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On Being and Finding A Friend

ISSUE:  Summer 1998
Quakers & Nazis: Inner Light in Outer Darkness. By Hans A. Schmitt. Missouri. $29.95

The familiar stereotype of Friends (or Quakers, as they are better known) as solid yet non-threatening moral citizens extends far into the past. In Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson (1799) we read: “I have always loved the simplicity of manners, and the spiritual-mindedness of the Quakers; and talking with Mr. Lloyd, I observed, that the essential part of religion was piety, a devout intercourse with the Divinity; and that many a man was a Quaker without knowing it.” Boswell’ s point here is that genuinely religious impulses ought to erase rather than create divisions among people and that Quakers exemplify these genuinely religious impulses. Boswell essentially says that Quakers get religion right.

Nothing in Hans Schmitt’s admirably well-written book contradicts or undermines the stereotype of Quakers already evident in Boswell’s observation. What is particularly interesting about Schmitt’s engaging examination of Quaker responses to Nazi atrocities is the way it presses on the notion that many a (religious) person is a Quaker without knowing it. Although Schmitt tends to view Quakers as importantly different from other religious groups, his praise of various Quaker deeds points up paths to goodness that persons of any (or no) faith might take.

A good bit of this book is naturally predictable: Friends did not reciprocate the suffering Nazis inflicted on them. Friends hid and protected Jews from the Gestapo. Quakers emerge as moral victors. What should be no less predictable is the somewhat unsettling fact that the same Quaker who apologized to a Jewish congregation in Berlin for the failure to spare them the humiliation inflicted by a rowdy gang of Storm Troopers also petitioned the German government to commute the death sentence imposed on Nazi murderers of a Communist in the Silesian village of Potempa. In both instances the Quaker’s conduct was guided by the same thoroughgoing love Friends felt for all humanity: for Jews who did not share their Christian beliefs and for Nazis who violently opposed their vision of human brotherhood. This kind of loving has landed Quakers in trouble, almost from their beginning. Schmitt’s history nicely illustrates how politically dangerous it can be to bestow our sympathy indiscriminately on other human beings.

In order to tell us about Quakers in Germany, Schmitt tells us a good deal about general Quaker history. Like other 17th-century sects such as the Baptists and the Unitarians, the Quakers grew out of the Anabaptist revolt against Roman Catholicism. Anabaptists argued in the 16th century that all people needed to be rebaptized (hence the provenance of the term “anabaptist”). Roundly condemned by Luther, the Anabaptists were Christendom’s first fundamentalists, persecuted by Protestants and by Catholics alike.

Fundamentally, Quaker worship precluded all hierarchy and transcended principles of political governance. The primary quest was for divine enlightenment, not secular liberty, the overriding belief being that the divine spirit can touch and communicate, ending any separation between the individual and God. Without sermons or sacraments and without clerical intercession, each participant in the silent meeting speaks in his heart to God and, at the same time, to his neighbor. Quaker theology begins and ends as personal experience.

In addition to a personal relation with the Creator free from scriptural or hierarchical mediation, Friends advocate peaceful conflict resolution and a thoroughgoing commitment to abate human suffering wherever it may be found. What is surprising about Quakers is that they have continually faced persecution. From their relief work during the Napoleonic wars, the Irish Famine, and World War I to their more recent efforts to aid the Palestinians, the Quakers have often been judged not for their humanitarian efforts but instead for their “support”, of national enemies. Despite harsh criticism, the Society of Friends has striven to aid people as people, not as members of a particular race, religion, or creed. Schmitt nicely details the difficulties Quakers faced in their quest to assist ethnic and political victims of persecution in Central Europe.

One of the great strengths of Schmitt’s scholarship is the prudent way in which he avoids blaming the world for not having lionized Quakers beyond granting them a quaintly flattering stereotype. Schmitt does not claim that we ought to lavish praise on an heroic group, but rather that Quakers in Nazi Germany did nothing less than we would expect of them. Quaker probity under German National Socialism did not result from an extraordinary situation; the probity had been there all along. On occasion, Schmitt’s enthusiasm for Quakers does, however, get away from him, as when he snidely refers to the Roman Catholic tradition of revering saints and martyrs as acts of “self-glorification.” For the most part, though, Schmitt keeps his tendency to praise Quakers in check.

The example Quakers have set, though earning them respect and admiration has not converted many to join their ranks. On the contrary, their numbers throughout Europe and the United States have been declining since World War II. Schmitt is not surprisingly distraught over this fact. Schmitt’s own scholarship can be seen as a response to his anxiety about the future of Friends and of prospects for lessening human suffering more generally. The good opinion of Quakers his book succeeds in conveying may result in some important measure in bringing us around to think as Boswell did. Specifically, the demographic decline in Quakers may compel us to think of Friends in broader terms, terms that transcend denominational distinctions and that focus on acts. These terms make somewhat less sad the idea that the humanitarian work of Friends may be left to other friends.


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