Volume 9 Number 6
Friends in Deed
01 December 1996

For over 300 years the Quakers have been working for peace and acting as mediators. Campbell Leggat mines the experience of a group who have never been afraid to stand up to power or to listen at the deepest level.

`Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed,' states the preamble to UNESCO's Charter. Many groups and organizations claim to address this issue, including the United Nations itself. But few - if any - can match the track record which the Society of Friends, popularly known as the Quakers, have established.
The Quakers' experience of mediation and peace-work stretches through three centuries from the colonization of North America, through the American War of Independence and the Crimean War, to the Nigerian civil war, the independence of Zimbabwe and conflicts in today's headlines. Theirs is a quiet, and largely unreported, work, with a stress on listening which stems from the earliest days of their history.

The Society of Friends was founded in England by George Fox, almost 350 years ago at a time of religious turmoil. Throughout the seventeenth century people fought and kings were deposed over the question of what human authority could rightly interpret God's truth and grant salvation.

After four years of prayer, Bible-reading and discussion, Fox had a spiritual experience which convinced him that God is accessible to each person directly, that all are born with the potential of hearing God and that experience is more important than any words or form of worship. His followers developed a distinctive style of worship, where they gathered in silence until moved by the Spirit to speak.

Fox's teaching caught on quickly. Some referred to it as a revival of first century Christianity, which sought its inspiration directly in the words of Christ. Within 15 years, the Friends had grown to around 40,000 and their non-conformist ways had brought the wrath of the clerical and secular authorities down upon them. Prior to the Act of Toleration in 1689, over 15,000 Friends were thrown into prison for the `crimes' of holding meetings, not doffing their hats to their betters and refusing to swear oaths. But their numbers continued to increase, especially in Ireland and the American colonies, and to a lesser extent in the German states, Holland and France.

The central concept of Quakerism to this day is that each person has within them `that of God'. In spite of tensions over whether to withdraw from the evils of the world or to work for change, Quakers have maintained a strong sense of their mission in society. Today they are perhaps best known for their commitment to pacifism and for their work for peace. This has been a source of controversy since long before World War II. The Quakers themselves prefer to regard their stance as `non-violent resistance'.

Their early leaders saw themselves not as witnesses for peace so much as preachers of the truth of Christ. They believed that those who accepted Christ's message would naturally reject all forms of warfare. As early as 1678 Robert Barclay, the first systematizer of Quaker thought, wrote An epistle of love and friendly advice to the `ambassadors of the several princes of Europe, met at Nimeguen to consult the peace of Christendom', urging them `to give up their evil ways'. Thus began the Quaker tradition of `speaking truth to power'.

At the same time, across the Atlantic in the American colony of Rhode Island, the Quakers were struggling to stop the war between the colonists and the native Americans. A century later, they were at the heart of attempts to avert confrontation between the American colonies and the mother country. Robert Barclay's grandson, David, and John Fothergill carried out shuttle diplomacy between the British Cabinet and the American leader, Benjamin Franklin, who was then in London. But it was to no avail. The hawks in the British Cabinet who were closest to George III were determined to subdue those they saw as `rebellious subjects'.

The first recorded instance of Quakers being involved as `third parties', where they were not nationals of one side or the other, was in 1850, when Joseph Sturge and two colleagues tried to bring peace between Denmark and the duchies of Schleswig-Holstein. They had some success on the personal level with the Danish leaders, but in the end the issue was decided by the great international powers who forced the duchies to submit to Denmark. The lesson for the Quakers was always to take account of the global balance of power.

Sturge also led a mission to Tsar Nicholas in an attempt to avert the Crimean War (1853-6). The Tsar received them warmly, praised their ideals but said he could not ignore the plight of the Greek Church in Turkey. Meanwhile the British parliament voted to increase armaments, and the press depicted the Tsar as an aggressive tyrant.

The Quakers' efforts were widely publicized and brought down a torrent of abuse from the public and press, notably The Times. Yet four years after the war ended, the newspaper changed its tune and wrote of the `ill-starred' war, `never was so great an effort made for so worthless an object'.

The father of present-day Quaker mediation was Carl Heath, who joined the Friends in 1916 after eight years as Secretary of the British National Peace Council. He was convinced that peace work needed a firm religious base if it was to withstand the fervour of patriotic nationalism. He proposed a series of `Quaker embassies' in the capitals of the world, coordinated by a `foreign office' in London and staffed by `ambassadors and attach├ęs'. His broad vision was anything but modest and was considered too grandiose by the Society. So `embassy' gave way to `centre', and `ambassador' to `representative'.

Immediately after World War I, the Quakers concentrated on relief and reconstruction, with a mass feeding project in Germany in 1920-2. Meanwhile they opened centres in Paris, Vienna, Warsaw and other cities. They also opened a centre in Geneva with the encouragement of the undersecretary-general of the League of Nations, who was a Japanese Quaker. A series of luncheons were arranged where diplomats and others could meet and talk together.

The Quakers were among the first non-governmental organizations to be officially accredited to the United Nations after World War II. They established a house near the UN headquarters in New York, with the purpose of `strengthening the moral and spiritual values of UN delegates and officials'.

In the Twenties and Thirties the emphasis had been on spreading goodwill. In the Fifties and Sixties it was on bringing potential leaders together, across the barriers of culture and national interest, and exposing them to new insights into conflict resolution. This led to new programmes, such as international student seminars and conferences for diplomats.

While the student programmes were easily understood and readily accepted, the diplomats' conferences broke new ground. The idea was to give junior diplomats a chance to meet and talk unofficially and off-the-record. Most of those approached agreed to take part in the first conference, in Clarens, Switzerland, in 1952, but the British refused - on the grounds that their rule-book prohibited `any member of the Foreign Office from expressing his private views to anyone on any matter affecting the policy of his government in any area'. Those who did participate were enthusiastic, and the following year the British joined in.

These conferences continued for 24 years and involved over 1,400 diplomats, many of whom rose to senior positions. They established a network of people in international life who knew and respected the Quakers' approach and in many cases knew each other. Some have assisted the Quakers in their work of mediation.

What the Quakers call `mediation' is now often referred to by diplomats and international lawyers as `good offices'. To be effective it requires a high degree of trust and confidentiality. Many of the most interesting stories cannot be told until years after the events, and then only with the agreement of the parties involved. Few tasks are more searching of the personal qualities and motives of those involved.

Since World War II, the Quakers have been involved in many international and civil wars. Some are long-running conflicts which are still in the headlines, such as Kashmir or the Middle East. Others have passed into the history books, but even so the full facts about the Quakers' contribution have not emerged - such is their respect for confidentiality and their lack of self-promotion.

I was warmly welcomed when I visited Friends' House, the Quakers' London headquarters, and was provided with documentation of past activities. But my host only hinted at current ones and took care not to volunteer the names of public figures. No impressive testimonials from the great and the good were produced. He preferred not to be named or quoted, yet gave no sense of defensiveness - rather the contrary. He had the quiet unassuming manner of one who is secure in his calling.

One aspect of the Quaker approach was illustrated by three Friends who visited the Indian sub-continent following the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war over Kashmir. Impartiality is seen as an essential quality for third-party mediators, but it can also imply an aloofness which is not in keeping with the Quaker style of sympathetic listening.

In this instance, the Quakers went for what could be called `balanced partiality'. Their mission report included sections on `the Pakistan viewpoint' and `the Indian viewpoint'. In each, they expressed the historical facts and judgements from an insider's, rather than an observer's, standpoint. Readers on both sides later expressed satisfaction with the way their views had been portrayed, although they had grave doubts about the accuracy of the presentation of the other side's views! Each must, however, have been aware that a report which so accurately understood their situation could not easily be ignored in its evaluation of their opponents'.

Two of the best known and documented instances of Quaker mediation took place during the Nigerian civil war and Zimbabwe's transition to independence. The Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) evaluated these cases in Religion, the missing dimension of statecraft, a study of the role of religiously motivated third parties in international relations.

After the outbreak of war in Nigeria in 1967, the President of Niger and others approached the Quakers to convene a secret meeting of representatives from Biafra and the Federal Government. Key officials on both sides already knew the Quakers and respected the international and inter-ethnic workcamps which they had been running since independence.

By then most countries and international organizations had taken sides, often motivated by their own self-interest, and were not therefore well-placed to mediate. Britain, as the former colonial power, had sided with the Federal government, while France backed Biafra.

Two senior Quakers with experience of West Africa visited Lagos and met the Nigerian head of state, General Gowon, who encouraged them to pursue the proposal of a secret meeting. Although he could authorize them to travel to Biafra, he could not guarantee their safety as all flights to Biafra were suspected of carrying arms and were therefore the targets of federal anti-aircraft gunners. In spite of this, Quaker teams made four hazardous trips into Biafra - and their courage helped to win Gowon's respect.

They quickly found themselves communicating the perceptions of one party to the other. The secret meeting never took place and the war ended with a Federal victory rather than a negotiated peace settlement. But the aftermath saw a policy of magnanimity on the part of Gowon and a reconciliation between the former combatants which is rare in the annals of history.

One of those who took part in the Quaker missions was Adam Curle, an English academic who at that time was a professor at Harvard. Rather than offering advice, he stresses, the Quakers constantly sought advice from others. The most valuable role a conciliator can play is listening, he says - but at a profound level.

`Because of the fundamental belief that there is "that of God" in each person, Quaker conciliators treat the people with whom they are talking with particular respect and attention,' writes Curle. `They still the noise and confusion of their own thoughts and emotions and open themselves up completely to what the other person is trying to say, or perhaps feeling without expressing. This kind of listening has a very real effect on the person being listened to. They become calmer and more receptive and open to ideas.'

In Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, the Quakers came into `a situation where everyone else was lobbying for something', writes Ron Kraybill in the CSIS book. `The Quakers were a unique phenomenon: a travelling reservoir of unconditional and uncomplicated goodwill.'

The breadth of the Quakers' connections was remarkable, spanning the nationalist leaders, senior officials of the white governing regime, the leaders of neighbouring states and the British authorities. Apart from some British and American diplomats, who were constrained by their governments' agendas, no other group of people maintained such a broad range of contacts. They were also involved in relief work among the refugees in Zambia and Mozambique.

The Quakers sent a team to the Geneva Conference of 1976. Although the conference failed to bring the war to an end, the personal links the Quakers built at this time helped their future mediation efforts. Their listening skills opened the doors for further conversations, and their growing knowledge of the situation became a resource eagerly sought by the various parties. They acted as a channel of communication, while not betraying confidences.

As in the Nigerian situation, the Quakers failed in their attempts to set up off-the-record meetings between the top leaders. Yet with hindsight one can see how valuable their largely invisible role was.

It is never easy to evaluate the effectiveness of mediation and conciliation work: those who want to apportion credit will usually be disappointed. This does not seem to be an issue for the Quakers, who have a deeply held belief in the role of the unacknowledged servant.

If a conciliator believes in confidentiality, he or she must deny themself `many elements of ego satisfaction', maintains Mike Yarrow in his book, Quaker Experiences in International Conciliation. `It takes a certain amount of courage to intervene in a complicated, dangerous situation,' he continues. `To keep it up the conciliator needs some sense of satisfaction. All this can readily build up to a feeling that the individual is essential to the resolution of the conflict, and even that he or she has the solution. Such feelings are fatal to this kind of unofficial effort.'

The Quakers have, of course, received some public recognition. In 1947 the British and American Friends were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their post-war relief work. The citation stated that it was not the scale of their work, but the spirit that animated it, which was being honoured.

At a time when many still view the military option as a justifiable means of achieving their ends, the Quakers offer a much-needed alternative. While having their roots in the West and in the Christian faith, they have a wider universality which has much in common with Mahatma Gandhi, who had many Quaker friends and supporters, and admired their approach.

`Partisanship is our great curse,' wrote the American historian James Harvey Robinson. `We too readily assume that everything has two sides and that it is our duty to be on one side or the other.' In the modern world with all its complexities the truth of that statement is all too often demonstrated. That is why the Quakers' dogged determination to listen impartially is such an important contribution to the field of international reconciliation.
Campbell Leggat


Hi Campbell, this article has helped me to get an insight into the work of quakers during the troubles in Nigeria. I am going to Nigeria next week in order to organise a conference on NGO participation in the development of Nigeria and needed to have some insight into any work that we had been involved in previously. Thanks a lot and take care. Nigel
Nigel Kielczewski, 06 August 2007

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