Remembering the first World Conference of Friends then and now

Tim Gee, a British Quaker, shares his reflections on the first World Conference of Friends in 1920, and what it allows him to explore in 2020 for  ‘Peace, Environment, and the Kingdom of Heaven.’

World Conference of Friends, 1920
During the lockdown, I’ve been doing a lot of reading. I don’t have access to a library, but I do have my Penguin anthology of Quaker Writings which runs from 1650 to 1920, finishing with a statement from the first World Conference of Friends. In August of that year, Friends from different countries and tendencies converged in London, where they reaffirmed their joint commitment to building the conditions for peace.

In most people’s minds, the ‘Great War’ was over, during which some Friends had fought and others had not. Following longstanding Quaker-supported campaigns, women in many parts of the world were at last winning the vote. In many countries, campaigns for economic equality were growing. In South Africa the freedom struggle was stirring and there were South African Quakers among those calling for an end to segregation. 

It was also the year that followed the Treaty of Versailles – the ‘peace agreement’ which helped lay the path for World War Two. Quaker aid workers travelled to Germany and by the middle of 1920 were feeding a million people daily. Joan Fry wrote home describing the despair and indignity caused by the Versaille Treaty and the resentment sown by shortages of essentials, but her warnings were not taken heed of by governments.

In some ways the ‘Great War’ was still continuing, but now against revolutionary Russia. There were protests against this, and one of the first actions of the World Conference of Friends was to send a letter of solidarity with peace protesters. Today we might wonder what might have happened had the early years of the Russian revolution not been committed to war. Might things have developed in a different way? Could the Cold War have been avoided? Would the Bomb have been built? Sadly, we can only wonder. 

Immediately following the World Conference of Friends, there was an international gathering of Young Friends, then another conference titled ‘Towards a New Social Order’. Speakers there warned that any system which has greed for its motive, and competition for its method will inevitably lead to war. The opening speaker described people feeling let down, which could lead either to construction of a better system or to a revengeful spirit. In hindsight it is as if she foresaw World War Two. But the people in power weren’t listening.   

What are we as Quakers being called to globally declare our opposition to in 2020?

This is front of mind for me because 2020 is a time of crisis too. Many people feel let down, which today too could lead either to something much better or something much worse. Our century’s version of the ‘New Social Order’ is the ‘Green New Deal’ – a sustainable and just route away from the overlapping crises we are experiencing. 

Although Quakers have worked for the environment for decades, it may seem as if environmental concerns are still relatively new to the Society of Friends, but I don’t see it that way. Our work for a just recovery is this generation’s attempt to secure the conditions for peace, for which Quakers have so long worked, reaffirmed at our first global conference, a century ago this year.