Christian History as Teacher of the Church: On Quakers and World Relief

On the plane to the Conference on Faith and History (CFH) Biennial Conference (confusing name, I know), I thought I would get into the spirit of this gathering of (mostly) Christian historians by perusing Winter/Spring 2014 issue of Fides et Historia, the CFH journal. Two of the articles reminded me of ways in which the history of Christianity can enlighten Christians and churches today, by raising questions that are rooted in particular historical events but speak to our current practices.

Timothy Wood’s article “Not at Any Price: Abolition and Economics in the 1842 Indiana Quaker Schism” might seem, at first glance, rather esoteric. I will admit that I began to read it out of a sense of professional duty rather than personal interest. Much to my delight, as I followed Wood’s description and analysis of controversies among Quakers who disagreed about how to combat slavery, I was increasingly impressed by the relevance of this history to my own experience. Let me share four examples.

First of all, it is possible to agree on the problem, but not on the solution. Indiana Quakers in the 1840s were united in their conviction that slavery was an evil contrary to the spirit of Christianity. They were also united in their commitment to peace, unity, and consensus in decision-making. Nevertheless, when confronted with the moral challenge of slavery, some Quakers felt compelled to move beyond the responses of prayer and personal appeals to the consciences of slave-holders, and to join a wider movement of boycotting slave-grown produce. Traditional Quakers interpreted economic sanctions as a form of coercion which violated their commitment to peace, and worried that such activities placed their activist brethren too close to other, more radical forms of abolitionism. Those in favour of the boycott did not believe they were acting coercively, but merely refusing to contribute to the livelihood of slave owners.

Second, disagreements can easily spiral into personal attacks. Traditional Quakers began to shut their activist brethren out of leadership positions, and accused them of denying the leading of the Holy Spirit in favour of “working in [their] own will and strength” (12). In turn, advocates of the boycott accused traditionalist Quakers of self-interest, since many had close personal and economic ties to southern slave holders. In both cases, disagreement led to ill will–the tendency to assume the worst about those with whom we disagree–instead of understanding that people can disagree in good faith. Indeed, both sides had good reasons for their positions. Advocates of the boycott argued that basic obedience to biblical commands did not require any special leading of the Spirit. Traditionalists argued their economic interests were not a motivating factor, but that relationships with southern slave owners were necessary to influence them for good.

Third, partnerships between Christians and others who share the same social concerns isn’t necessarily wise. Quakers convinced that economic sanctions were a logical outcome of their commitment to end slavery argued in favour of partnering with those who shared their goals and methods. They rightly believed that partnership held the most potential for achieving success. But traditionalists worried that partnering with those who held different beliefs and values would only dilute the spiritual life and the particular witness of their fellow Quakers. There was truth in this position as well, and it is worth noting that the commitment of Quakers to their unique vision of Christian devotion has served the movement exceptionally well over the centuries.

Finally, sometimes speaking out against injustice isn’t about defeating it. Indiana Quakers were well aware that they would not likely overthrow slavery, either through personal influence or economic boycott. However, those arguing for the boycott asserted that they were bearing withness to the evil of slavery and distancing themselves from the moral stain of supporting it. In other words, maintaining personal holiness was an important motivation, even in the face of the likely failure of the boycott.

Taken together, these four lessons remind me again that histories of events that are seemingly distant from us can shed considerable light on our own times and places.

Similarly, Miles S. Mullin’s article, “Shall We Let Them Die? Postwar Evangelicalism and Global Social Ministry: The Early Years of World Relief, 1944-1950,” explains the origins of one of the largest Christian relief organizations in the world. As Mullin outlined the origins of World Relief in the final phase of the Second World War in Europe and then went on to explain its expansion into a global organization, one facet of World Relief jumped off the page for me–its decision to appeal to potential supporters based on the plight of suffering peoples in Europe and beyond. In its early days, the War Relief Commission (World Relief’s original name) appealed to supporters both in terms of the needs of starving, traumatized, and bombed out Europeans as well as on the basis of the successful alleviation of suffering (reporting on how many people had been clothed, fed, and cared for). Gradually, however, the organization (and other Christian relief organizations which would follow) would focus almost exclusively on the plight of suffering peoples. This raises an important question: was it wiser to appeal to plight (which, it seems to me, plays on guilt) rather than achievements (which, I would argue, are rooted in hope)? The way I have framed the question betrays my inclinations–I suspect that–60 years down the road–relief organizations struggle endlessly with compassion fatigue, and would have more success if they communicated to potential supporters the potential to make a tangible difference in the lives of others. (I suspect, for instance, that this is behind the success of the Kiva lending site.)

Once again, as these two articles ably demonstrate, by examining the history of various aspects of Christianity, we can learn from both the successes and failures of the past to improve our Christian practices today.

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