Relief Given to Those Suffering for Their Beliefs
Quakers suffered widely for their beliefs in the 17th Century. Since then they have reached out to others suffering in a similar way, helping religious dissidents and political prisoners around the world.
Many early Friends were imprisoned in Britain, leaving families (sometimes just children) to fend for themselves. Prisoners at this time were dependent on friends and charitable institutions for food, nursing and other comforts. Further afield, Quakers were imprisoned in the Bastille, by the Inquisition in Spanish held territory, and by the Moors on the Barbary Coast. The Puritan colony in Massachusetts enacted draconian laws against the Quakers and many were jailed there under very harsh conditions.
From the beginning, Friends raised large sums of money to support fellow members suffering in this way. Elizabeth Hooton carried food to Friends in prison in Boston. In 1675, at a time when many Friends in Britain were imprisoned for refusing to swear oaths, Meeting for Sufferings was established to provide aid.
By the end of the 17th Century and the beginning of the 18th, as conditions for Quakers were generally becoming easier, Quakers began to look outwards, towards other groups who were suffering in a similar way. Quakers raised money in support of groups such as the Pietists and Mennonites in Germany and the Huguenots in the south of France, providing aid both at home, and as they arrived in Britain as refugees. One such refugee was the future abolitionist Antony Benezet who fled France with his family in 1685.
Quakers travelling in Russia in the early 19th Century encountered a number of Russian sects including Mennonites, Anabaptists and Dukhobors, who dissented from the Russian Orthodox church and with whose views Quakers were in accord. Tsar Alexander I had been broadly tolerant of these groups, but when Nicholas I succeeded his brother in 1825 that tolerance ended. Russia introduced universal conscription, which the pacifist Mennonites refused to comply with. In 1873, American and Canadian Quakers helped to negotiate with their governments to give Mennonite emigrants the right to settle. In the 1890s, when the Dukhobors were subjected to brutal attacks by Cossacks for similarly refusing conscription, British Quakers raised money and helped negotiate with the Canadian government for the right of almost seven thousand Dukhobor refugees to settle in the North West Territory.
In 1896, it was reported to London Yearly Meeting that as many as sixty thousand Christians had been massacred in Armenia. Against the advice of the British Foreign Office, Quaker J Rendel Harris and his wife travelled to Armenia to report on conditions there. By the end of the year Quakers, led by the American Katherine Fraser, were supporting refugees in Varna in Bulgaria, feeding and clothing them and setting up boot making and other workshops by which they could support themselves.
Before and during the Second World War, many German Quakers took personal risks to help those targeted by the Nazis, hiding Jewish families, visiting concentration camps and sitting in solidarity with Jewish families while they waited to be deported. In Britain, Bertha Bracey helped establish the Germany Emergency Committee in 1933, helping many Jewish families to leave Germany. After Kristallnacht in 1938, when conditions for Jews in Germany worsened, Quakers worked with Jewish organisations to help bring ten thousand children to the UK in what became known as the Kindertransport.
Quakers like Eleanor Atkins campaigned to free Greek political prisoners during the Colonels’ regime in Greece in the late 1960s and early 1970s and publicised the internment of Soviet dissenters in psychiatric hospitals. Others such as Dorothy Birtles visited political prisoners in Chile in the 1980s.
Quakers were instrumental in setting up Amnesty International. Using his contacts, experience and position, Quaker Eric Baker campaigned for the humane treatment of political prisoners. He helped write an article for The Observer entitled “The Forgotten Prisoner” in 1961. This article called for “the amnesty of all political prisoners” and began a campaign that resulted in the founding of Amnesty International in 1962. Many Friends continue to be involved with Amnesty International, both as members and as volunteers.