Laying the foundation for the Service Committee
By Greg Elliott
Rufus Jones holds a singular place in the history of the Religious Society of Friends, which he preferred to call a “movement” rather than a religion. Words have been written about him that seem almost implausibly lofty – “the greatest spiritual teacher … since William James,” “the greatest Quaker since the founders of our Society,” and “one of the greatest men of his time.”
Looking at his resume, one begins to understand the praise— author of over 50 books and numerous articles and pamphlets, 41 years as a professor at Haverford College, and the co-founder of Five Years Meeting, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and the American Friends Service Committee. He was a “teacher, preacher, lecturer, organizer, world traveler, author, statesman, and diplomat.” Rufus can even be credited with the popularization of the now famous George Fox quote that there is “that of God” in everyone—now a central tenet of North American, liberal Quakerism and one of the spiritual foundations of AFSC.
But it was not Rufus’ intention to play such a major role in AFSC when he originally accepted the position as its first chairman in 1917. It was only three weeks after the start of World War I, and Rufus was a full-time professor at Haverford College. He agreed to serve as chairman, “providing it did not demand too much of his time.” Later, his daughter, Mary Hoxie Jones, commented, “The condition of his acceptance is amusing for there was hardly a day for many years when he was not involved in some service for the AFSC.”
With Rufus’ persistent efforts, he was able to convince the U.S. military to recognize AFSC as an alternative to military service in World War I for conscientious objectors. AFSC sent its first group of conscientious objectors and volunteers to France to do relief work related to food, housing, and medical care.
Throughout his tenure as chairman and honorary chairman, Rufus also oversaw and initiated relief work in Russia, Hungary, Austria, Poland, Germany, China, Palestine, Spain, Mexico, and also domestically through the work camp program. He was a consummate statesman, and he gave the fledgling Service Committee a level of credibility that it otherwise would not have had. Rufus’ approach to relief work and alternative service laid the foundation for AFSC’s current international programs and built trust across the globe for AFSC as a steadfast partner for peace and justice.
With all the great writing that Rufus did in his lifetime, it only makes sense to give him the final word: “Someday—not too far off, I hope—the storms of battle will be over and the fogs of hate will pass, and then there will come the most important world-building tasks we have ever known for a restored humanity, relighting the lamps that have gone out. It will call for faith and hope and love as well as wisdom, and it will call for persons who can be to the Eternal God what a man’s hand is to a man.”