Revisiting: an ongoing cycle of using the Foundations

The Foundations of a True Social Order have always been a primarily internal Quaker statement, although they can provide an insight into Quaker thinking for non-Quakers too. Before they were adopted by Yearly Meeting in 1918, there was a process of consideration and discussion – among other things, the number of points was raised from seven to eight during this process. After their adoption, the process of discussion continued; in 1919, for example, the War and Social Order Committee (WSOC) minuted a desire to “make Friends enthusiastic about them [the Foundations] rather than merely uneasy”. It seems to have been an uphill struggle, but the inclusion of the Foundations in the next revision of the Book of Discipline does suggest that the document was being taken seriously. Since then, revisiting the Foundations has been a cyclical process for Quakers. During the controversies over Quaker attitudes to the industrial and political crises between the world wars, the Foundations were quoted by all “sides”.

In the 1940s, there was an attempt to rewrite the Foundations, but although a text was produced and circulated for comment, it was abandoned without being adopted by the Yearly Meeting as a whole. A Statement of Social Testimony was sent to the Yearly Meeting, but instead of working at length on texts, the Industrial and Social Order Council (ISOC, successor body to the WSOC) decided to focus on ways of applying the principles in practice.

In the 1990s, a project called ‘Rediscovering our Social Testimony’ was run by the Quaker Social Responsibility and Education Central Committee (QSRE incorporated the Social Responsibility Council, heir to the work of the ISOC). The project began with a publication in spring 1995, a booklet which included questions from the QSRE Central Committee and personal accounts of people’s understandings of social testimony – with comments such as, “I didn’t think of Equality as a ‘Testimony’ for a very long time.” It ran for just over a year, sending in March 1996, with work by Woodbrooke and other Quaker groups happening alongside discussions prompted by the Central Committee. The title of the project suggests that social testimony had in some sense been ‘lost’ between the 1940s and the 1990s, although work on issues around equality and social order had been continuing in various ways.

In the last few years, other returns to the Foundations have emerged. Diana Jeater and Penelope Cummins ran a Woodbrooke weekend course which explored the possibility of updating them, but as with the attempt in the 1940s, it was felt that working out how to apply the principles was more important than rewriting them. Current work by Quaker Peace and Social Witness, especially their New Economies project, addresses this, with the more specific Principles for a New Economy and related discussion on the Quakernomics blog.