Social Christianity and the American Friends Service Committee's Pacifist Humanitarianism in Germany and Appalachia, 1919-1941

Aiken, Guy, Religious Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Hedstrom, Matthew, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Childress, James, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Warren, Heather, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Zunz, Olivier, Department of History, University of Virginia
Watt, David, Department of History, Temple University

This dissertation asks whether the neutrality humanitarianism demands precludes the work for justice that peace requires. Through stories of the American Friends Service Committee’s (AFSC) mass child-feedings in interwar Germany and Appalachia, and its attempt to save all of Germany’s Jews and non-Aryans in the late 1930s, this dissertation provides historical data for humanitarians, pacifists, and even ethicists to ponder as they consider the relationship of means to ends in the pursuit of peace. It argues not that peacefulness in general, but that humanitarianism in particular, did little or nothing to help the AFSC achieve its ultimate goal in any of the interwar crises in which it intervened: to bring peace and banish conflict. This dissertation suggests that the Quakers of the AFSC failed to bring any true and lasting peace to any of the war zones it entered—political or industrial—at least in part because they succeeded so extravagantly as relief workers. Between its founding in 1917 and its co-acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 on behalf of Quakers worldwide, the AFSC learned well that the less powerful often need the help or permission of the more powerful in order to minister to the needs of the powerless. To have spoken truth to power would have cost the AFSC its claim to neutrality.

While neutrality is most recognizable as a principle of humanitarianism, the AFSC in the 1920s and 1930s almost never referred to itself as a strictly humanitarian agency. Instead it thought of itself primarily as an agency for the Christianization of the international and social order—that is, as a vehicle of social Christianity and the Social Gospel. It was, after all, a service committee. Protestant Social Gospel churches, or at least their ministers and lay elite, typically saw the church as a neutral mediator between warring social factions, especially capital and labor. Before the 1930s, these social Christians feared taking sides in social conflicts lest they become complicit in either side’s sins. In the abstract, this neutrality looks like craven captivity to capitalism. This history of the early AFSC offers another, perhaps fresh, way of looking at social Christians’ reluctance to take sides: it is one thing to denounce a social order and quite another to seek to mend those whom that order has broken. In such places what is necessary is not the righteous indignation of prophecy but the politics of neutrality.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
social gospel, church and state, Quakerism, social Christianity, humanitarianism, Society of Friends, pacifism, American foreign affairs, New Deal, Holocaust, mysticism, religion and labor
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