The World Conference of Friends

The first-ever world-wide conference of Friends took place between 12th and 20th August 1920, in Devonshire House, London, with 963 delegates. It could not have been held at a more critical moment.

The Peace Testimony

Besides consolidating Quakers’ world-wide opposition to war, the hope of the conference was to build upon their common anti-war commitment to bring together Evangelical Friends, Conservative Friends and mystical Friends (Gurneyites, Wilburites and Hicksites) in a common approach to post-war social and political problems.

Foundations of a true Social Order

Apart from the Jolly George and the theological divisions there were other tensions within the gathering. The Great War had had two effects, among younger Friends especially.

It had tended to separate those who had chosen to serve in the armed forces from those who had refused. Quakers as a body had held fast to their Peace Testimony, and Friends returning from the trenches, who believed their own decision had been conscience-driven, felt they were seen as second-class Friends. Tension between the two streams, particularly in London Yearly Meeting, surfaced even within the World Conference.

Many who had suffered imprisonment had been radicalised by the experience they had shared with anti-War socialists such as Fenner Brockway and Bertrand Russell. In 1918 London Yearly Meeting, largely under their influence, accepted a list of eight Foundations of a True Social Order. (This list is reprinted in the current Quaker Faith and Practice, Section 23.16, with a preface which may indirectly suggest that misgivings in the 1994 Revision Committee were not restricted to the use of non-inclusive language). The eighth Foundation reads:
"The ownership of material things, such as land and capital, should be so regulated as best to minister to the need and development of man".
It was, in all but name, a socialist manifesto: a far cry from the proverbial Quaker association with banking and chocolate bars.

Some Friends wanted to go further. John William Allanson told the World Conference:
“People accuse me of supporting the class war. Of course I do, because I am definitely a Christian. … … The man who works is the only man who ought to be considered in society, because he is the man on whom society is dependent for all its wealth in the future”.
It was clear from the outset that some American Friends, notably Midwest Republicans, were reluctant to share the radicalism of British enthusiasts. Additional divisions between British and American Friends had been anticipated. An American Friend, William C Allen, had drafted a statement on Anglo-American Relations. This was not formally presented at the Conference, but was attached as an appendix to the published proceedings. He listed nine roots of ill-feeling, of which the first two may raise eyebrows in a Quaker context:
1. Contention between the officers of the Army and Navy of both countries as to who won the war.

2. Prohibition in America has been a poignant dose to most users of intoxicants in the Empire – many of these good folks cordially dislike America because they fear they may have to give up intoxicants if their country is going to compete successfully with the more sober efficiency of the United States.

The First Session

The first afternoon session of the Conference was devoted to the Character and Basis of the (Peace) Testimony. The opening speakers emphasised the spiritual nature of the testimony. Thus Elizabeth Cadbury (London Yearly Meeting) declared:
“One admires the Labour Party for taking stern action in regard to the present proposed (Polish) war. But their reasons are largely economic and material. We ought to emphasise the Christian side”.
A different emphasis was offered by Joseph Southall (London YM), a prominent peace advocate during the inter-war years:
“Humanly speaking, the action of Labour is the one thing that stands between us and a great blunder and a great crime. … I want us to respect the standpoint of Labour. It is easy to be religious and not materialistic when one’s circumstances are easy and comfortable”.
Sara Carr (London YM) was even more forthright:
“I was glad and thankful that the great Labour gathering was taking place to prevent another outbreak of war. Could we not send a message of loving greeting and encouragement to these people who are met together with the same purpose as we are, to prevent war and bring peace?”
The minute of the session makes no reference to Sara Carr’s suggestion, which was clearly controversial, but a footnote to the Official Report of the Conference records that “the suggestion to send a message to the Council of Action of the Labour Party was referred to the Business Committee for them to consider and report to a subsequent session”. (The Business Committee seems to have undertaken some of the duties of an Arrangements Committee, an Agenda Committee, a Drafting Committee, a Nominations Committee and a meeting of Elders).


The question resurfaced on the Monday evening 16th August. Friends were by then clear that the Conference should issue a statement reaffirming their testimony against all war, but were exercised over whether to address the message just to fellow-Quakers, or to the world beyond. Finally the Conference agreed to address “Friends and fellow seekers” and, through them, the world at large. This seemed the simplest and humblest way to communicate. The Business Committee went away to bring in nominations for a drafting committee.

A group of Friends, mainly from London YM, was still uneasy. The matter was raised again at the Thursday morning session, 19th August. Some speakers maintained that the question was one for London Yearly Meeting, and should be dealt with by London YM’s Meeting for Sufferings. Others were for shelving the question altogether. Among them James Wood, of New York Yearly Meeting, felt strongly that the Council of Action was “seeking to dictate peace with a club in its hands”. The Chairman asked for a period of silence, after which the matter was once again referred back to the Business Committee.

Still uneasy, a group of Friends (whom The Friend described as the Socialist group) met in one of the committee rooms in Devonshire House to seek further guidance. After a time of silent waiting they resolved to draft their own letter to the Council of Action in the hope that the Conference might be led to adopt it.

Writing many years later, Maurice Rowntree recalled:
"Humanly speaking [its adoption] seemed most unlikely, as the Conference had a crowded agenda of pressing business, and there seemed likely to be continued strong opposition. We felt, however, that every possible effort ought to be made, and it became clear to us that A.C. [Albert Cotterell, a Friend from Gerrard’s Cross, Bucks], one of our number, should introduce the letter if leave could be obtained. The Business Committee, after some hesitation, agreed to give him ten minutes on the afternoon of the last day of the Conference.

The final afternoon

Accordingly, on the last afternoon of the Conference, Friday 20th August, Albert Cotterell made a final plea:
“I speak not on behalf of myself alone, but on behalf of a large body of Friends who have given consideration to the question of addressing the Council of Action. … …I have the draft of a letter prepared for and approved by a group I represent, which I should be very glad to have read.

“We believe that today there lies a wonderful psychological opportunity before Friends of influencing the Labour Movement through their appointed body. There are pacifists upon the Council of Action, and there are many others who are willing to listen if Friends address them directly. If we do not seize this opportunity it will pass us by and Labour will move forward untouched by the Christian Church. In the great railway strike a year ago, the burden of the position so weighed upon a Jordans meeting, that Friends there sent three of their number into London to interview the leaders of the National Union of Railwaymen and the Prime Minister. J H Thomas, the leader of the railwaymen, received them cordially and sympathetically and gratefully, saying that they were the first Christian body who had come to offer them sympathy. So far as I know, not a single united method of violence was used by any of these railwaymen, much as they were provoked to do it. I say, and I plead with you, that this is your psychological opportunity of again impressing upon the united body of Labour the value of such methods.

“ … Lastly, I simply want to say that we Friends, who feel so strongly that this is the opportunity, are willing to bow to the judgment of this Conference. We do not wish, much as it has been advocated, to take any separate action, but we will leave it with you. I believe it will be safe in your hands”.
Maurice Rowntree resumes the account:
"The Clerk had felt a difficulty about our going back upon our previous attitude, and a discussion followed in which differences were still very strong. It was, however, requested that A.C. should read the letter. He did so, and then it was read a second time. A period of silence followed. Certain alterations were suggested, and some felt that the draft should be sent to the Business Committee for this purpose. Opinion was still strongly divided. The Clerk said: “We are in a position in which it seems almost impossible to arrive at unanimity. Is there some counsel that will bring us together?”

… … The final session of the Conference arrived, and, after some other business, the draft letter to the Council of Action as amended by the Business Committee was read. At once one of the leading American Friends [James Wood, New York YM], who had that very afternoon strongly opposed the sending of it [see above] rose and said: “I came to the meeting this evening prepared to give my assent. I can now give more than my assent … … I can give my cordial approval”. Others agreed … … The Clerk then said “We feel at the desk that the message is endorsed by the Conference,” and added: “May we not say with regard to … … this letter, with which we are agreed: ‘Thank God’?”

The Final Text

John Henry Barlow

Dear Friends,

A representative Conference of about a thousand members of the Society of Friends, sometimes called Quakers, from many countries of the world, has been meeting at Devonshire House, London, from August 12th to 20th, 1920.

It has been considering Christ’s teaching in its relation to war, whether between nations or between classes within a nation, and also to our industrial system, which is at present based largely upon personal gain rather than upon service to the community.

We believe in the value of spiritual forces in human affairs, and are convinced that goodwill, fellowship and mutual trust are the effectual means to progress, and that to this end armed force is futile.

We are thankful for the impulse towards peace in the Labour Movement throughout the country. How far the methods contemplated by your Council are such as we could endorse, we do not presume to judge, but we have observed your efforts towards peace with Russia with grateful sympathy.

We wish to support you in your endeavours to give expression to the true brotherhood of all men, by such means as are in accord with the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.

(Signed) John H Barlow (Chairman)

See the Hastings against War webpage on the Jolly George.