisingly, the All Friends’ Conference of 1920 focused on peace and international relations.
Transatlantic commissions prepared papers in advance on six subtopics. After hearing prepared talks by one British and one U.S. speaker, all attenders discussed the various aspects of the Peace Testimony. The conference issued a number of documents, including a memorandum to the Council and Assembly of the League of Nations and a "message to Friends and Fellow-seekers" on the spiritual basis of peace and order in the world. The official summary noted:
Looking back at the Conference as a whole, it is impossible to be too thankful for the spirit of love and unity that prevailed, for the stimulus given to the Society of Friends the world over, in its work for healing and reconciliation . . . and for the drawing together, in the sense of a common task for humanity, under the control and direction of the living Spirit of Christ, of the various branches of the Friends. It is not too much to hope that the Conference will mark a new departure for the Society in learning and delivering to the world the message which has been given it for bringing nearer the coming of the Kingdom of God.
In hindsight, one may note the limitations of the conference. Few participants came from outside North America, Britain and its Commonwealth, and northern Europe. Among the delegates from Asia and Africa, the majority were British or U.S. missionaries and workers rather than local Friends. Latin America was not represented at all. Women were underrepresented among the speakers.
But at the time, Friends rejoiced in the conference’s strengths rather than its limitations. Many of the younger Friends who attended the London Conference would become leaders in the Quaker movement over the next 50 years.