Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Relief Given to Victims of Conflict

Quakers have long coupled their refusal to bear arms with the provision of relief to victims of war.  Their commitment typically does not end with the hostilities: they often elect to stay in an area long after other aid agencies have moved on, to help with rebuilding and development.

In 1755, when England and France were at war in Canada, French settlers in Nova Scotia were rounded up and deported.  When 500 of these refugees arrived in Philadelphia, Antony Benezet had homes built for them and helped families in hardship.

During the American War of Independence (1775–1783), Quakers were prevented by both sides from crossing military lines on errands of mercy, but in 1798, during the Irish Rebellion against British rule, their neutrality was recognised and they successfully gave aid to both sides.

When Germany was devastated by the Napoleonic Wars (1805-1816), British Quakers led by Luke Howard raised £7000 to relieve distress.

When Greece rebelled against Turkish rule in 1822, Quaker William Allen raised a subscription to provide relief.  The Greek Education Committee set up schools in Ionia through the 1830s.

Quakers opposed the Crimean War and refused to be involved with the military hospitals set up by Florence Nightingale.  But in 1856, when the war was over, Joseph Sturge set up a committee to relieve famine, with local distribution based in Lutheran parishes.

The first official Friends War Victims Relief Committee (FWVRC) was set up during the Franco-Prussian War (1870 – 1875). This was the first time the Quaker star was used as the badge of the Quaker relief worker, and the policy of giving aid equally to both sides was formally adopted.

The violent destruction of as many as seventy villages in Bulgaria in 1876 triggered an involvement of FWRVC in Eastern Europe that continued until the 1930s.

British Quakers opposed the Boer War in South Africa and supported the Anglican campaigner Emily Hobhouse in her work with Boer women and children in concentration camps 1900 – 1908.

Perhaps the best-known Quaker relief efforts were carried out in the period encompassing the two World Wars, for which they received the Nobel Prize in 1947.  The Friends Ambulance Unit, established in 1914, ran French ambulance convoys and helped in both civilian and military hospitals.  The Anglo-Italian ambulance service was separately established in 1915.

During and after WWI, FWVRC worked with refugees in Poland, Russia, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Russia, Germany, Austria, and Poland.  The Quäkerspeisung fed many malnourished children in Germany.

Both the American Friends Service Committee and the (British) Friends Service Council conducted relief operations in Spain during the Civil War (1936-39) and in refugee camps in southern France in the following two winters, setting up schools and a maternity hospital.

In 1933, after Hitler came to power, British and German Quakers helped many Jewish families to leave Germany.  In 1938-9, Quakers worked with Jewish organisations to help bring 10,000 children to the UK in what became known as the Kindertransport.

The FAU was re-formed in 1939 and undertook ambulance work in Europe and in North Africa and the Middle East. In Britain, they provided emergency relief in bombed cities and assistance in short staffed hospitals.  In the Far East, they  provided transport and medical relief in China - the 'China Convoy'.

Following the war in Gaza in 1948, Quakers, operating on behalf of the UN, were in the forefront of relief efforts among refugees.  In the aftermath of the Korean War (1950-53), the joint British-American Friends Service Unit provided humanitarian and medical aid. American Quaker Floyd Schmoe worked with local people in Japan and Korea to construct new homes in devastated areas.

In the 1960s, Canadian and American Friends provided medical aid to both sides during the Vietnam War. During the Nigerian Civil War (1967-70), Friends coupled mediation efforts with medical and famine relief. In the 1980s, Quakers in the USA and Canada helped to found the Sanctuary Movement, enabling refugees to flee violence in Central America.

Since 1980, the AFSC and Quaker Service Australia have provided humanitarian relief and development in Cambodia during and after civil war.

Kenyan Quakers responded to the post-election violence in 2007 with immediate relief for internally displaced people: they have worked ever since to heal community relations. Friends in Rwanda and Burundi are engaged in ongoing post-conflict work to heal and rebuild their communities.

Print this article

Further Reading and Credits

further reading

  • Greenwood, J.O, Quaker Encounters, Volume 1, Friends and Relief, William Sessions York 1975