American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)

Who are quakers awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947?

American Friends Service CommitteeTwo Quaker organizations: the American Friends Service Committee and the British Friend Service Council were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 for the continuous commitment of the Protestant sect to relief actions and peaceful movement. Quakers themselves emphasize that their commitment stems from their religious belief.

The Nobel Peace Prize was given to the American Friends Service Committee and the British Friend Service Council in recognition of the merits of this extreme segment of English Puritanism from the mid-17th century. AFSC won its fame first of all for the aid to WW II victims.

When learning more about Quakers’ history, one is compelled to admire the strength to be derived from faith and their effort to implement it in  everyday life. They always opposed violence in any form and their refusal to take part in wars was by many considered the highest dogma of their religion; these are all the elements stressed in the Nobel award justification. Moreover, it was emphasized that Quakers had been members of the first peace organization in 1810 and had remained active in all the peace movements ever since.

Quakers call themselves ‘Friends of the Truth’. The name derived from ‘quaking’, however, was attributed to them in ca. 1665, though initially in the ironic sense: they were supposed to quake in admiration when praying and speaking to God. In the diary of George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends, they were called so by a certain judge advised by Fox to ‘quake at the sound of the Divine Word’.

In America, they are particularly famous for maintaining some peculiar traditions and negotiating skills. However, they are also known for… a characteristic effigy on oats produced by a company established on the inspiration of their principles and healthy lifestyle. A smiling ruddy-faced Quaker wearing a hat (Quaker Man, resembling William Penn) is said to have been the first registered trademark of a breakfast cereal (1877).

Quakers started arriving in America soon after the Society of Friends had been established. The Quaker William Penn (1644-1718) founded the state later named Pennsylvania after him between the outlet of the Delaware River and Lake Erie. He introduced freedom of religion there. Penn’s activity and the principles he described were later to shape the US Constitution.

Moreover, Penn wrote that ‘a good End cannot sanctify evil Means; nor must we ever do Evil, that Good may come of it. Let us then try what Love will do’. The latter words: ‘Let us then try what Love will do’ were adopted as AFSC’s motto  50 years after the organization had been founded.

Emphasizing the internal experience of God, Quakers wanted to give testimony to His direct acting in the soul. This was best expressed by the activities they found closely interlaced, i.e., missionary activity, relief actions, and international service which led to founding Quaker negotiating institutions.

Moreover, they demonstrated as it reads in the Prize justification ‘that in action one can externalize what lies deep in the  heart of many: compassion for others and desire to aid them’. Also that ‘true power must come from the belief in the victory of spirit over naked force’.

Quakers initially sent their missions to central India, Madagascar, Sichuan, Western China, Ceylon, and Syria with the goal of founding and maintaining schools, hospital, as well as new communities.

When opposing war and injustice, they focused on cultivating peace and mutual understanding, establishing ‘Quaker embassies’ that offered neutral ground for exchange of views and information. Quaker peace ambassadors were particularly active in Europe in the inter-war period, though they had initiated their informal diplomacy already in the 19th c.

In order to implement tasks which were an expression of their belief in good, peace, and friendship, a necessary institutional structure was established.

Quakers were on their relief mission during the Great Famine in Ireland (1847-48) and their first official Friends War Victim Relief Committee was founded during the Franco-Prussian war (1870-71). It was at that time that the Quaker ‘logo’: an emblem with red and black stars and inscription reading: ‘No Discrimination’ was created.

Quaker war victim relief committees revived in Eastern Europe in 1876, in the Balkans in 1912; while in France, Holland. Russia, Germany, Austria, and also Poland in 1914-23. After 1900, they actively helped the interned Afrikaners in South Africa.

The British Nobel Peace Laureate, FSC, was created in 1927 in the result of the merge of some older organizations, and having first transformed into Quaker Peace and Service, it became Quaker Peace and Social Witness in 2001, promoting peace and societal issues, present, e.g., in Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia.

Quaker institutions have held conferences for diplomats as well as conferences for young leaders. Moreover, there is a Friends World Committee for Consultation at the UN.

In the interwar period and after the WW II outbreak, Quakers aided refugees from Germany, Spain, and also the Polish ones in France. In 1940-48, one of the committees was transformed into Friends Relief Service which tried to include Poland in its targeted territory.

Quakers assume that God reveals in man’s soul and everyone has been granted light that allows to see Him. Thus appeals can be made to everyone and thanks to Divine help this fragment of the individual’s soul can be activated,

Quakers claim equality. They fought against slavery and child labour (already in the 19th c.), they also speak of worker’s rights. Claiming that the majority of conflicts stem from injustice, when in America, they committed themselves to the cause of Indians, mestizos, migrating workers, prisoners, Afro-Americans, and the poor.

AFSC founded in 1917 to consolidate peace and social justice was to allow young people to decline the military service for reasons of belief and to do some form of alternative military service, called ‘the service of love’. Instead of going to the front, young people would travel to France to look after children, assisting in reconstruction works and aiding refugees. Similar activities also included Russia, Poland, Serbia, Germany, as well as Austria; later on, Quakers assisted refugees in France and air raid victims in London.

Following WW II, AFSC expanded its activity to Asia and the Middle East; the Committee assisted Arabs fleeing the Gaza Strip; victims of the Korean War, Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Algerian War; children and invalids from Vietnam; as well as victims of the Biafran War.

Quakers gradually shifted their emphasis to programmes meant to eliminate tensions leading to open military conflicts and social assistance ones.

There are about 340,000 Quakers leaving worldwide.

Monika Klimowska (PAP)

On the 13th World Summit of the Nobel Peace Laureates the organization will be represented by

Shan Cretin

Shan Cretin

Shan Cretin

Shan Cretin has been General Secretary at the American Friends Service Committee since 2010, responsible for AFSC’s worldwide peace and social justice programs.  She previously directed AFSC’s programs on peace, immigrant rights, prison reform, and food security in California, Hawaii, Arizona and New Mexico. Prior to coming to AFSC, Shan was a teacher, researcher and international consultant in public health, serving on the faculties of Harvard, Yale, MIT, UCLA, West China Medical University, and Shanghai Medical University.  In the 1980’s and 90’s, she conducted research on rural health insurance in the People’s Republic of China and mentored a collaborative project with Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian, Jordanian and Moroccan health professionals to improve health care in the Middle East. Co-founder of the Los Angeles chapter of Alternatives to Violence Project, she facilitated conflict resolution workshops at California youth correctional facilities. She serves on the boards of The California Endowment and Envision Peace Museum.

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