Did not our Lord bear the heavy cross of wood to Calvary and almost sink beneath it? : Theology, Business, and Social Activism in the Philadelphia Quaker Community, 1907-1927

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Haverford College. Department of History
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In the early 20th century before the beginning of World War I many members of the Quaker community carried the perception that the Friends Meeting was becoming increasingly irrelevant in the city of Philadelphia. Starting with the United States entry into World War I, the Quaker Meetings in Philadelphia transformed from sanctuaries for people to nurture their inner spirits into cauldrons of ideas for an ambitious social mission. The 'total war' nature of World War I thrust the Quakers into public life. In a militarized society, how could Quakers uphold their religious commitment to peace without becoming traitors to the state? Quakers commitment to peace was the underlying fact that set them apart from civil society in the United States. Adhering to this principle in wartime forced the Quakers to set out on an ambitious program of social service and war relief, which began to turn the focus of the Meeting outward to the world around them. Called to action by the war, the Quakers became increasingly aware of the larger social problems around them. As Quakers surveyed and heard tales of the destruction in Europe, and witnessed the postwar uprisings in Germany and the United States, many became acutely concerned with the problems of economic inequality. The Quakers sought to bring about systemic reform to the capitalist system because they felt that inequitable industrial relations and the profit-seeking ambitions of business cause the ultimate evil of war. Most Quakers did not have any specific knowledge of industry or economics, they found these concepts to be scary and mysterious. Based on tales of unrest and poverty in Europe and their own industrial city, they felt something drastic needed to be done. Fearful Quaker reformers in postwar Philadelphia foreshadowed that if this inequitable system went unreformed, it would foster radical politics and lead again to war. Motivated by the belief that inequitable economics would lead to further war, many Quakers formed groups to read about and discuss labor law, industrial relations and reform to the ways businesses were managed. In the turbulent years after WWI, Quakers in Philadelphia spoke constantly about the need to eradicate the underlying causes of industrial unrest. The zeal for reform did not last. By the early 1920's, the post-war industrial upheaval in the United States subsided, and the frightening accounts of radicalism in Europe ceased to seem threatening and close to home. The 1920's were a return to peace, with a succession of three Republican and pro-business presidents. Reform to business and limits on the capitalist system took a backseat to other measures on the national agenda until the New Deal. Throughout the 1920's, a small tightly knit group of visionary businessmen and social scientists who were leaders in their professions, the Meeting community, and Quaker peace movements during WWI, continued to assert that business needed to be reformed for the long-term well-being of society. Because there was little hope of the Republican administrations of the 1920's adopting a policy of reform to business, these Quakers designed schemes to improve conditions and security for the working classes to be initiated by employers themselves. These acts, sometimes called 'corporate liberalism' and 'industrial welfare,' were silent measures which attempted but failed to prevent the collapse of the capitalist system, the onset of widespread suffering in the Great Depression, the rise of radicalism on the left and right side of the political spectrum, and war.