In June of 1917, six women went to Russia to work in areas
surrounding Buzuluk, a wheat depot on the Samara-Tashkent railroad. Here
war refugees had crowded in from the front, straining the supplies of
food and water already reduced by drought and famine. English Quakers
were already at work in this area, providing medical services, and the
six American women helped in the clinics and established workrooms where
one member of each refugee family could gain employment: weaving,
spinning, sewing, or embroidering. They also set up schools for refugee
Following these reports, AFSC decided to do what it could to feed the
hungry in Germany. The committee’s original idea was to undertake a
small-scale demonstration project, but Herbert Hoover, then director of
the American Relief Administration, and also a Friend, asked instead if
the Friends would be willing to distribute food to children throughout
Germany. The AFSC recruited workers, skilled in either medicine, social
work, or administration, and sent them to begin to establish feeding
As staff and resources grew, the AFSC expanded the project,
maintaining 2,271 kitchens and supplying 8,364 feeding stations to feed
a million children. Many of the men and women who participated in this
project went on to devote their lives to this sort of work.
Unlike the traveling ministers who were their spiritual forebears,
the Friends who served in the AFSC projects didn’t proselytize. They
believed that their projects and their lives should speak for them. In
addition, from the first they had welcomed men and women of different
faiths who shared their interest in finding an alternative to war.
Respect for these differences inhibited a missionary approach.
Nevertheless, in Germany and France, as well as other European
countries, the silent help of the Friends encouraged war-weary men and
women to inquire about Quakerism. From this inquiry grew small but
dynamic groups of Friends’ meetings in Europe. The refusal of AFSC
workers to perform the more traditional missionary role disappointed
more evangelical Friends and, in time, grew to become a source of
From the first, local Friends’ meetings worked to raise money and
to gather clothing and bedding for the overseas projects. Older women,
who could not be active, knitted layettes and made blankets for shipment
abroad. In addition, it became traditional for younger Quaker women to
offer a year or two of service. After the worst of the postwar emergency
came to an end, the AFSC opened service opportunities in settlement
houses, southern schools for blacks, and Indian reservations throughout
the United States. In 1927, The organization also began to send young
men and women across the country each summer in peace caravans to bring
messages of international reconciliation to the small towns of the
United States. During the Great Depression, AFSC undertook a major
project of child feeding in the Appalachian coalfields and here
initiated the first workcamps in which young men and women spent their
summer in unpaid volunteer labor to aid underprivileged communities.
Before World War II began, the AFSC explored opportunities for
reconciliation. In the spirit of nonviolence, AFSC sent a mission to the
German Gestapo to speak against persecution of the Jews–the only
Protestant church group to do so.
During the War, Quakers devoted themselves to maintaining hostels for
refugees from Germany, protesting the relocation of Japanese-Americans
from the West Coast, and finding new homes and schools for both groups.
Many women also served, along with their husbands or brothers, in the
Civilian Public Service camps established for conscientious objectors,
in mental hospitals, forestry camps, or medical experiment stations.
Some Friends trained at Haverford College, in Haverford, Pennsylvania,
for post-war reconstruction.
In the postwar years, Quaker workers returned to Europe and Japan to
try to undo some of the damage of war. In addition to relief, AFSC
promoted off-the-record conferences for diplomats and other leaders, as
well as student exchanges, in an effort to provide reconciliation and
probe the causes of war.
Rather than disbanding after the social and physical problems in
Europe resulting from World War I had been resolved, the AFSC
turned to domestic problems of human needs both in this country and
throughout the world. A common desire to meet humanitarian needs through
service has since unified various groups of Friends both in the U.S. and
abroad with those of similar persuasion from a variety of church
denominations. Together they work on projects dealing with criminal
justice, community development, and non-violent methods of achieving a
peaceful world, both in this country and worldwide.
In recent years, the AFSC has undertaken relief efforts, helping
refugees from late 20th and early 21st-century