Howard Brinton and the World Council of Churches: The Theological Impact of Ecumenism on Friends

by Anthony Manousos

The ecumenical movement that culminated in the founding of the World Council of Churches in 1948 was a wake up call to Howard Brinton and other Friends, obliging them to take more seriously the theological issues of their day. Up to this point, most of Brinton’s writings about theology focused on Quaker sources and were directed towards a Quaker audience. His training had been in physics, mathematics, and philosophy, not theology; and he confessed to feeling at a disadvantage when among professional clergy and theologians.

Brinton was not the only liberal Quaker to feel so disadvantaged. Very few Friends at this time were well versed in contemporary theological trends outside of Quakerism. Brinton was chosen to represent the (Orthodox) Philadelphia Yearly Meeting at the World Council because he was seen as the best equipped Friend to do so. His involvement in ecumenism went back to 1942 when he wrote for the Philadelphia Committee for Church Unity a critique of the Report of the 1939 Edinburgh Conference, a precursor to the World Council of Churches.

Anna Brinton shared Howard’s concern for ecumenism. As representative of  Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Arch Street), she “was the only woman signatory to the charter of the National Council of Churches when it was organized in 1950 (an accomplishment ‘it would take the Quakers to put over,’ in the words of a Congregational woman staff member).”(1)

Howard Brinton found himself drawn into the ecumenical movement at the same time as he was also becoming deeply involved in healing the division between Hicksite and Orthodox Friends. As John Punshon has pointed out, there were parallels between these two efforts to overcome theological differences and find a common ground and functional unity.(2)

The modern ecumenical movement began in the late nineteenth century when Protestant leaders started meeting to promote understanding, foster dialogue, and find common areas for service and witness, particularly in their missionary efforts. A World Missionary Conference was held in Edinburgh June 14-23, 1910, which laid the groundwork for modern ecumenism. As Ferner Nuhn pointed out, notable Quakers took part in this event, including the theological scholar H.G. Wood and Henry Hodgkin, co-founder of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the first director of Pendle Hill.(3) Nuhn describes the impetus behind this historic movement:

The excitement of a century of unparalleled missionary work was in the air and also the impatience of people working in foreign lands with the petty factionalism of Christian churches back in their “home” lands. For a quarter of a century, too, the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions had been channeling the idealism and enthusiasm of youth into world missionary fields. The vision of young people who had come up in this movement was a powerful factor at Ediburgh… Following this Ediburgh conference, the strands of the world councils became clear. One was the continuing world-mission strand…. The second strand was the Life and Work movement…[which] came into being at the great Stockholm conference in 1925. The third strand was the Faith and Order movement, whose important early meetings were at Geneva, 1920; Lusanne, 1927; and Edinburgh, 1937. (4)

These various strands were woven together in 1948 when the World Council was formed in Amsterdam. Friends have had mixed feelings about this World Council, as Punshon makes clear:

In 1938, when the formula “a fellowship of Christian churches which accept our Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour” was agreed as the basis for the forthcoming World Council, London Yearly Meeting took this creedal point and declined membership. Five Year’s Meeting [now called Friends United Meeting] accepted membership on the basis that this was an affirmation of faith and not a creed, and Friends General Conference accepted membership subject to an amendment that, sadly, was not accepted. They would have preferred the declaration to include bodies which did not require acceptance of a formula from their members, but accepted “the essentials of unity are the love of God and the love man conceived and practiced in the spirit of Christ.” (5)

Brinton’s view was that Friends should stay involved with the World Council “if we can do so without compromise.” As he explained in an article entitled “Should Friends Remain in the World Council of Churches,”

We [Friends] have an important contribution to make to modern Christian thought and practice and we have much to learn from others. We know that Christians can accomplish more through united effort than separately. We have much in common with all other Christian bodies through a common Founder, a common Bible and a common religious heritage. Membership in the World Council commits us to no course of which we are not able to endorse ourselves. Though the Council contains bodies which are ecclesiastical in structure it itself has no structure. It is not a super-church. (6)

Brinton went on to clarify his theological objections to the Council’s statement that its members accept “Jesus Christ as God and Saviour.” Brinton objected not only because it was a creedal statement, but also because it was bad theology. It emphasized the divinity of Christ at the expense of his humanity. In doing so, the Council fell into what Brinton sees as a Christian heresy, that of the Docetists, Appolinarians, Monophysites, and others who did not believe in the incarnation of Christ in a human form. He attributed a similar heresy to Karl Barth, whose emphasis on the transcendence of God and Christ put Christian ethics out of the reach of most people. The Neo-Calvinists “hold for example that, though Jesus was clearly a pacifist, such behavior is too much to expect of us who are so involved in sinful human nature that we are incapable of such perfectionism.” (7)

Even though Brinton disagreed with this theological position, he felt that engagement in dialogue was crucial. Recalling the separations among Friends, Brinton wrote: “Friends had disastrous experience with the kind of exclusiveness which sharpens the distinction between liberal and conservative, whether in theology or other matters, to such a degree that the two points of view clash instead of modifying and fructifying each other.” (8)

In his Autobiography Brinton recounted how Quakers became involved in the World Council, and how he was selected to represent them:

The committee formed to prepare for the ecumenical union of the Christian churches sent out a series of theological questions to all the churches which planned to join. The answers were to be put together into a book. Alfred Garrett had been active in the ecumenical movement and was urging the Yearly Meeting to join it. He succeeded in persuading the ecumenical movement to invite the Hicksites to join it though it did not welcome the Unitarian churches. Alfred Garrett answered the theological questions but some members of the Yearly Meeting thought that his answers were too evangelical. Stanley Yarnell’s theology was much more liberal than that of Alfred Garrett. Stanley Yarnell was in favor of appointing me to answer the theological questionnaire and rejecting Alfred Garrett’s answers. I prepared answers to all the questions following as nearly as I could the theology of George Fox and Robert Barclay. When I presented my answers to the Yearly Meeting, my answers were forwarded to the ecumenical committee and put into a book which contained answers from all the American churches which were joining the ecumenical movement. (9)

As a result, Brinton was appointed to represent Philadelphia Yearly Meeting at the Amsterdam meeting.

Before going to Amsterdam, Brinton attended London Yearly Meeting (now known as Britain Yearly Meeting), which took place in Edinburgh (the first time it was held in Scotland). (10)

There he was shocked to learn that British “fundamentalist” Friends wanted to prevent the Swiss Quaker Edmond Privat from delivering the Swarthmore Lecture. Privat (1889-1962) was an ardent pacifist, human rights activist, writer and journalist, as well as a friend of Romain Rolland and Gandhi. He worked with his wife Yvonne to help refugees and was a founding editor of L’Essor and other leading Socialist newspapers. (11)

“I was astonished to find that [Privat] was considered too liberal in his theology to be allowed to speak,” recalls Brinton. “I considered his liberal theology to be as liberal as the theology of George Fox and Robert Barclay.” (12)

Brinton felt that he needed to speak out about this matter during the Yearly Meeting session so he raised his hand to be recognized. The custom of London Yearly Meeting was, and still is, that a Friend needs permission of the clerk in order to speak. After some “difficulty,” Brinton was finally recognized by the clerk, Ethel Brayshaw, and he pointed out that “both kinds of theology were important to Quakerism, the fundamentalist philosophy of the Puritans who persecuted the early Quakers, and the liberal theology of Fox and Barclay.” He illustrated this pointing out that in plotting a curve, a horizontal and vertical axis are both necessary.

This remark did not sit well with “fundamentalist” British Friends. A dozen immediately rose up to defend their position. This behavior was criticized as un-Quakerly by two important British Friends, T. Edmund Harvey (author of The Rise of Quakers) and Henry T. Gillet. According to Brinton, they “scolded the Yearly Meeting for not remaining quiet after an important message.” (13)

Privat was in fact allowed to give a talk, entitled “The Clash of Loyalties,” at London Yearly Meeting in 1948, but it was not considered a Swarthmore Lecture. (14) There was no Swarthmore Lecture that year, the only time it was ever canceled.

Brinton went to Amsterdam where he found accommodations in a “small but elegant hotel.” His roommate was Tom Brown. Brinton observed, “I suppose he was sent by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting to see that I did not do anything reckless or foolish.” (15)

The 1948 gathering of the World Council was a colorful as well as historic event, with representatives from 147 churches, including the Orthodox but not the Catholic Church. As Brinton observes, a congenial, Christ-centered spirit prevailed, pointing to a deep unity underlying apparent division:

Not ideas but persons and personal relationships stand out most prominently [in]the throng which daily filled to capacity the huge Concert Hall and the various churches in which we worshiped. The variety and shades of color of skins and costumes of delegates from all parts of the earth, crowds of bishops in gaiters of purple or yellow robes mingling with humble laymen; and yet, in spite of size and complexity, the formation of many personal friendships and a great increase in mutual understanding. Though Christianity might appear at first sight so torn asunder by its many divisions as to be incapable of unity, never the less the branches had no difficulty in discovering their common root. The Christocentric character of much that was said was a recognition of the single source in a Founder who was still recognized as the living head of the Church in all its many forms. (16)

At the World Council were representatives from other Quaker organizations: Bliss Forbush represented Friends General Conference, Algie Newlin Five Years Meeting (now known as Friends United Meeting), and Virginia Walker from Canadian Yearly Meeting. In addition there were two Quaker alternates, Elton Trueblood and Thomas Brown, a Quaker consultant, Percy Bartlett of England, and a Quaker youth delegate, George Downing.

According to Brinton, Friends had three major concerns: “that the theological basis of membership be removed or at least changed to a New Testament wording, that our position on the sacraments be recognized, and that the Assembly take our position on the subject of war.” (17)

The delegates were divided into four groups, each with the responsibility of preparing a statement for the conference. Brinton was assigned to a group concerned with the relationship between the church and the government. Brinton was not the only pacifist in the group, but he may have been one of the few who believed that pacifism could actually be put into practice. Most subscribed to the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, a so-called “Christian realist.” As Brinton explains:

I made a suggestion that a sentence be included to say that the teachings of Christ take precedence over the will of the government or words to that effect. At first this suggestion was received in silence. In a short time the bishop of Chichester raised his hand, which indicated his approval. This same bishop had strongly opposed the bombing of German cities. Soon after, a number of other hands went up to indicate the general approval of the whole group. The only disapproval was expressed by an English nobleman whose name was [Quentin] Hogg [also known as Baron Hailsham of St Marylebone], who was the leader of the Tory party in the House of Lords . Later I discovered why this group was willing to make such statements. The belief of these bishops and others was that Christ was not a perfectionist, and did not propose a perfectionist type of ethics. The Sermon on the Mount was too lofty to be followed, but it served as a valuable ideal, which although never reached by sinful men, yet could always lead to higher conduct. The making of a strong statement of ideals and not feeling the necessity to live up to it is in accordance with the philosophy of Reinhold Niebuhr.

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) was in many ways the nemesis of pacifism, and of Quakerism. Born in Missouri, he received a master in theology from Yale University, served as a pastor in Detroit, Michigan, and embraced pacifism along with other progressive views during the 1920s and 1930s. But with the coming of World War II, Niebuhr had a change of heart. He quit his membership in the Fellowship of Reconciliation (an interfaith pacifist group which Henry Hodgkin, the first director of Pendle Hill, helped to launch), supported the Allied war effort, and later founded a movement known as Christian Realism that defended the Cold War against Communism.

Brinton challenged Christian Realism with the Quaker belief in the Inward Light. Niebuhr felt that Christians had a responsibility to resist evil, even if it meant resorting to violence. As Brinton explains in Friends for 300 Years, Friends believe that we must live according to the measure of the light that has been inwardly revealed to us, including Christ’s teaching that we “love our enemy.”  Even though human beings are imperfect, and even though human society is flawed, we are obliged to follow Christ’s example to the best of our ability, as Spirit leads us.

“If Jesus was himself a pacifist, as even the Neo-Orthodox admit,” wrote Brinton, “we must be pacifists also if we obey his command to follow him.” (18)

For Brinton, the Quaker approach to Christian ethics is best summed up in a rejoinder by Joseph Hoag, a nineteenth century peace advocate. When Hoag advocated the Quaker peace testimony in 1812, a member of the audience said, “Well, stranger, if all the world was of your mind I would turn and follow after.” Hoag replied, “So then thou hast a mind to be the last man to be good. I have a mind to be one of the first and set the rest an example.” (19)

Along with advocating for pacifism, Brinton also helped organize a Quaker meeting for worship at the Council. (Quakers were one of five denominations to have charge of worship services.) Elton Trueblood wrote a short description of the Quaker way of worship, which was distributed to the delegates and helped prepare them for the experience. Among other things, Trueblood observed:

“Worship, according to the ancient practice of the Religious Society of Friends, is entirely without any human direction or supervision. A group of devout persons come together and sit down quietly with no prearrangement, each seeking to have an immediate sense of divine leading and to know at first hand the presence of the Living Christ… Such a meeting is always a high venture of faith and it is to this venture that we invite you this hour.”

This “venture of faith” proved successful since, as Brinton observed, “a number of messages were given in harmony with the Quaker method.”

According to Brinton, one of the major challenges that Friends faced was the requirement that member churches affirm a “short Trinitarian creed.” This statement, approved in 1948 and based on a 1938 statement, read simply: “The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which accept our Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour.” Bliss Forbush, the FGC representative tried hard to have this statement modified, according to Brinton. But Geoffrey Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury, opposed any changes. Non-creedal Christians and those with Unitarian leanings felt such a creedal statement was divisive, while conservatives felt it did not go far enough to affirm the fundamental doctrines of the church. Thanks in part to the pioneering work of Brinton, Forbush and others, Friends continue to play a role in the World Council of Churches and send representatives to address doctrinal questions from a Quaker perspective despite theological differences.

During this gathering, Brinton received a crash course in the various strands of Christian theology. Major theologians representing a wide range of positions attended this historic  gathering, and many of them spoke.

The World Council also tried to embrace political diversity. It invited speakers with very different views towards the challenge of Communism: John Foster Dulles and Czech theologian Josef Hromdka.

At the far right end of the religious and political spectrum was John Foster Dulles (1888-1959), a deeply religious Cold Warrior of the Calvinist persuasion who believed in the duality of “us” vs. “them” (righteous Christian Americans vs. “godless Communists”), opposed the Truman doctrine of “containment,” advocated “liberation” of pro-Communist governments (i.e. military and CIA intervention), and became Secretary of State under Eisenhower.

During this conference, however, Dulles made statements with which Brinton and most Quakers could agree. “There is no holy war,” he stated, “War is evil.”  Dulles went on to affirm:

The churches can make an important contribution to the organization of international peace by recognizing two important principles: 1) there is a moral law which provides the only proper sanction for man-made laws,  and 2) every human individual has dignity and worth. Marxian communism rejects both principles. It must accordingly depend on violence for effecting the changes it wants. But we cannot use violence to teach Communists that violence is wrong. (20)

Obviously Dulles, like many world leaders, found it difficult to practice what he preached.

A pioneer of Marxist-Christian dialogue, Hromdka took a prophetic stand with which Brinton and the World Council for the most part agreed:

The Christian church takes Western ideas so much for granted it confuses them with Christianity. The era of Western man is coming to its end. He is utterly incapable of understanding the new world arising in the East of Europe. Even if the West were victorious over the East it could solve none of the present-day problems as is shown by its helplessness after both world wars. Communism represents, under an atheistic and materialistic form, much of the social impetus of the Christian church. The Church must condemn the sins of both capitalism and communism and, making a new start from the bottom, create a new society. (21)

After wrestling with issues of war and peace, the World Council took a strong stand on racial equality, which was not surprising since many of the delegates were people of color. Among the black leaders present were Benjamin Mays, president of Morehouse College, and Bishop William J. Walls of the AME Zion Church. Brinton noted with some irony that “they had no difficulty in inserting a strong condemnation of racial segregation in the Church but, as a negro delegate remarked on the boat coming home, it will probably have no results.” (22)

A special session of the World Council was devoted to social action. Brinton was invited to attend a meeting of the faith and order division of the council, which met in Baard, a small town in Holland.

While waiting for this meeting, Brinton stayed on in Amsterdam to attend a conference and to witness the coronation of Juliana, daughter of Queen Wilhelmina. It was here that Brinton heard the Swiss theologian Karl Barth speak. In his Autobiography Brinton described Barth as a “fundamentalist theologian who believed that the Kingdom of Heaven could come without anybody doing anything about it.” As Brinton explained:

The Barthian position, most vividly put by Barth himself  in the phrase there is no “Christian Marshall plan,” indicated to many of his hearers that Christians should do nothing to reform the world but rather leave it all to God who through Christ had already established his kingdom. But this doctrine apparently only means that the Church should carry out God’s plan for salvation, not man’s. The unity of the church can exist only through its common witness to Truth, not through any social services, as the Greek theologian Florovsky pointed out, though from a different theological basis. (23)

According to Brinton, “the Queen objected to [Barth’s] doctrine and asked him some questions which he found difficult to answer.” (24)

In fairness to Barth, it should be noted that although he rejected many tenets of liberal Protestantism by emphasizing the sovereignty of God rather than the efficacy of human efforts to improve the world, he was willing to stand up to the Nazis and wrote the famous Barmen declaration, which rejected the Nazi influence on German Christianity. What Brinton objected to was not Barth’s political views, but the neo-Calvinist ideas expressed by Barth and many other delegates at the World Council:

I was disappointed to find that modern Protestantism, which was the leading influence at Amsterdam, has moved but little from Luther and Calvin. There was an all-pervading externalism, a pointing upward towards heaven or backward into history rather than a turning within as Friends are accustomed to do. It was this outwardness, this continual emphasis on the transcendence of God and His church which made the Quakers feel that they were in a strange atmosphere. There was little respect for mankind. “We are,” as one speaker said, “miserable sinners clad in the garments of Christ’s holiness.” Whatever righteousness we have is a pure gift of divine grace which we can do nothing to deserve. (25)

Brinton believed that this emphasis on human depravity went too far. If human beings are so utterly depraved, Brinton reasoned, how is it possible for them to respond to the Divine Light?

Brinton went from Amsterdam to Baarn, a picturesque town not far away, to attend a small World Council session on the sacraments. In his Autobiography Brinton recalled the knotty theological issues discussed during this session:

At Amsterdam the delegates were unable to reduce the number of ways of celebrating the sacraments below three. A small committee was appointed to solve this problem. It met many times and no denomination was willing to make any change, although to a Quaker such changes were so small that they seemed of no importance. An important English theologian, Hodgson, said the churches had something to learn from the Quakers because persons dying who could not be served by any clergyman should be offered the sacraments without any special ceremony. (26)

Brinton enjoyed this session because it was small and people were able to talk in a friendlier and more tolerant way. But the issue of the sacraments was a contentious one since some denominations have open communion allowing all Christians to participate while others have closed communion available only to members who subscribe to their creed.

“The Assembly seemed particularly ashamed of the fact that it could hold no common Lord’s Supper,” observed Brinton. (27)

After this gathering in Baarn, Brinton went to Sweden and took a train to the University of Lund, where another ecumenical gathering was taking place. There Brinton attended sessions mostly dealing with theology. At the Faith and Order meeting attended by Alfred Garrett, the subject of sacraments came up. A statement was read that was agreeable not only to most Christians, but also to Quakers. According to Brinton, it affirmed that “God was not limited in the number of his sacraments. Thus any act could be sacramental if performed in the right spirit.”

Not everyone was comfortable with this statement, however. According to Brinton, some wanted something more “clear and belligerent.” (28)

The issue of sacraments remains a contentious one to this day.

Throughout this session Brinton followed the theological discussions with keen interest, but being a Quaker and a scientist by training, he found some of the arguments “very strange and unimportant.” (29) When it was proposed that the second coming of Christ would occur soon, the delegates agreed without any debate. Brinton found this response puzzling.

Brinton came back from the World Council with a heightened interest in the theological issues of his day, and he was not the only Friend who wanted to become more engaged in this concern. Occasional articles about contemporary theological trends began appearing in the Friends Intelligencer in the early 1950s most notably, by William H. Marwick, a Scottish Friend, (30) and by William Hordern, a professor of philosophy and religion at Swarthmore College. (31)

The World Council of Churches and the ecumenical movement had an especially profound effect on Howard Brinton, leading him to take more seriously contemporary trends in theology and to try to understand them from a Quaker perspective. Engaging with contemporary theology was one of the purposes of Friends for 300 Years. As L. Hugh Doncaster notes, Brinton argues that “Quaker historians of this century were influenced, perhaps over-influenced, by Hegelian idealism; and that now we are facing the challenge of neo-Calvinism. Between these two stands Barclay, ‘pessimistic regarding  ‘natural’ man’s present condition, but optimistic in regard to man’s capacity for regeneration and union with God even in this life.”

Friends for 300 Years, which L. Hugh Doncaster and F.B. Tolles compared to Barclay’s Apology, prepared the way for a revival of interest in theology among Friends that continues to this day, with publications like Quaker Religious Thought and Quaker Theology. As Brinton’s example makes clear, Friends who wish to engage in dialogue with those of other Christian denominations, or of other faiths, or even with Friends in other branches of Quakerism, cannot afford to remain theologically illiterate.


  1. Friends and the Ecumenical Movement by Ferner Nuhn. FGC, Philadelphia, 1970. p. 19.
  2. Portrait in Grey, John Punshon. Friends House, London, 1984, p. 256.
  3. Friends and the Ecumenical Movement, FGC, Philadelphia: 1970, p. 11.
  4. Friends and the Ecumenical Movement, FGC, Philadelphia: 1970, p. 11.
  5. Portrait in Grey, John Punshon. Friends House, London, 1984, p. 256.
  6. “Should Friends Remain in the World Council of Churches,” The Friend, Second Month 10, 1949, p. 262.
  7. Ibid, p. 263.
  8. Ibid, p. 263.
  9. Autobiography, p. 89.
  10. According to Jennifer Milligan, library of Britain YM,  Edmond Privat’s lecture is mentioned in a  report on Yearly Meeting (The Friend, vol. 106 [1948]. pp. 668-669). According to the same note in The Friend (1948, p.460), the Swarthmore Lecture was cancelled, with no explanation given. Elton Trueblood gave a public lecture on Robert Barclay at the same yearly meeting on Thursday, 5 August, to celebrate Barclay’s tercentenary (The Friend,  Vol. 106 [1948]. pp. 680-681 and 701-703). Milligan also confirms from minute 14 of Yearly Meeting proceedings 1948 that both Howard Brinton, Thomas S. Brown and Elton Trueblood attended Yearly Meeting 1948 at Edinburgh. According to The Friend (1948, p. 666) Howard Brinton and Thomas S. Brown were due to attend the first assembly of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam later that month.
  11. Swiss Quakers, “Let Their Lives Speak”
  12. Autobiography, p. 60.
  13. Autobiography, p. 60.
  14. According to an article in The Friend Vol. 106 (1948) p.460, Edward Privat had agreed to give his lecture as an address rather than as the Swarthmore Lecture for that year. My thanks to Jennifer Milligan, Senior Library Assistant at Friends House Library, for this information.
  15. Autobiography, p. 89.
  16. The Friend, 11/4/1949.
  17. The Friend, 11/4/1949.
  18. Friends for 350 Years, edited by Margaret Bacon. Pendle Hill: Wallingford, PA, 2002.
  19. Ibid, pp. 196-7.
  20. “Christendom Searches for Unity II: Some Currents of Thought at Amsterdam,” The Friend, Seventh Month 2, 1948, p. 148.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. “Christendom Searches for Unity II: Some Currents of Thought at Amsterdam,” ibid.
  24. Autobiography, p. 91.
  25. “Christendom Searches for Unity II: Some Currents of Thought at Amsterdam,” ibid.
  26. Autobiography, p. 92.
  27. “Christendom Searches for Unity II: Some Currents of Thought at Amsterdam,” ibid, p. 148.
  28. Autobiography, p. 92.
  29. Autobiography, p. 92.
  30. “Some Current Trends in Theology” by William H. Marwick, Friends Intelligencer, Tenth Month, 11, 1952, p. 583.
  31. “Modern Trends in Theology,” Friends Intelligencer, Fifth Month, 2, 1952, p. 249.
  32. In a review of Friends for 300 Years, L. Hugh Doncaster  agreed with F.B. Tolles’s laudatory assessment that Brinton’s work is “the closest thing this Quaker generation has produced or is likely to produce to Robert Barclay’s great Apology. ” The Bulletin of the Friends Historical Association, Vol. 41. Autumn, 1952, #2, p. 138.

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