Friends Service Council

Nobel Lecture

Nobel Lecture*, December 12, 1947

The International Service of the Society of Friends


The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to two Committees of the Society of Friends. These have their headquarters in Philadelphia and London but are representative of the activities of Friends around the world, whether the line be drawn round the northern hemisphere from Scandinavia, through the American continent, Japan and China to India, or south from Great Britain, through western Europe, Africa, and Australia to New Zealand.

The Society of Friends had its origin in England three hundred years ago, but the zeal of early Friends quickly carried their faith overseas to many places, notably to the new communities of settlers in America. Consequently the larger groups of Friends are still found in Great Britain and the United States of America. Numerically the Society is small, only totalling approximately 150,000, but observers have often remarked that its influence is quite out of proportion to its numbers. We have undertaken the work in God’s name and we humbly offer thanks to Him if it has borne abundant fruit. We also want to give public recognition with gratitude for the devoted work done by very many men and women, not members of the Society, who have united in service with us because they shared our attitude towards suffering humanity. Without their aid and a great deal of generous financial support from the public, the work done in the name of Friends would have been very limited. Besides this help the Society owes a great debt to the cooperation of other bodies such as the Norwegian Fredsvenners Hjelpetjeneste [Friends of Peace Relief Service] and similar organizations in other countries. With all these people we share the honour that has come to us in the award of the Prize, and we hope that in any future work we may still have their support.

Appreciation is always encouraging, and this award has brought to us much that is pleasurable, not only in the recognition but in the expressions of goodwill from many of our friends. This is stimulating at a time when the need in the world is growing greater and material resources at our disposal become less and more difficult to obtain. But there also comes a great sense of responsibility to respond to the confidence shown in us. We are very conscious of our human inability to make an adequate response and we pray for strength if God desires us to continue in the work.

Because this responsibility has been laid upon us, I wish today to ask your understanding of the principles that lie at the root of the Quaker attitude to service and to show the resulting effect on the work undertaken.

Religious Foundation of Service

The full title of our Society is The Religious Society of Friends. Indeed it was the religious fervour of our forebears that caused them to “tremble before the Lord” that early won them the nickname of Quakers from the verb to quake or tremble. This nickname is no longer applicable to Friends in their quiet worship, but the name has remained although it has lost its original meaning.

The Society was born in a period when much that bore the name of religion was corrupt and very far removed from the teaching of Christ, and in the unrest of the times men were seeking for the foundation truths that would give them freedom of spirit. For years the young George Fox1, founder of the Society of Friends, had been seeking this freedom with an ever increasing sense of hopelessness. He could find no help from the formalism of the church of his time, and its religious leaders used argument or subterfuge that left him more and more conscious of his own inability to find a solution to the evil of the world. In 1647 the burden was lifted from him, not by a conviction that he was without sin, but that within his own soul he had the God-given capacity for Christ-likeness; that within him he had a measure of the same love and life, of the same mercy and power and of the same divine nature. He spoke of this measure of the divine in man as the “Light of Christ within”. He found that the spirit of Christ could speak directly to him and evoke within him the power to choose his way through the evil of life when he was willing to follow the light. He found too that this capacity lay within every man and that the light could shine through all men. This did not make him believe that all that men did was good; this was obviously untrue, but that there was within every man something fundamentally good that could be developed.

Upon this basic truth all the principles and actions of the Society of Friends are founded. Each man is seen as having intrinsic value, and Christ is equally concerned for the other man as for me. We all become part of the divine family, and as such we are all responsible for one another, carrying our share of the shame when wrong is done and of the burden of suffering. In this way a brotherhood is founded which renders impossible a lack of regard for others, and, as in a family circle, it is the weakest or the most in need that calls out the greatest desire to help; so the forgotten and suffering people of the world appeal to the hearts of Friends. It must not be thought that we flatter ourselves that we have this sense of oneness with humanity to such an extent that we are always alert to the needs of the situation, or that we have power to meet all the needs that we recognize. We do however believe that, in responding to the call of God by using the little sympathy that we have got, more will be given us. The great American Quaker, John Woolman2, who worked untiringly for the freedom of slaves, speaks of training oneself to “enter into the condition of others”. For this reason Friends have been prominent in social reform and in relief in times of special emergencies.

Personal Relationships

If Friends are to enter into the condition of others, it will be seen that, when undertaking relief work, they are not satisfied when only administering large impersonal schemes of feeding, clothing, and housing, but naturally desire to have personal contact with those in need. If this work is to be done abroad, there is always a danger that foreigners entering a country intent on helping may by their enthusiasm impose methods that are alien to the tradition and background of the people. Friends have aimed at entering into the life of the people. Often they have lamentably failed, but we rejoice to know of one of our workers who, feeling estranged from the working people of Germany by reason of her relief-team status, served as a tram conductress for a week, living, eating, and sharing the problems of her comrades. Or of another English girl, a midwife, who has donned a sari and is living with her students in the slums of Calcutta, quietly living down bitterness and racial animosity, with the result that at a meeting of Hindu men a shy young Indian student-midwife faced the group and condemned the method of retaliation, pleading for forgiveness and tolerance.

The same principle of belief in others that leads to this intimate sharing of life for the sake of understanding and better cooperation also forms the basis of the democratic methods of the Society of Friends. We strive to find corporately the right course to take, and as true progress is the result of man falling in with the will of the Creator, thus the periods of worship are the centre of all the work. Here in silent waiting upon God we seek for direction and, in fellowship with each other, try to interpret His will, whether it be in the conduct of business, the planning of a relief project, or the unravelling of difficult problems of personal relationship. Even when our work lies with peoples of different or of no faith, we invite them to share this search for divine direction, and many find themselves thus strengthened.

Self-help and Voluntary Service

The desire that others should share the knowledge that there lies within themselves a potential answer to evil, leads Friends to aim to draw out from those with whom they are in contact the will to strive for the betterment of their own conditions. We are therefore more convinced of the rightness of our work when first-stage relief has given place to rehabilitation.

At the close of the Spanish Civil War in 1939, Friends found themselves crossing the Pyrenees into France with the streams of refugees. At first little could be done for these people beyond endeavouring to supply the bare necessities of life. The workers were too fully occupied searching for medical supplies, blankets, and food to get much personal touch with individual refugees. Even this kind of work can lead to helping individuals to make readjustments, but it was years before the opportunity came for the most constructive work to begin. Much unemployment and misery were caused by the great number of men who had been disabled by the war. A small workshop was therefore established by British and American Friends for the manufacture of artificial limbs. One by one, the disabled men found new hope as they were able to become independent; by means of special appliances they were employed in the factory itself.

Or again in 1943 in Bengal, a small company of Friends was stationed in Calcutta at the time of the devastating flooding of the Ganges Delta, quickly followed by the famine. The country people flocked into the city, believing that there they would find food, but instead they lay starving and dying on the pavements. The Quaker team saw that the only satisfactory solution to the problem was to persuade the people to return to their villages, but their usual means of livelihood had gone. They would need to be established there in some form of productive work so that they might buy their own rations and look forward to an independent future. Thus a small mixed team of Indians and Westerners went to live in one village in order to set up temporary canteens, stimulate the reconstruction of the native mud-and-thatch houses, and establish a cooperative weaving industry. Many of the people were widows and did not know the craft, but, with a supply of looms and a skilled teacher, they soon became proficient and the village could be left to re-establish its life. The small number of Quaker workers could not deal with the whole problem of Bengal’s starving people, but by this and other demonstrations they helped to stimulate wider efforts of self-help.

It is usual for Quaker teams to try to lead people on from self-help towards the giving of voluntary service. Self-interest can re-establish a man’s self-esteem, but it is only the first step towards the realization of the brotherhood of man in the sight of God. By sharing his goods and, better still, sacrificing his time and energy, he can break down barriers and enter into the lives of others, developing the good within himself. In China it has been traditional for scholars not to soil their hands with manual work; yet, in company with Friends from America, Britain, Canada, and New Zealand, parties of students from the Chinese universities have spent their vacations building, hauling, and making bricks with their own hands as they shared in the reconstruction of war and flood devastated areas. They acclaimed with enthusiasm the joy of manual labour when it was raised from the menial to service for others.

Across Barriers of Class, Politics, Race, or Creed

An illustration from Poland may help to show the way in which the appeal to the good in people can cut across deep-rooted prejudices and break down political, national, and credal enmities.

Owing to the circumstances of Polish history, the population is very mixed in some areas, and recent happenings make it easy for ancient enmities to be fanned into flame, with dire results. In a village where the population was composed of Poles, Mazurs, Russians, and Germans, who belonged to Catholic, Orthodox, and Lutheran faiths, the British and American Quaker relief team brought a consignment of clothing, but there was only enough for the most needy cases. It was clear that this gesture of goodwill might easily arouse jealousies that would lead to internal strife. The help of local people must be enlisted, but should the clothing be divided in proportion to the size of the different sections of the people and be distributed by sectional agencies, or could one committee be entrusted to do the whole work? The latter was chosen, for Friends desire to break down barriers and believe that working together with a common aim can bring unity. By personal persuasion the committee was organized, including amongst its members a Protestant Polish pastor, a Catholic Polish priest, the wife of the local militia commandant, a Russian Orthodox priest, and a Russian abbess of the sect of Old Believers. They worked hard and patiently for three weeks, impartially weighing up the merits of the claimants for help, and although the clothing was not distributed evenly between the parties, there were no accusations of discrimination afterwards. Is it from such small seeds that confidence between conflicting groups spring?

All of us have much that is primitive in us, and Friends do not ignore the fact that emotions cause gulfs between groups of people, but, because of their belief in the power of man to respond to the divine within him, Quakers know that difficulties can be resolved; so they are frequently led into places of tension. In a spirit of reconciliation they try to clear away misunderstanding.

In recent history there have been few cases where bitterness has been higher than in India. During the communal riots a small Quaker team, composed of one American, one Briton, a Hindu and a Moslem, the latter two friends of the Friends, went to a village where false rumours had caused the Moslem section of the community to attack the Hindus, driving them out, destroying and pillaging their homes. The first task was to persuade the Moslems that their Hindu neighbours for many years had been good members of the community, and next to convince the Hindus that it was safe to return. The team won the confidence of both sides by impartial distribution of supplies and medical service to all in need. Within a few weeks the contending parties had been reconciled, and the Hindus were coming back to their homes as the united community worked to repair the damage. Before the team withdrew, Moslems, Hindus, and Christians came together in united worship silently to offer thanks to God for the reconciliation.

In these situations of tension, women take an equal, and often a leading, part, for there is equality of sex in the Society of Friends. Some of the most daring projects have been undertaken by women who cared so deeply for their neighbours, even though they had never seen them, that God cast out their fear. As early as 1658 a young English woman, realizing that the whole of Europe was menaced by the Turkish Sultan’s war threats, went alone, unarmed, across mountains and deserts to the heart of Turkey, where the young Sultan was encamped with his army. Here she delivered her message from God and was listened to as an ambassador, almost as a prophet, for, he said, no other would risk so much for his mission.

It was not only in the early days of the Society that women showed the strength that can overcome fear. In recent history, at the time of the entrance of an occupying army into one of the cities of Europe, a woman Friend believed that good lay even in the hearts of plundering troops. Although her young daughter was in the house, she trusted in beautiful music to draw out the best. She sat playing her piano whilst her neighbours crouched in fear in cellars. Her faith was justified: the soldiers stood around the house listening and, when they came to claim billets in her home, their rough manner had departed. And even on subsequent occasions, when they returned drunk at night, she won their respect and good behaviour by her music.

Positive Peace Program

Most of my illustrations have been drawn from the emergency work of Friends, but there are less spectacular outcomes of our belief that all men belong to the family of God. This conviction necessarily leads us to believe that all war is wrong. It is therefore not enough to make efforts to repair the damage that it does, but there must be positive methods used to appeal to the intellectual reasonableness of man. There must be understanding of the problems of relationships, and men must learn to live “in the life and power which takes away the occasion of all wars”. Friends will be found active in adult and youth education, but perhaps their unique contribution in the intellectual field of peacemaking has been made through the Friends’ International Centres. Over a period of twenty-seven years these have been established in many of the great cities of Europe and at some of the international crossroads of the East. The aim of such Centres is one of reconciliation and creative peacemaking, and a great variety of activities have resulted. Here men and women can come, seeking together the truths of the spirit, and find freedom of converse on neutral ground where conflicting views can be discussed in friendship. These Centres are staffed by people drawn from at least three and sometimes more countries and in themselves demonstrate the possibility of international understanding when united by the same spirit. From them Quaker ambassadors of peace can go out to plead with authorities or act as reconcilers in times of crisis.

As I have picked out one example after another, I have been conscious that many of them reveal methods and motives shared by all people of goodwill, and the Society of Friends makes no claim to the monopoly of any of them; rather would we proclaim the universality of the truth that binds us together and pray that the day may quickly come when all men will seek first the Kingdom of God.

* This Nobel lecture was delivered in the auditorium of the University of Oslo by Margaret A. Backhouse, speaking for the Friends Service Council (London). Miss Backhouse (1887- ), a former faculty member and warden of Westhill Training College (Birmingham, England) and a worker, lecturer, and international traveller for the British Friends, worked in the Friends Service Council (1942-1955) and at the time of her lecture was its chairman, as well as vice-chairman of Friends Relief Service – two posts which she held from 1943 to 1950. The text of the lecture is taken from Les Prix Nobel en 1947.

1. George Fox (1624-1691).

2. John Woolman (1720-1772), American itinerant Quaker preacher who was one of the first to oppose slavery in America.

From Nobel Lectures, Peace 1926-1950, Editor Frederick W. Haberman, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1972

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1947

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