Revolution or reform, big picture or small steps?

The Foundations were written in revolutionary times; in 1917 several members of the War and Social Order Committee attended a conference celebrating the (first) Russian Revolution. Several of the committee’s meetings and papers referred to the need for revolutionary change in society – and in the Society – while realising that most Friends (even within the committee) would not think in those terms.

  • Alfred Barratt Brown said at a meeting in 1917: “Christians talk of Christianising the [Russian] Revolution; rather let us seek to revolutionise our Christianity”.
  • At several points before and after 1917 Friends on the committee suggested that the question of a new social order might be taken out of their hands – a social revolution might take place

At the same time, many organisations were circulating detailed plans and suggestions for “social reconstruction after the war” – what policies should be followed on wages, industrial relations, education and so forth. The War and Social Order Committee deliberately decided not to follow that pattern. They decided to focus on “ultimate ideals”, and to offer “the highest… vision” not the “lowest common measure”. They wanted to put forward a vision of what the true social order would look like – not the next step towards getting there.

  • When the Foundations were being discussed in 1917, the War and Social Order Committee were approached by an inter-church grouping – including representatives of the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church – to ask if Quakers would sign up to an agreed “Scheme of Social Reconstruction”. The Committee considered the text, discussed it with a representative of the inter-church group… and decided not to sign it, not because they disagreed with the suggestions but because it did not go far enough. Lucy Morland, a member of the War and Social Order Committee, described it in her Swarthmore Lecture of 1918: “It is all very good and sound; there is little to object to in its statements, but … a Church has no place for a minimum, it ought to set out an ideal”.

Was this the right decision? Meetings that discussed the Foundations often commented that they did not see clearly what practical action they should take… although others suggested that the Foundations called for ‘bold experiments’ and new discernment.