One hundred years ago, influential Quaker theologian and Haverford College professor Rufus Jones (1863-1948) helped found the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Philadelphia-based pacifist and humanitarian organization that exists to this day.
Emerging weeks after the United States entered World War I, AFSC provided a nonviolent alternative for conscientious objectors. Jones — who served as the organization’s first chairman — successfully lobbied the U.S. government to formally recognize AFSC as a substitute for armed service, enabling otherwise conscripted citizens to provide relief to refugees instead of fighting.
Under Jones’ leadership, AFSC volunteers trained on Haverford’s campus outside of Philadelphia to develop physical endurance as well as mechanical and agricultural skills to benefit the populations of war-torn France and Russia.
The organization’s focus on alleviating the plight of refugees on the international stage places it among the first of its kind in the United States. The public, however, did not unanimously admire AFSC’s ethical framework.
Encouraged in part by the U.S. government’s suppression of antiwar dissent, jingoism swept across the United States in the lead-up to its entry into the war. Congress passed the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act a year later, policies that led to the imprisonment of thousands.
By providing humanitarian assistance to those affected by the conflict in Europe, AFSC volunteers were able to steer clear of the sedition charges received by other pacifist activists such as Eugene V. Debs and Emma Goldman.
Yet when Henry J. Cadbury — Jones’ colleague at Haverford and an AFSC cofounder — published an editorial in the Philadelphia Public Ledger in 1918 critical of the war, he was dismissed from his job. Looking back, Cadbury’s editorial seems more prescient than controversial. He called for “moderation” and “fair play,” stating that “a peace on any other terms will be no peace at all, but will be the curse of the future.”
He was right. When the war ended, the victors demanded harsh reparations from Germany, ravaging its economy, fracturing its society, and setting the stage for the rise of Hitler’s Nazi party.
But while governments were sowing the seeds of future conflict through draconian surrender conditions, Philadelphia’s AFSC pursued its humanitarian mission. Under Jones’ leadership, AFSC organized 40,000 individuals to help feed one million hungry children on a daily basis. This massive effort earned its own German title: Quäkerspeisung, or “Quaker food.”
Jones stepped down as chair of the AFSC in 1928, only to take up the mantle again in 1935 after he retired from Haverford, where he had taught for 41 years. He was drawn back to the organization out of concern for Germany’s Jewish population.
On Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, Nazi paramilitary and German citizens initiated the infamous pogrom against Jews known as Kristallnacht. The AFSC opened a refugee center in Berlin, and a delegation that included Jones traveled to Germany to request just treatment of the Jewish population.
Jones and his colleagues were received by Nazi authorities out of deference to their help to Germans through the Quäkerspeisung program. But their efforts — as time would tell — came to naught.
Nonetheless, Jones and the AFSC possess an enduring legacy. Jones oversaw relief efforts in Austria, China, Hungary, Mexico, Palestine, Poland, Russia, and Spain, not to mention countless projects in the United States. In 1947 — one year before his passing — Jones traveled to Stockholm to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, co-awarded to AFSC and British Quakers for their relief work and helping Europe rebuild after two world wars.