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Speech by Gunnar Jahn

Speech by Gunnar Jahn

Chairman, Nobel Committee, and
Director of the Bank of Norway,
at the presentation of
The Nobel Peace Award for 1947
Oslo, Dec. 10, 1947
© The Nobel Foundation 1947

It is now three hundred years since George Fox laid the foundation of the community of Quakers. It was during a time of civil war in England. a period filled with religious and political strife which led to the Protectorate under Cromwell. Today we would probably call it a dictatorship. The same thing happened then as on so many other occasions when a political or religious movement has been successful. It is apt to forget what it originally set out to achieve, namely its right to freedom. When the movement has come into power it will not grant to others what it struggled to obtain for itself. That is what happened in the case of the Presbyterians and in the case of the Independents after them. It was not the spirit of toleration and humanity that conquered.

This was experienced by George Fox and many of his associates during the ensuing years, but they did not take up an armed fight such as the custom is among men. They went their own quiet way because they were opposed to any use of force. They believed that in the long run spiritual weapons would lead to victory, and this belief had been acquired through inward experience. What they regarded as important was life itself and not the forms it assumed. Formalities, theories and doctrines have never been a matter of importance to them, and, therefore, from the outset, they have been a community without any strict organization. This has given the movement an inner strength, a more unbiased view of their fellow men, and a greater degree of toleration towards others than is found in most organized religious communities.

In the beginning the Quaker movement was limited to England, but at an early stage, in 1656, they found their way to the United States of America where, at first, they were not welcome. But they held out in spite of persecution, and in the last quarter of the century they gained a firm foothold. Everybody has heard about William Penn, the Quaker who founded Philadelphia and the colony of Pennsylvania. It is believed that as early as about 1700 there were 50 to 60,000 Quakers in the United States and about the same number in England.

Since that time the Quakers have led their own lives. Many of them have had to suffer for their faith, and many things have changed during these three hundred years.. Outward customs in respect to clothing, adopted by the first Quakers, have been discarded. The Quakers now live in a community which externally is entirely different from the community of the seventeenth century; but the people around them have not changed, and the obstacles to be surmounted within the individual men and women have not diminished.

The community of Quakers has never been numerous, hardly very much more than well over 200,000 in the whole world. The majority live in the United States and England. However, it is not the number that matters. What counts is their inner strength and their deeds.

If we study the history of the Quakers we are overwhelmed by the fortitude which they have acquired, through their faith and by trying to live up to that faith. They have always been opposed to the use of force in any form or shape. The fact that they have refused to take part in war has led many people to believe that this is the essential part of their religion. But the matter is not quite so simple. It is true that the declaration of 1660 contains the following words: "We utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fighting with outward weapons to any end and under any pretense whatever. This is our testimony to the whole world." In this declaration there is implied much more than a mere refusal to take part in war. It amounts to the following: It is better to suffer injustice than to exercise injustice. In the end victory must come from within the individual man or woman.

Presumably it is safe to say, without doing injustice to any one, that during certain periods the Quakers have directed more attention to themselves and their inward lives than to the society in which they were living. As one of their own historians has said, there was an element of passivity in their attitude. They wanted to be regarded as belonging to those who are the quiet in the land. But no person can fulfill his work in life if he will only be one of the quiet and live his own life isolated from others.

Nor was this course of action adopted by the Quakers. They, too, were to go out among the people, not in order to convert them, but in order to participate actively in community life and, still more, in order to offer their aid where aid was needed, and in order to let good deeds make their own appeal and so to establish contact between men.

On this occasion I can only mention some casual features to throw light on what the Quakers have done. They took part in the creation of the first peace organization in 1810, and since then they have assisted in all active peace movements. I would mention Elizabeth Fry, John Woolman, and their associates in their campaign against slavery and their struggle for social justice. I would also refer to that liberal idealist, John Bright, and his forty years of struggle against the principles of war and for the principles of peace, his opposition to the Crimean War and his fight against Palmerston's policy. Many other examples might be mentioned of how their active efforts in community work -- or in politics, if you prefer that word -- increased during the nineteenth century.

But it is not this aspect of their activities .-- the positive, political aspect --- which places the Quakers in a special position. It is the silent help from the nameless to the nameless which is their contribution to the promotion of brotherhood among nations, as it is expressed in the will of Alfred Nobel. Their work started in the prisons. During the Napoleonic War we heard about them from our seamen who "were in prison years on end," and we heard about them again during the Irish famine in 1846 - 47. When British naval forces had bombarded the Finnish coast during the Crimean War, the Quakers went there to heal the wounds of war. They were also in France when war had ravaged in that country in 1870 - 71.

When the first World War broke out, the Quakers again experienced what it meant to suffer for their faith. They refused to carry arms, and many of them were put into prison, where they were often worse treated than if they had been criminals. But it is not these events which will remain longest in our memory. We who have lived consciously through the first World War and the inter-war period will probably most clearly remember the reports of their work to relieve the distress caused by the war. As early as 1914 the English Quakers started to prepare relief schemes. They set to work in the Marne district of France, and to the largest practicable extent they were on the spot where there had been devastations of war. In this manner they went on during the whole war. When it was over, they had to face even greater tasks. Then -- as now -- hunger and sickness followed in the wake of war. We all remember the years of famine in Russia in 1920 - 21 and Nansen's appeal to humanity for aid. We remember the misery of the children in Vienna which lasted year after year. Everywhere the Quakers took part in the work. The Friends Service Committee undertook, at Mr. Hoover's request, the enormous task of providing food to the sick and undernourished children in Germany. Their assistance corps was in activity in Poland and Serbia, and they continued their work in France. Later on, during the civil war in Spain, they rendered help on both sides of the front.

The Quakers gained confidence in all quarters through their work. Governments and individuals knew that they had no other aim than to aid. They did not intrude on people in order to convert them to their faith, and they made no difference between friend and foe. It is proof of this confidence that the Quakers were put in charge of large funds which had been given by others. The means which the Quakers themselves could afford would not have amounted to very much, as most Quakers are people of small means.

During the inter-war period the scope of their social service activities was also extended. In a certain sense it was not a new development, but it was rather a change in the character of the problems which led to another form of activities. Constructive work became more important, education and teaching played a greater part, and there was more opportunity for talking to people than during a time when the one and only necessity seemed to be to provide food and clothes. What the Quakers achieved among American miners in West Virginia is an impressive example of their activities. They have solved the housing problem and provided new work for the unemployed. They have created a little new community. As one of their own members has written, they have succeeded in restoring self-respect and confidence in life in people to whom living seemed hopeless. And that is only one example out of many.

The second World War did not affect the Quakers personally in the same manner as the war of 1914. Both in England and the United States the conscription laws allowed the Quakers to perform other duties instead of military service, so they were not put in prison or persecuted because they would not take part in war. Incidentally, during this war some Quakers did not refuse to take an active part in the fighting; but their number was small compared to those who chose to take up work in aid of the victims of war. When the war broke out the first task that awaited them was to help the refugees. But great difficulties were encountered, as foreign frontiers were soon closed. The greater part of Europe was soon occupied by the Germans and the United States only remained neutral for a short time. In most places where the Germans came the Quakers were not admitted. It is true that in Poland they were allowed to help, but the Germans prescribed as a condition that they themselves should decide who was to receive aid and on such terms the Quakers were unable to operate. Still, they worked where they could. First, they were connected with welfare work in England and, later on, behind the front in many countries of Europe, Asia, and also America, where the whole Japanese-American population -- a total of 112,000 persons, of which 80,000 were American Citizens -- were evacuated from the West Coast. In this situation, the Quakers came to their assistance and opposed the anti-Japanese feeling which was also causing injury to these people.

Since the war there has been more need for help than ever before. This not only applies to Europe but equally to large parts of Asia. The problems are gradually becoming overwhelming: Prisoners coming out of the concentration camps in 1945; all the people who had to be repatriated from compulsory labour or internment as prisoners of war in enemy countries; all the displaced persons who have no country to which they can return; all those who are homeless in their own country; all the orphans, all those who are starving or about to die from starvation. Here, it is not only a question of giving people food and clothes. It is a question of bringing them back to life and employment, of restoring their faith and confidence in the future ahead of them. It is a question of restoring the integrity of the individual. This time, also, the Quakers are taking part everywhere. As soon as a country was opened again, they were on the spot, in Europe as well as in Asia, among fellow countrymen and friends as well as among previous enemies, in France as well as in Germany, in India as well as in Japan. It is not easy to measure the extent of their aid, and it is not something which can be assessed in money. Still perhaps it may be some indication that the budget of the American Committee for last year amounted to 46 million Norwegian kroner. And that figure shows only what the American Committee had at its disposal. Quakers from all countries have also taken an active and personal part in the work of other relief organizations. Thus they have taken part in the activities of UNRRA in several places, such as Vienna and Greece.

Today the Quakers are deeply engaged in an effort which will continue for many years to come. But even if we were to take a closer look at the individual relief schemes it would not give us any better insight into the real significance of their work. It is not the extent of their work or its practical form which is most important in assessing the services rendered by the Quakers to people whom they have met. It is rather the spirit which animates their work. "We weren't sent out to make converts," said a young Quaker, "we've come out for a definite purpose, to build up in a spirit of love what has been destroyed in a spirit of hatred. We're not missionaries. We can't tell if even one person will. be converted to Quakerism. Things like that don't happen in a hurry. When our work is finished it doesn't mean that our influence dies with it. We have not come out to show the world how wonderful we are. No, the thing that seems most important is the fact that while the world is waging a war in the name of Christ, we can bind up the wounds of war in the name of Christ. Religion means very little until it is translated into positive action."

This is the message of good deeds, the message that men can come into contact with one another in spite of war and in spite of difference of race. May we believe that here there is hope of laying a foundation for peace among nations, of building. up peace in man himself, so that it becomes impossible to settle disputes by use of force. We all know that we have not advanced far along that way. And yet, when we now regard the great willingness to help those who have suffered, a generosity which was unknown before the war, and which is often greatest among those whose means are smallest, is there not still a hope that there is something in man's soul on which one can build, so that we shall succeed some day, if we are only given a chance to speak with people in all countries.

The Quakers have shown us that it is possible to carry into action something which is deeply rooted in the minds of many; Sympathy with others; the desire to help others; that significant expression of sympathy between men, without regard to nationality or race; feelings which, when carried into deeds, must provide the foundation of a lasting peace. For this reason they are today worthy of receiving Nobel's Peace Prize.

But they have also given us something else: They have demonstrated the strength which is founded on the faith in the victory of spirit over force.

That recalls to my mind some lines in one of Arnulf Øverland's poems which helped so many of us during the war. I can give you no better message from us than these lines:

"The unarmed only
has inexhaustible sources.
Only the spirit can win."