I earnestly believe our Society will serve the Kingdom [of God] better as we are unified.
—J. Passmore Elkinton, in an address to the Friends All-Florida Conference, St. Petersburg, Fla., March 1954
As I was growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia in the 1950s, I became aware that my grandparents, Anna Griscom Elkinton and J. Passmore Elkinton, were "weighty Friends." One of my first memories involves their return from a trip to Japan in 1952. As I grew up, I heard many stories of their trips abroad and their wide circle of Quaker acquaintances. Because they then lived in Swarthmore, Pa., it seemed only natural that they had been involved in a Quaker conference there in 1937.
I grew up and moved away, and they aged and died. Years later I became more active in Friends. When my father, David Cope Elkinton, died in 2003, I found Herbert M. Hadley’s excellent book, Quakers World Wide: A History of Friends World Committee for Consultation, on his bedside table. Reading it, I was astonished to find that Passmore and Anna Elkinton’s portrait faces the opening chapter. Then I read how they had been instrumental in organizing the 1937 Friends World Conference, after more than 25 years each of efforts to bring diverse Friends groups together. I had no idea of the degree of their commitment!
Many questions arose in me. What would motivate a sheltered and privileged Orthodox Friend (Passmore) to be interested—as I remember him remarking—in the "57 varieties" of Quakerdom? Had his interest in the wider world of Quakerism brought him together with Anna, or had their marriage enabled them to play this wider role? How could they accomplish worldwide organizing in the midst of the Great Depression and on the eve of what turned out to be world war? What influences shaped their worldview to try something universal? What did they really expect to come out of this effort anyway?
Some answers were at hand. One very helpful source was Phillip S. Benjamin’s The Philadelphia Quakers in the Industrial Age, 1865-1920. Passmore Elkinton’s father, Joseph Elkinton (1859-1920) lived almost exactly the span of time covered by Benjamin’s analysis. Benjamin deftly describes both Orthodox and Hicksites in Philadelphia "emerging from the cocoon of quietism." His portrayal of the Gilded Age’s industrial prosperity, increasing travel and education opportunities, reactions to science and philosophy, growing international awareness, household moves to the suburbs, rapidly changing technologies, the challenges of European immigration into U.S. cities, the aftermath of slavery, and religious and ethnic pluralism closely matches Joseph Elkinton’s experience. This was the world Passmore and Anna were born into—and their pacifism was tested by the military build-up and explosiveness of "The Great War," 1916-1919. Reacting to this war and forging the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) brought Hicksites and Orthodox together as they had never been before.
J. Passmore Elkinton was born in 1887. His early childhood took place in the cloistered Orthodox Quaker precincts of Center City, Philadelphia. His mother, Sarah Passmore, attended Cornell University for one year (supposedly the first Orthodox Quaker woman to attend college). His father, Joseph, was not allowed to attend college (considered too worldly by his parents) and became a high-energy recorded minister who yearned to see the world. On New Years Day, 1891, Joseph’s older sister, Mary, married Inazo Nitobe, a Japanese PhD student, at Arch Street Meetinghouse, creating an international family link that lasts to this day. Joseph was a prolific writer, penning among many items a history of the Doukhobors, the exiled Russian pacifist Christian sect resettled in Canada, and a treatise, "The Missionary as an Agent in Promoting International Goodwill."
When Passmore was six, his family moved to Media, Pa., in Philadelphia’s western suburbs. After attending Westtown School and graduating from Haverford College in 1908, Passmore took a job at the family company, the Philadelphia Quartz Company, which had been founded as a soap and candle firm in 1831, and by 1910 had evolved into a chemical company. The next year, at age 22, he married a Westtown acquaintance, Mary Bucknell.
At the Quartz Company, Passmore was groomed for sales and eventually became vice president of sales, traveling throughout the U.S. and Canada on business. He was honest, persuasive, patient, and kindly. Traveling by train—he estimated an average of 20,000 miles a year—there was no coming home on weekends. So he visited nearby Friends meetings and churches wherever he could. Often he was the first Philadelphia Friend that these meetings had ever met. At six feet four inches, he was an imposing and dignified guest, welcomed for his warm and humble ministry. He marveled at the diversity of Friends in the United States and Canada: Hicksites, Orthodox, Gurneyites, Wilburites, Ohio Conservatives, and Evangelicals. After growing up in the confines of Philadelphia Orthodox Quakerdom, he was amazed and awed at the many directions this religious tradition had taken. As an Arch Street (Orthodox) Friend, he felt most compatible with Gurneyite Friends of the Midwest.
Meanwhile, Passmore’s aunt and uncle in Japan, Inazo and Mary Nitobe, had risen to some prominence. In 1919, after a career as an educator, university president, and writer, Inazo was asked to serve as Under-Secretary General of the League of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, where they served until 1927. Both he and Mary were idealistic internationalists.
Also in 1919, Passmore was invited by the president of Earlham College to join a conclave of 50 Five Years Meeting leaders who pledged to face the postwar years with vigor and passion in the name of Christ. They found Passmore, a Christ-centered Orthodox Friend from Philadelphia, to be a kindred spirit.
Just a few years later, in 1923, he was profoundly challenged by an article in the Christian Century by Charles Clayton Morris who suggested that "the Society of Friends could perhaps be the most influential denomination of the Protestant faith if it would remedy its divisions."
Throughout the 1920s Passmore wrote small articles for Quaker publications on such matters as "Is Jesus a Person or an Idea?," "George Fox and His Message," "Standards of Quaker Ministry," and "Our Quaker Future." He also advised several new and struggling independent meetings in Detroit and Cleveland. After a deeply affecting discussion and prayer session in Oregon in 1925, he wrote that he believed "that despite the differences in methods, consecration of human life to the influx of Divine Power (Justification) and the permanent placement of the human life on a higher spiritual level (Sanctification) were very real experiences basic to Christian life, and quite as available to liberal as to Evangelical Christians."
In this same period, Passmore’s travels and interests in the wider world of Friends (with perhaps a nudge or two from the good Lord above) led him to recommend a nationwide gathering of Friends during an American Friends Service Committee meeting in Indianapolis in 1924. The result was the All-American Friends Conference of 400 Friends gathered at William Penn College in Oskaloosa, Iowa, in the summer of 1929. Its timeliness was emphasized by the inauguration that previous January of the U.S.’s first Quaker President, Herbert Hoover.
Even in planning for this gathering (which met with some opposition among more traditionalist Friends) there was sentiment that it was but a prelude to a world gathering. Passmore promoted this conference widely. In one typical piece, appearing in The Gospel Minister, August 22, 1929, and widely read by evangelical Friends of the Midwest, he wrote: "The origin of the concern for the conference rests with me. For 20 years business errands have taken me over the United States. In spare time, I have visited different groups of Friends and found some saints among all. Some of us know that we need a much more vigorous faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. . . . The object of this conference is bonafidely [sic] to get better acquainted."
Two months after the Oskaloosa conference, Passmore’s wife, Mary, died of heart disease, and Passmore entered a dark period of mourning. At first he seemed to function well enough under the circumstances. At the end of 1930, however, he collapsed at work and was given six months’ leave to recover. He decided that a trip to Asia might restore his mind and soul.
On the eve of that trip, which took him to China, Korea, and Japan, his sister, Mary Elkinton Duguid, introduced him to her longtime friend, Anna Bassett Griscom, a well-known Hicksite from New Jersey. A Swarthmore College graduate, Anna had also attended the Oskaloosa conference. They corresponded during his voyage and announced their engagement upon his return. A friend of Anna’s, Edith Stratton Platt, wrote, "No engagement has shaken the foundations of Philadelphia Quakerism for years like thine and Passmore’s! It really seems like the final wedding of the two branches symbolically enacted!"
Anna and Passmore were married in late 1931. They shared several interlocking visions: a united Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, Friends being active in peacemaking worldwide, and a world Quaker organization. Both were strongly influenced by Quaker philosopher Rufus Jones, who had been seminal in the beginnings of AFSC and fostered a vision for bringing Friends into the modern world. Passmore had been active in the American Peace Society. Anna, meanwhile, had been one of 12 young Friends (six Orthodox and six Hicksite) who had met in 1912 to study the roots of the 1827 separation. Several from this group, such as Henry J. Cadbury, soon became Quaker leaders. She studied at Woodbrooke in England (1914), helped found the Fellowship of Reconciliation, attended the first All-Friends Peace Conference at Winona Lake, Ind. (both in 1915), and served the AFSC as staff or board member for many years. Her 1918 Social Work masters degree thesis, War and Social Idealism, reflected wide academic knowledge and strong writing skills as well as a deep commitment to peacemaking.
Anna had attended the first world conference of Friends, held in London in 1920. Among the speakers at a young Friends conference afterwards in Jordans, England, were Rufus Jones and Henry Cadbury. Inazo Nitobe also spoke there, sharing his vision of the importance of the newly formed League of Nations. In 1929, Anna also attended the Oskaloosa Conference and noted simply in her journal when Passmore Elkinton spoke, "We live in a new world." She was a formidable partner. Both believed that Divine Grace had brought them together. Passmore had been smitten with her. At the time of his engagement, in a letter to Alvin T. Coate of Indianapolis, Ind., who gently questioned why he might marry a Hicksite, he wrote on July 17, 1931: "Yes, she is a prominent member of the Hicksite persuasion, but I am so distracted in perspective at present as to believe that her religious experience would stouten and not weaken my service among Western Friends."
Meanwhile, in 1930, Rufus Jones had challenged AFSC to reach out and organize a "Quaker Movement" to draw in new Friends and nurture them through an information network to be called "The Wider Quaker Fellowship." Passmore was asked in 1930 to lead AFSC’s Fellowship Committee (later the American Friends Fellowship Council), "to activate American Friends." It became an information source for U.S. yearly meetings as well as a support network for newly forming independent meetings. The Council’s 1935 Quaker Handbook was the first-ever listing of all Friends groups worldwide. This group started holding annual gatherings of Friends from across the U.S. each January at Friends Meeting of Washington, D.C. In 1932 that group proposed to AFSC a second world conference of Friends, as follow-up to the London gathering in 1920.
By now the idealism and hope of the 1920s had soured into the widespread social misery of the Great Depression, with the frightening rise of fascism. Based on the 1932 recommendation, AFSC organized a world conference committee, with many yearly meetings represented. Passmore was asked to chair this group, which he did from 1932 to 1934. At first, none of the committee members could conceive how travel could even be arranged for such a gathering in those dark days. Yet a year later, they pushed ahead. When Passmore resigned from the committee in 1934 due to pressing business needs, Anna was appointed chairman.
In the next three years she coordinated and oversaw the organizing necessary for a successful gathering in 1937. In 1935 she visited 14 yearly meetings in the U.S. and Canada. In 1936 she undertook a three-month trip to Europe and Britain, visiting seven countries and three yearly meetings. During the European trip, Passmore had Anna’s letters transcribed and distributed copies to all the committee members. He then joined her for the last three weeks in England. At one point she was orchestrating a committee structure of 389 Friends worldwide. No doubt her myriad network connections on both sides of the Hicksite-Orthodox divide (including AFSC, Woodbrooke, and Swarthmore College) all helped make this organizing run more smoothly.
Passmore remained involved behind the scenes, chairing one of five commissions, the one called "The International Cooperation of Friends." Its pre-conference report was authored by Bertam Pickard, a British Friend who served as secretary of the newly established International Friends Center in Geneva, Switzerland, and written at Passmore and Anna’s summer cottage in Avalon, N.J. The report recommended a permanent world committee of Friends, and this recommendation became the foundation document for FWCC.
Others have described the 1937 conference and the founding there, in small steps, of FWCC. That year Passmore was 50 and Anna 48. Although there had been some opposition before the conference, the notes and letters of appreciation that followed more than confirmed the value of this event to Friends worldwide. Looking back, seeing the slim opportunity for it wedged between the Depression and World War II, they both again clearly saw the Divine Hand making their shared vision possible.
Passmore and Anna stayed closely involved with FWCC through the dark years of World War II until about 1950, when Passmore retired and they decided on a trip to Japan to see the post-war conditions and visit with Nitobe descendents. When asked why he and Anna decided not to attend the 1952 world conference in Oxford, Passmore wrote, "Places [at the conference] were in great demand and were limited to 500 Americans, and we felt we had had a fair share of Quaker conferences."
Now I have some answers to my questions. I still wonder whether the World Conference of 1937 would have taken shape as it did without the romance and marriage of Passmore and Anna six years before. In some ways, the most radical changes preparing this ground among Friends occurred in the previous generation.
Their lifespans (1887-1974) encompassed the merging of Philadelphia’s two yearly meetings, two world wars, the founding of numerous Friends organizations (FGC, FYM/FUM, AFSC, FCNL, etc.), and the growth of international travel as a commonplace occurrence. Despite great obstacles, both were eager to make the world a better place. Bringing Friends together for this purpose—something that had never been tried organizationally since the Valiant Sixty in the 1650s—became their lives’ mission.