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Re-imagining a True Social Order: how the First World War shaped Quaker social action


By Dr Rachel Muers


In May 1918, Quakers in Britain gathered in London for their annual meeting. The times were turbulent. The death toll from the war continued to mount, it was the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, and many people and organisations in Britain were discussing radical social, political and religious change. Quakers themselves were embroiled in more immediate controversy. A national Quaker body had recently published a pamphlet attacking conscription, without submitting it to government censorship; during the 1918 meeting, three leading Quakers were put on trial for this breach of the Defence of the Realm Act, found guilty and sent to prison when they refused to pay fines. Some Quaker men were in prison for refusing all forms of war service. Many more had taken up alternative service as conscientious objectors; and, despite the Quaker tradition of opposition to militarism, about a third of Quaker men of military age had joined the armed forces.

In their 1918 meeting, alongside dealing with the immediate issues of war, censorship and conscription, British Quakers approved a short statement on the ‘Foundations of a True Social Order’. This text has had a lasting influence on British (and wider) Quaker approaches to social action. It has been reprinted in official publications throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century; it has been discussed and quoted, directly or indirectly, whenever Quakers consider their approach to a social issue. It’s short enough to quote in full:

  1. The Fatherhood of God, as revealed by Jesus Christ, should lead us toward a brotherhood which knows no restriction of race, sex or social class.
  2. This brotherhood should express itself in a social order which is directed, beyond all material ends, to the growth of personality truly related to God and man.
  3. The opportunity of full development, physical, moral and spiritual, should be assured to every member of the community, man, woman and child. The development of man’s full personality should not be hampered by unjust conditions nor crushed by economic pressure.
  4. We should seek for a way of living that will free us from the bondage of material things and mere conventions, that will raise no barrier between man and man, and will put no excessive burden of labour upon any by reason of our superfluous demands.
  5. The spiritual force of righteousness, loving-kindness and trust is mighty because of the appeal it makes to the best in every man, and when applied to industrial relations achieves great things.
  6. Our rejection of the methods of outward domination, and of the appeal to force, applies not only to international affairs, but to the whole problem of industrial control. Not through antagonism but through co-operation and goodwill can the best be obtained for each and all.
  7. Mutual service should be the principle upon which life is organised. Service, not private gain, should be the motive of all work.
  8. The ownership of material things, such as land and capital, should be so regulated as best to minister to the need and development of man.

A recent research project at Leeds, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council through the ‘Everyday Lives in War’ research centre and undertaken in partnership with Quakers in Britain, has looked at the ‘Foundations of a True Social Order’ and its continuing influence as an example of the ongoing legacy of the First World War. We structured the project as a back-and-forth movement between the historical records and contemporary Quakers – inviting Quakers involved in social action today to reflect on how the history of the ‘Foundations’ text relates to their work and the issues they face. Many of the fruits of our research are now available through an interactive website, where visitors can trace the connections between wartime and present-day Quaker thought and action.

Why is this a ‘First World War’ project? It’s not immediately obvious, just from looking at the ‘Foundations’ text on its own, what it has to do with the war – or why it should have been approved in 1918 rather than at any other time. However, it is the outcome of years of work by a remarkable group of Quakers from across Britain. They had been appointed in 1915, the first annual meeting after the outbreak of war, as a committee to study the relationship between war and the ‘social order’. Over the years that followed, they consulted widely, organised conferences, published pamphlets and books, and drew on their own varied expertise – as educators, political campaigners, employees, business owners, academics – to explore the connection between war and social injustice. The text finally approved in 1918 was based on the findings of one of their conferences.

The ‘Foundations’ text itself draws on several debates and conversations of the time – both theological and political. It picks up some of the common ideas and themes of early twentieth-century Christian Socialism – like the ‘universal brotherhood’ based on the ‘Fatherhood of God’, and the idea of a social order ‘directed beyond all material ends’ towards right relationships. By talking about “a way of living that… will put no excessive burden of labour upon any by reason of our superfluous demands” it picked up the well-established Quaker tradition of avoiding unnecessary luxury in dress and lifestyle, and gave it a social and political emphasis. There are echoes in the text – and not just in its title – of the Labour Party policy statement, Labour and the New Social Order, which was published the following month. For example, the Quaker text stated ‘The opportunity of full development, physical, moral and spiritual, should be assured to every member of the community, man, woman and child’ – and the Labour pamphlet called for a ‘national minimum’ to secure for ‘every member of the community… all the requisites of healthy life and worthy citizenship’.

There is little in the ‘Foundations’ text itself that was really original at the time. What makes it uniquely interesting, I would argue, is its context in this specific religious community – the fact that it was communally owned, with wide consultation and subsequently very wide dissemination, and the fact that it very quickly became a key reference point. Quaker decision-making processes, and the very flat structure of the organisation, mean that for the national body to approve the ‘Foundations’ required a very high level of acceptance of its ideas by ‘ordinary’ Quakers across the country. It also implied that there was an ongoing commitment to put it into practice – and our research has traced some of the struggles in subsequent years to work out what it meant and means, in practice, for Quakers to be committed to this vision of a ‘true social order’. For example, Quakers, individually and collectively, have called for and put into practice various social ‘experiments’, to try to bridge the gap between the vision of the true social order and what is currently possible. Quakers have also found different ways to negotiate the controversial issues around the connection between religious and political commitments. And Quakers’ distinctive decision-making processes – reaching unity without voting – alongside other Quaker traditions, have shaped how the ‘Foundations’ are taken up and worked with.

This in turn raises interesting questions about how we study religious texts – and especially texts that look like ‘official statements’ of the views of a religious group. What can we gain by digging into the processes by which these texts are prepared, agreed, disseminated, discussed and acted on? Does that process sometimes tell us more about the beliefs and attitudes of a group than the texts themselves? How do texts – perhaps looking beyond the obvious example of scriptural texts – function as symbols or focal points for religious communities? These are all fruitful questions for researchers on religion and public life – historically or in the present day.