Was ‘Foundations’ all about the war?

Asking deep questions about social order was part of Yearly Meeting’s response to the shock of war – and to some difficult questions about what else Quakers could have done to make war less likely.

  • 1915’s Yearly Meeting minute asked: “May it not be that our testimony against militarism has lost its effect because in our social relations we have not lived sufficiently in the spirit of love…?”
  • At its first meeting, the War and Social Order committee set up two sub-committees called “Roots” and “Fruits” – “Roots” to “investigate the connections between War and the Social Order”, and “Fruits” to decide what actions should be taken by “those who are dissatisfied with the present Social Order”.

But the Yearly Meeting had been wrestling with questions about social justice for several years before the war – and many of the committee members had been deeply involved. For example:

  • Seebohm Rowntree’s study of poverty in York (1901) was read and discussed throughout the Society – and Rowntree said that poverty was a problem of the social order, not the fault of individuals. (It can be read in full at the Internet Archive.)
  • Yearly Meeting in 1907 minuted that “the amelioration of the condition of the poor is not a question of benevolence, but of justice”.
  • In 1910 the Yearly Meeting added a new Query: “Do you seek to understand the causes of social evils and to take your right share in the endeavour to remove them?”
  • Yearly Meeting in 1912 recognised the need for a “living wage”.
  • The Friends Social Union, working on questions of social reform, had been influential within the Yearly Meeting since 1904; alongside it, with much less official recognition was the more radical Socialist Quaker Society (1898). Many members of both groups were on the War and Social Order Committee.

The Committee’s work brought out the deep connections between war and the unjust social order – particularly the pervasive “spirit of competition” (including the competition of nations for overseas colonies)… but in the end they did not rest their whole case for the “Foundations” on the idea that a bad social order is the cause of war. The bad social order was, as they saw it, a problem in itself.

On the other hand, the relevance of questions about war and the social order did not stop in 1918.

  • In its 10th anniversary report in 1925, the Committee stated: “The fear of another still more terrible war hangs over the world…”
  • And the connection between war and social injustice was also to the forefront of Friends’ minds in 1945.