Inter-war controversies: “Go-aheads” and “Quietists”

The 1920s, immediately after the adoption of the Foundations, were a time of enormous social and political upheaval in Britain. It was also a time when London Yearly Meeting was rethinking its role in society – with a developing central structure, increased public visibility and new questions arising about its involvement in politics. Yearly Meeting, encouraged by the War and Social Order Committee, considered issues such as ‘the applicability of Christ’s principles to the working out of economic problems’ (1921, YM minute 49), and ‘the ultimate ownership of land and capital’ (1925, report of WSOC).

In May 1926 Yearly Meeting met in Manchester in the immediate aftermath of the General Strike. WSOC’s report, reflecting on the crisis, called on the Yearly Meeting to ‘take a really bold stand’ on its ‘basic principles’ that industry should be organised for the common good. The Yearly Meeting minute on the ‘ongoing crisis in industry’ stated ‘we have been led into deep exercise about what is our duty as a Religious Society. We are clear that if we really look at things spiritually, our intellects should be so quickened by the Spirit as to deal with economic questions in the right way. ..’ (1926, minute 22).

It seems that tensions were high in these Yearly Meetings. WSOC and some other bodies were bringing forward political proposals, which they saw as the practical outworking of the Foundations… and others saw as party politics. Minutes from this period frequently refer to deep political differences in the Society of Friends. Doubts began to be raised about whether WSOC itself was still serving a useful purpose.

Following a particularly difficult Yearly Meeting in 1927, John Pease Fry, B. Seebohm Rowntree and Henry Wood published a pamphlet in which they characterised the conflict as between the “Quietists” and the “Go-aheads” – and put in a plea for the Quietists, who they felt had been put under “great pressure” to “say that what is called the Capitalistic System is all wrong; and [to] give a general support to the Labour Party to nationalise the nation’s resources”. Pease Fry, Rowntree and Wood praised the Foundations of a True Social Order but criticised the War and Social Order Committee. Rowntree argued that the Committee’s recent work had “gone further than truth requires or permits in the direction of Socialist and even Communist principles”. Wood had a problem with the Committee’s name, and with the implication that “war could be regarded as the outcome of modern industry”.

The next Yearly Meeting, in 1928, considered responses from Meetings to a question about how the Society could best fulfil its responsibilities in relation to “Industry and the Social Order”. It agreed to lay down the War and Social Order Committee and replace it with the Industrial and Social Order Council… which, a few years later, was making equally specific and controversial political points in its reports and publications.