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One Big, Happy Family? Quakers and the AFSC

Steve Cary
Stephen Cary, peace activist and longtime AFSC staff member. Photo: AFSC

Regularly we will be posting a piece inspired by the rich history and archives of AFSC. The below post is the first in the series. - Lucy

When I asked AFSC’s archivist, Don Davis, for some information about the history of the organization’s relationship with Quakers, he handed me a flash drive with over 100 documents.  There were some themes:  A few looked at the main bones of contention between the two bodies.  Most fretted over what was to be done.  But throughout all of them was a kind of nostalgia for the halcyon days when Quakers and the AFSC worked together in meaningful, impactful ways.  Why couldn’t the AFSC and Quakers just get along like they used to?  What does this tell us about our own failings and the failings of Quaker organizations?

After slogging through minute after minute from committees attempting to answer these questions, I came across a memo by then General Secretary Steve Cary entitled “Some thoughts on the Society of Friends/AFSC relationship” in 1983.  Perhaps two or three lines in, he writes:

“One can say that we all existed as one big happy family for only the first three years of the AFSC’s life, and have been vexed with frictions ever since.”

Yes, that’s right: AFSC and Quakers have been on the rocks for the past 92 years

When I read this line, I was reminded of a conversation I had last year with Quaker scholar Douglas Gwynn about early Friends.  Having encountered endless conversations on “what to do” about today’s brittle Quakerism, I was convinced that there must have been some magical time in our history when all Quakers were simultaneously radical, spiritually pure and organizationally unified.  I wanted Doug to shed light on what had “gone wrong” with Quakers, and why we still can’t get ourselves together.

You know what I learned?  We were never radical, spiritually pure and organizationally unified.  Or some Quakers were, for the first few years of the movement.  But our collective body has always been shifting, adjusting to current political and economic circumstances, influenced by the world around us and societal trends in thinking and being.

It follows that whether you’re conservative, radical, or somewhere in between, there is always a reason to be upset with the work of the AFSC.  Digging through the archives, I found several accounts of conservative Friends concerned about AFSC’s “anti-American” perspectives on communism during the 50s and 60s.  Likewise, I have heard plenty of radical baby-boomers express disappointment (likely well founded) that the organization failed to play a significant enough role in the civil rights movement. 

Many Quakers would like the AFSC to provide more opportunities for Quaker engagement, and believe the organization should be training future Quaker peace-makers.  On the other end of the spectrum, there are many Friends who agree that Quakers’ upper-middle class yearnings for fulfillment through patronizing and ineffective “service” should not be the work of AFSC.  The point is:  AFSC is never doing enough.  Or it’s doing too much of a bad thing.

What we can all agree upon, though, is that it is going to take more than one person or organization to create the Kingdom of God on earth.  We need to build allies, to use our different understandings of social justice to create real and lasting peace.  I see my peers doing it in our social media, in our artistic communities, in our social movements.  We want to create something new together.  Occupy was “diffuse” because it supported work that was already happening throughout the country.  It was speaking out to create a major cultural shift in what we value and how we work together.  We are no longer satisfied with narrow-mindedness.  We yearn to be whole.

If popular opinion about the AFSC is influenced by the ethos of change, then Quakers should stop worrying and start collaborating.  To borrow from the fall of 2011: We are the 99%.  Instead of fretting about our brokenness, let’s be whole right now.  Let’s start dreaming together.

Check out the full text of Cary's memo, as well as other documents from our archives.

Madeline SchaeferAbout the Author:  

Madeline Schaefer is the Friends Relations Fellow at AFSC.  She grew up in Philadelphia, surrounded by Quakers of all shapes and sizes.  After searching for stories and adventure in distant, cooler climes, she returned home only to find the richest ones right in her backyard.  Over the past three years, she has been exploring Quaker thought and culture through audio, a medium she grew to love at Carleton college’s student-run radio station.  Madeline lives with five lovely people in West Philadelphia, and is involved with Quakers throughout the Philadelphia region.

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