A Centennial History of the American Friends Service Committee

By Gregory A. Barnes. Friends Press, 2016. 498 pages. $24.95/paperback.

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At the Conference of Quaker Historians and Archivists in 1994, Quaker historian J. William Frost argued that the historical significance of Friends in the twentieth century lay primarily in social, political, and humanitarian activism. Of that activism, the best-known manifestation is unquestionably the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). It has been a source of at least mild dismay for many of us that, despite its massive archives, AFSC lacked a comprehensive published history. Now, to mark the centennial of AFSC’s founding in 1917, Gregory A. Barnes has provided one.

Barnes argues that the history of AFSC can be divided into three periods. In the first, from 1917 to 1950, AFSC was “ahead of its time” in its humanitarian interventions, focused largely on feeding programs. Between 1950 and 1990, Barnes notes, AFSC was “catching up with the times,” shifting work out of Europe and increasingly focused on problems of racism, poverty, and injustice in the United States. It was in this period that AFSC became increasingly assertive, and public, in its criticism of U.S. government policies. And it was also in these years, Barnes finds, that AFSC discovered the virtues of diversity. Finally, since 1990, he finds AFSC increasingly “data-driven” in its work, still grounded in Quaker practices and processes but focused as much on reconciliation and building effective communities as relief work.

AFSC was the product of war. When the United States adopted conscription after entering World War I in 1917, Quaker leader Rufus M. Jones of Haverford College proposed the creation of a service group for American Friends who could not conscientiously render military service, perhaps modeled on the Friends Ambulance Unit that British Friends had created. Representatives from Friends General Conference, the Five Years Meeting, and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting agreed to oversee the creation of a “Reconstruction Unit” that would undertake rebuilding of homes and communities in France and relief work in Russia. After the war, the emphasis shifted increasingly toward feeding the hungry, especially in France, Russia, and, more controversially, Germany. In the 1930s, AFSC also developed domestic programs, winning the esteem of Eleanor Roosevelt for its attempts to create communities for displaced Appalachian coal miners. During the Spanish Civil War, relief work was the focus. While shut out of war zones during World War II, AFSC focused on aid to displaced people, including Japanese Americans. It also provided alternative service for conscientious objectors through Civilian Public Service, a subject that deserves more attention, I think, than Barnes gives it. Perhaps the high point of AFSC’s existence came in 1947 when it and the British Friends Service Council received the Nobel Prize for Peace on behalf of Friends everywhere.

After 1950, AFSC continued relief work, but increasingly focused on opposition to war and racial injustice. Perhaps the most provocative expressions of the former impulse came with a call for unilateral disarmament in 1955’s Speak Truth to Power and opposition to the Vietnam War that, in the minds of critics, verged on calls for a communist victory. AFSC adamantly supported civil rights, providing early support to Martin Luther King Jr. In the 1970s, a new emphasis on women’s and gay rights developed, and, in the 1980s, increased attention was given to immigrant rights.

It is impossible to summarize in a few hundred words everything that AFSC has attempted, and accomplished, or the criticisms that it has faced, often from Friends. They have ranged from charges that AFSC was insufficiently Christian in its aims, to worries over what was seen as a steadily declining Quaker presence within the organization. Today, less than one percent of its staff are Friends, and ties with many yearly meetings range from chilly to nonexistent.

Barnes is clearly an AFSC supporter, but he also acknowledges and addresses such criticisms. He has succeeded in providing a readable overview of the most important Quaker organization of the past century. He does, however, leave some important questions unanswered. For me, two are central. It is never clear where power resides within the organization, with the executive secretary, the staff, the board, or the corporation. Thus, when “the AFSC decided” to undertake some program, just what was the process?

The other question—since AFSC consciously decided to try to reflect the diversity of American society in its staff—is about the persistence of accusations of racism, sexism, and other oppressive behaviors. AFSC responses have usually conceded justice in the charges. As late as 2015, the organization was undertaking an examination of “structural and institutional racism.”

Even a work as long as this can provide only limited treatment of many important subjects. It is not the definitive history of AFSC. That will come only after other scholars have mined the archives to explore aspects of AFSC in greater depth. But this is a good start.

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