Formation of the American Friends Service Committee Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

During World War I, fourteen members of the Religious Society of Friends met in Philadelphia to establish the American Friends Service Committee, which helped establish relief programs in France and served as a resource for drafted conscientious objectors. After the war, the organization developed into a major overseas relief agency that assisted hospitals, food kitchens, and European refugees.

Summary of Event

On April 30, 1917, a few weeks after President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for the declaration of war that brought the United States into World War I, fourteen members of the Religious Society of Friends—commonly known as Quakers or Friends—met in Philadelphia to create an organization that would mirror the English Friends organizations providing relief on the battlefields of Europe. They developed the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in order to accomplish two primary goals: to provide support and service alternatives for conscientious objectors and to help the U.S. government initiate relief activities in France. American Friends Service Committee Humanitarianism;American Friends Service Committee [kw]Formation of the American Friends Service Committee (Apr. 30, 1917) [kw]American Friends Service Committee, Formation of the (Apr. 30, 1917) [kw]Friends Service Committee, Formation of the American (Apr. 30, 1917) American Friends Service Committee Humanitarianism;American Friends Service Committee [g]United States;Apr. 30, 1917: Formation of the American Friends Service Committee[04260] [c]Organizations and institutions;Apr. 30, 1917: Formation of the American Friends Service Committee[04260] [c]Social issues and reform;Apr. 30, 1917: Formation of the American Friends Service Committee[04260] [c]Humanitarianism and philanthropy;Apr. 30, 1917: Formation of the American Friends Service Committee[04260] Jones, Rufus Cadbury, Henry J. Baker, Newton D. Hoover, Herbert [p]Hoover, Herbert;food relief in Germany

On April 7, 1917, the day after the United States officially declared war, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker had submitted a bill to Congress that requested immediate institution of a military draft. Against this backdrop, Rufus Jones, an educator and theologian from Haverford College (founded in 1833 by members of the Religious Society of Friends), became the first chairman of the AFSC. Through World War I and into the 1920’s, Jones guided the organization as it developed programs to serve the United States and humanity.

The history of conscientious objectors—individuals whose personal beliefs are incompatible with military service—in the United States began with resistance to the creation of militias in the American colonies prior to the American Revolution. Traditionally, pacifism was the Society of Friends’s official policy, and although a majority of Quaker men joined the military and served during World War I, many refused to participate. In 1917, Congress limited exemptions from the draft to members of recognized groups with pacifist beliefs (including the Quakers), but there was no absolute exemption from military service.

People who qualified under the exemption were classified as noncombatants. They were frequently sent to army training camps, where they were often segregated and subject to verbal and occasionally physical abuse from other trainees, before being assigned to specific military duties. Furthermore, because some Americans considered any resistance to military service to be a form of treason, several conscientious objectors were jailed, and some were sentenced either to life imprisonment or to death. Although the death sentences were ultimately commuted, a few of these conscientious objectors died before their sentences were lifted.

One of the AFSC’s first actions was to form a unit of Quakers that worked in France under the direction of the American Red Cross, which President Wilson had chosen to lead relief efforts. A group of one hundred volunteers arrived at Haverford College in the summer of 1917 and began training while AFSC representatives in France negotiated the unit’s placement. Fortunately, the head of the American Red Cross in France was a former Haverford student and a friend of Rufus Jones who was sympathetic to the AFSC’s mission, and the Friends Reconstruction Unit began arriving in France in September of that year. The AFSC and the U.S. War Department agreed to furlough 116 men from the draft and send them and 20 women to France by the end of 1917. This unit worked with its English counterpart on reconstruction, medical relief, and agricultural projects.

Throughout the war years, the AFSC raised money to support its relief efforts and received additional funding from the Red Cross and the American government. Relief efforts continued after the war, and in 1919, Herbert Hoover, serving as administrator of food relief in Germany, asked the AFSC to take charge of a program that provided food to starving children in that nation. The organization continued to provide relief in Europe and Russia through the 1920’s. By 1924, the AFSC had secured its status with a board divided into four sections: foreign service, race relations, home service, and peace. The first domestically focused efforts began in the 1920’s and continued during the Great Depression in the 1930’s. Meanwhile, the AFSC’s relief work in war zones continued, especially during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and World War II (1939-1945).


Although the AFSC’s efforts were initially focused on alleviating conditions created by World War I, the group developed into one that provided assistance throughout the world. The success of the AFSC’s campaigns during World War I was a source of pride for Quakers in the United States and established the AFSC’s reputation as an agency whose willingness to provide humanitarian aid was independent of the relationship between aid recipients and the U.S. government. As a result, the AFSC was recognized as a legitimate organization even by countries that had tense relations with the United States, such as the Soviet Union.

In 1947, the AFSC was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Nobel Prize recipients;American Friends Service Committee Speaking on the organization’s behalf on that occasion, Henry J. Cadbury, the AFSC’s second chairman, acknowledged the difficulties faced by Quakers and other pacifists when a country and its civilian population mobilize for war, and he reminded his audience that the AFSC’s focus on preventing war stemmed from its beginnings as a defender of pacifists whose beliefs were considered disloyal or unpatriotic. American Friends Service Committee Humanitarianism;American Friends Service Committee

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bacon, Margaret Hope. Let This Life Speak: The Legacy of Henry Joel Cadbury. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987. Gives a nice overview of one of the founders of the AFSC but fails to provide insights into his politics and actions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barbour, Hugh, and J. William Frost. The Quakers. Richmond, Ind.: Friends United Press, 1994. One of the best single-volume studies of Quaker history available.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brock, Peter, ed.“These Strange Criminals”: An Anthology of Prison Memoirs by Conscientious Objectors from the Great War to the Good War. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004. A compilation of diaries, memoirs, and interviews with imprisoned conscientious objectors, including three Americans imprisoned for refusing to fight during World War I.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hamm, Thomas D. The Quakers in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. Provides some history of the Quakers but focuses primarily on the practices of various Quaker groups in the twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jones, Mary Hoxie. Swords into Ploughshares: An Account of the American Friends Service Committee, 1917-1937. 1937. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972. Provides an excellent introduction to the formation of the AFSC. Includes accounts of the organization’s relief work in France.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jones, Rufus Matthew. A Service of Love in Wartime: American Friends’ Relief Work in Europe, 1917-1919. New York: Macmillan, 1920. Vivid description of the founding of the AFSC and of Quakers’ service during World War I and the postwar years by the first chairman of the AFSC.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levi, Margaret. Consent, Dissent, and Patriotism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. A comparative history of military service in selected countries, including the United States, from the role of citizenship to conscription and conscientious objection.

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Categories: History