Quaker Theology - Issue #5 - Autumn 2001

War in the Social Order: the Great War
and the Liberalization of American Quakerism

Howell John Harris

(NOTE: This essay was first published in David Adams and Cornelius van Minnen, eds.,
Religious and Secular Reform Movements in American History
[Edinburgh, 1999], pp. 179-204.  It is reprinted here by permission.)


When, or if, historians think of the American branches of the Religious Society of Friends, we probably think of them as quintessential representatives of the social activist tradition within American Protestantism. Our views may be affected by experience of the liberal, welcoming meetings which are a feature of so many college towns.  But they are also, perhaps, influenced by the thought that one can draw a direct, unbroken line from the pioneering antislavery advocates of the late eighteenth century, through the supporters of a wide variety of reform causes in the nineteenth (particularly equal rights for women and other oppressed groups–including ‘Indians’, prisoners, and the mentally afflicted), to some of the founding members of SANE (the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy) in the 1950s, and even as far as the Freedom Riders of the early 1960s. Here, it seems, is an (Anglo)-American religious tradition with much to attract modern secular liberal historians–one which has remained faithful to the core values of pacifism, egalitarianism, and respect for individual human dignity and moral autonomy, which are rooted in its radical dissenting origins. 1

But wait a moment. The denomination which gave the United States Woodrow Wilson’s Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, architect of the Great Red Scare, and two Republican presidents, Herbert Hoover and more surprisingly Richard Nixon, cannot have had an unproblematic relationship with American liberalism during this century. Clearly there were tendencies within American Quakerism which will not fit easily within the picture of theological radicalism and social reformism presented above. For there were many Friends who came of age in the late nineteenth century, after the dramas of the Civil War era had ended, and who dropped their moral reformist politics along with the other peculiarities of language and dress which had once marked them out. Palmer was a product of this comfortable conformist milieu. And there was a whole different world of Quakerism beyond the Appalachians, where rural migrants became absorbed into the dominant local Protestant patterns of belief, worship, and church organization. Hoover’s and Nixon’s roots were in this evangelicized soil, not that of the Atlantic seaboard cities and their hinterlands, where Friends remained closer, spiritually and geographically, to their beginnings. 2

* * *

My purpose in this paper is to address the above apparent paradox, by exploring and explaining when, how, and why parts of American Quakerism re-established its historic identification with political dissent and reform, and colored the enduring public image of the whole denomination. This question is not one which came to me very naturally. I am not a religious historian. The research project which drew me to the study of American Friends was a history of anti-unionism in the American metal trades–in particular, a case-study of the battles waged on behalf of employers’ sovereign authority by two generations of industrialists in America’s third-largest manufacturing city, Philadelphia, from the 1890s through the New Deal. 3

In the course of this work, I encountered some interesting, anomalous men–Republican entrepreneurs whom one could find organizing relief programs for the families of striking and destitute coal miners in the lean years of the 1920s and through Mr. Hoover’s depression, serving as labor arbitrators and acting as advisors in the creation of the federal Social Security system during the turbulent years of the 1930s, and making private pilgrimages to Germany in a desperate attempt to influence the Hitler régime to allow Jews to emigrate. In the 1920s, they had been leading figures in one of the most successful (but non-violent) anti-union organizations in American industry, the Metal Manufacturers Association of Philadelphia (MMA), which was my principal interest. But they were also among the founders, key activists, and chief financial supporters of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) during and after the Great War. 4

It was this experience, and this organization, which did more than anything else to reconnect American Quakerism with its own radical past, and to forge new links with the overlapping worlds of Social Gospel Protestantism and secular liberal reform. Explaining why some of the leading Philadelphia businessmen I encountered had such unusual and ambivalent political commitments and wide-ranging social concerns required that I examine the beliefs they had in common, which distinguished them from their capitalist friends and neighbors. They were at the heart of the AFSC; it was the key player in the lasting redefinition of what it meant to be a Friend. Religious renewal and reformist convictions came together in the crucible of war, in a ‘church’ without ministers or creeds, where ‘lay’ activism had to be the dominant force.

This paper will begin by sketching in a description of American Quakerism at the turn of the century. It will then concentrate on the interplay between religious commitment, pacifist ideals, social criticism, and social action, among the prosperous and formerly quite conservative Friends who forged the AFSC, situating them in a transatlantic religious milieu, and explaining the catalytic role of the war experience in their longer-run intellectual evolution. Finally and more briefly, it will explore the lasting consequences of the redefinition of Quakers’ critical role in American society whose origins it will have explored.                                      

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