Progressive & Liberal American Quakers Face World War One

Be honest: Could you say “No” to “the war to end wars”?

Turns out that president Woodrow Wilson didn’t coin that phrase, and reportedly only used it in public once.

But it doesn’t matter. The phrase, along with one that Wilson did use, “to make the world safe for democracy,” became key pieces of a pioneering and apparently very successful government propaganda campaign to mobilize U.S. public opinion for joining the war. This despite the fact that Wilson won re-election in 1916 on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.”

Progressive Friends - A Continuing Series

Along with sophisticated and pervasive propaganda, Wilson’s Committee on Public Information worked with military intelligence to spy on and manipulate key segments of the U.S. population. Among these, it appears, were prominent Philadelphia Quakers who were publicly maintaining the traditional refusal of war support. Scholar Howell John Harris plausibly suspects that the Committee’s agents also helped mobilize Quaker support for the war, especially among the Hicksites.

They had plenty to work with. Several antiwar declarations were issued by Friends bodies early in the war. But in early 1918, as the U.S. plunged fully into the conflict, more than 200 prominent Friends, representing many of the weightiest family names in the Delaware Valley, signed on to a public statement entitled,“Some Particular Advices for Friends & A Statement of Loyalty for Others, Being the Views of Some Members of the Society of Friends regarding Its Attitude toward the Present Crisis.”

The document was published in a newspaper ad and widely distributed as a leaflet. Among the signers was Joseph W. Swain, the president of Swarthmore College, which alone among the Quaker colleges hosted an army training unit on its campus. Swarthmore is, of course, the college most influenced by Progressive Friends.

Pro-War Poster, World War One

“We believe,” the statement declared, “that the majority of Friends are as earnestly opposed as anyone to the enthrallment of the world by a military caste, to the human slavery and slaughter imposed upon Belgium, Poland, Armenia and other countries, to the wholesale destruction of innocent, non-combatant women and children, to unparalleled atrocities and to the spread of organized barbarism. We think that a decent respect for the opinions of mankind makes it incumbent upon the Society of Friends to make such a statement. The principal thing which George Fox did was to break away bravely from the bondage of traditional dogma and from the slavery of the formal Church Discipline to the Authority Within. . . .

“Believing that it is not enough at this time to be neutral and that the views of the Society of Friends have not been adequately represented by the official statements of its executives nor by the utterances of many of its public speakers we . . . have realized that there are unusual and extra-ordinary circumstances of infrequent occurrence which cannot be rigidly or fully met by any man-made Church Discipline. We therefore deem it consistent with our Quaker faith to act according to the dictates of our own consciences and proclaim a unity with teachings of Jesus Christ and the messages of the President of our country. . . .

“It is perhaps reasonable to believe that God works through human instruments and that He wishes us to be “His Hands” for reward and punishment. This course has, we believe, been patiently and forcibly stated to us by the President of the United States who has shown us that the ‘right is more precious than peace.’ We proclaim our loyalty to the Cause of Civilization, and to the President of the United States, and our willingness to help in all ways that may be opened to us by the Inward Light, which is the foundation of our faith.”

Liberal American Quakers Face World War One — Part Two:

As we saw in Part One, American entry into World War One was in large part the result of a pervasive pro-war propaganda campaign, which even swept up many liberal Quakers.

Another Pro-War poster for World War One

Among the other 200 signers of the 1918 pro-war statement was Philadelphia Progressive Hicksite, Albert G. Thatcher. That is, Thatcher was an active Hicksite and at the same time a frequent participant at annual meetings of the Progressive Friends at Longwood sessions in those years. (By that time, Friends could go back and forth between the groups without any problems.)

Thatcher had already published an article in “Friends Intelligencer,” Seventh Month 21, 1917, “Some Friends’ Attitude Toward War.”

“I can truthfully say, with many others,” he wrote, “that this terrible war has taken much from the joy of living. I had believed that the world had passed beyond the possibility of another great war-especially of a war so full of horror as is this war.” He had supported the Civil War as a young man, “and [my] recollections of it are as vivid as though it were but yesterday. The Friends of 1861 were all, or nearly all, anti-slavery men and enthusiastic supporters of Abraham Lincoln. So when the Civil War broke out, it was but natural that they should support President Lincoln in all ways, even to the bearing of arms by many of their young men, to defend the Union and put down slavery. . . . [I]n the Borough of Darby, where I lived at that time, out of eleven families of Friends having sons of military age, nine of them sent men to the army. This list includes some men like my own father, who served in the State militia when Lee crossed the Potomac in September, 1862.

“These men had the anti-slavery cause so much at heart that it was a vital part of their religion. This being true, they rejoiced at each victory of the Union forces, and were depressed and suffered with every Union defeat . . . .

“I am convinced that no body of people would suffer more in spirit and probably in person than our Friends, should the barbaric German idea of Kultur win the ultimate victory and subdue the world. . . .

“Therefore while the writer, does not wish to see any Friend violate his conscientious scruples as to bearing arms, he still thinks that all Friends should do their utmost to support the Government in all ways short of this–so that the world shall be made “safe for democracy,” and a “safe place for the little nations.”

Reading Thatcher’s lament for the loss of his belief that human progress had made such wars beyond the realm of the possible, I’m grateful that Lucretia Mott was resting in her grave. An intrepid campaigner for peace as well as for women’s rights and an end to slavery, she outlasted her critics and adversaries; but fortunately she did not live to see the bloody collapse of her conviction that “The Divine Law of Progress” was steadily making war obsolete and unthinkable.

But what, it is fair to ask, did that onetime bastion of Quaker pacifism and anti-militarism, Longwood Yearly Meeting of Progressive Friends, have to say about all this?

Longwood Progressive Friends Yearly Meeting
Longwood Friends in 1865, At the end of another war


The short answer is short indeed: Longwood said nothing about World War One.

In 1902 they adopted a testimony against the rise of American militarism, especially in the war against Spain, and the taking of the Philippines: “We condemn in unmeasured terms the spirit of militarism into which so many circles of our people have been betrayed by the events of the past four years; and we call upon our people to see to it that the Republic maintain its leadership as the great peace power of the world.” And “We view with abhorrence the cruelties and barbarities practiced by our troops on the natives of the Philippine islands.”

But they also heard a call by E.H. Magill, a former president of Swarthmore, in which he quoted the confident conviction of novelist Thomas Hardy that “‘Oh yes, war is doomed. It is doomed by the gradual growth of the introspective faculty in mankind, of their power of putting themselves in another’s place and taking a point of view that is not their own. Not to-day, nor to-morrow, but in the fulness of time, war will come to an end, not merely for moral reasons, but because of its absurdity.’ The reasoning of the great Russian economist, Bloch, will here occur to every one, in which he shows that wars will in a few generations be made impossible as well as absurd by the constantly increasing power of the weapons of war.”

But aside from the question of what a novelist/poet (or a career schoolteacher and academic) knew about the future of war (not much, as it turned out), the Longwood testimonies, read later, seem to lack the same conviction as the full-throated pacifist declarations from their early years before the Civil War. In the 1850s, they urged the government to abolish the army, navy, and all fortresses and arsenals; God and arbitration could resolve all such problems.

But the epic internecine conflict of 1861-1865, which at times seemed to be heading for their front door, marked a sea change for the Progressives. By 1872, with war memories still very fresh, and many Quaker war veterans among their wider circle, a proposed Testimony at Longwood denouncing all wars had to be revised to sidestep that blanket assertion, in favor of an endorsement of arbitration, the all-purpose Quaker peace nostrum of the post Civil War decades, and one which did not necessarily exclude war.

Part Three

When the first world war did come, the Longwood Progressive Yearly Meeting was no longer issuing Proceedings, but its program lists from those years do not address it. Then in early 1917, their longtime Clerk Frederick Hinckley died, and the annual session was canceled. Another yearly meeting session was not put together until 1919, when the war was over.

Why the silence and stumbling? For one thing, for a decade after Hinckley’s death, the clerking was hit and miss. For another, once the U.S. government began moving toward joining the war, it seems clear that almost all Quaker attention became fixed on reports of the fighting, Quaker relief efforts, and then the creation of what became the American Friends Service Committee. AFSC offered a combination war relief program and a haven for Quaker conscientious objectors, many of whom were very roughly treated by the authorities.

The new AFSC also brought together Hicksites and Orthodox, after 90 years of estrangement, in an emergency collaboration that had major long-term consequences. Longwood, without a clear message, was sidelined. For that matter, so was Swarthmore College. While it accepted a military training project, at its Orthodox rival, Haverford College, Rufus Jones organized a training unit for aspiring volunteers for overseas war relief and reconstruction work, as an alternative to combatant service.

Relief workers from Haverford, enroute to World War One duty in war-torn Europe
Relief workers from Haverford, enroute to duty in war-torn Europe

But war resistance was far from the whole story. There are no statistics, but as scholar Philip Benjamin concedes, “So intense was the hysteria for participation that countless numbers of American Friends wavered in their pacifist resolve.” After all – wasn’t this the “war to end war”? The Hicksite Philadelphia Yearly Meeting managed to retain its longtime testimony statement against war, but the Civil War “compromise,” which left compliance entirely up to individuals was in full force. Moreover, they were battered by a strong internal pro-war faction.

So the Progressive Friends heritage was least substantive when it came to World War One, and this was shown both in Longwood’s silence and the Hicksite Yearly Meeting’s equivocation. Even at Lucretia Mott’s Race Street Meeting, the property committee refused the vocal pacifist Progressive Jesse Holmes permission for a series of peace lectures there in early 1918, most likely for fear of government repression, objections from its own war supporters, or both.

Nor was Orthodox Haverford exempt: a brilliant young professor there, Henry Cadbury, was forced off the faculty after he published an antiwar letter in a Philadelphia paper in the fall of 1918. (He landed on his feet, at Harvard.)

Henry Cadbury at Haverford College
Henry Cadbury at Haverford, before the pro-war axe fell.


The peace witness of American Friends in World War One is a complex, ambiguous and important story. There was much heroism and sacrificial witness. But we can’t do justice to it here . . . .

Adapted from Remaking Friends: How Progressive Friends Changed Quakerism and Helped Save America.

Remaking Friends

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One thought on “Progressive & Liberal American Quakers Face World War One”

  1. Hi Chuck,

    Is the book available as an e-book? I looked on and couldn’t see that. Do I need to look at Amazon to get the e version?

    Also ca you add me to your blog list or do I need to check back every so often or what?


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