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Quaker Feedings
apl. Prof. Dr. Wolfgang E. Heinrichs / Modern history
Photo: Private

When the Society of Friends fed the starving population

A 100-years-ago-interview with historian Wolfgang Heinrichs about the Quaker meals at Easter 1921.

Through the so-called Quaker meals, the greatest need could be alleviated after World War 1. Where did the initiative come from?

Heinrichs: There were already poor and school feeding programs during and before the First World War. In times of crisis, the need of the population became the focus of attention of the municipalities, but also of the various social associations and the church. As a result of the war in 1920 (a pandemic period, by the way) and due to the Ruhr crisis as well as hyperinflation in 1923, the municipalities were hopelessly overburdened with this problem. Here, in various cities of Germany, the Quakers jumped to the aid of the municipalities, which were additionally burdened by the occupation by Belgian and French troops. Special attention was paid to children and mothers. The Quakers were particularly active in the provision of school meals.

Where does the name Quaker actually come from?

Heinrichs: The name originated very early. The Quakers came into being in the 17th century through the young English shoemaker's apprentice George Fox. They did not call themselves Quakers, but "friends" or "seekers of the truth", in view of John 15:14f. where Jesus says to the disciples, "You are my friends," not servants. They understood themselves as the friends of Jesus and also as friends among themselves. The idea of freedom and equality joined the idea of solidarity. They were given the name Quakers from the outside, probably from 'to quake', because it was said that when these Friends had their religious experiences, it happened - and it really did happen - that they trembled. They were then so aroused inwardly that they quaked. So Quakers, the tremblers, which at first was a swear name. But then Friends, who now call themselves Society of Friends, also adopted the name Quaker themselves. So they took the name positively, because they say when we meet God, we get trembling. Then we have a special enlightenment, a holy encounter, and that also affects our hearts.

What community are we talking about exactly?

Heinrichs: It's a community that emerged in the 17th century, emerged in the time of religious awakenings in England. During this time, the individual was specifically discovered. The movement is in the context of humanism and the piety movements of the early modern period triggered by the Reformation. Unlike other Reformation movements, the Quakers did not simply say that we rely on the Bible, on the writings of the New and Old Testaments, but we rely on an experience of God, on "inward illumination" (by the Holy Spirit according to John 1:9) and are together as a community of God as friends, even female friends, who edify each other spiritually and provide help for life. This is also the origin of social projects and this impulse to help people who are especially distressed and in need. The "friends" and "female friends" want to support people and also build themselves up through mutual support and an active encounter with God. Unlike other denominations that have liturgies and also ministries, these are almost completely absent among Quakers. There are "Friends" who lead the meeting, there are scribes, "elders" and stewards, but no hierarchy of offices. Instead, they sit together in their God meetings, waiting for the inner voice and calling it so. When a person reaches this inner voice, he stands up and then says: God told me this or that! One notices, here the Enlightenment comes through, the idea of freedom. These concepts, freedom, equality, brotherhood, can be applied to the Quaker movement. They want to be free from their conscience to express themselves, they want to be equal in this brotherly thought, where today women also belong, and they can all equally receive this revelation of God from God, because it is not predetermined.

In 1921, sad conditions prevailed in post-war Germany. In Wuppertal, the textile industry was in ruins, and unemployment and mass misery could be seen on the streets. The population was starving, deficiency diseases among children were on the increase. Gerhard Dabringhausen writes in his book about Heckinghausen that the greatest need at that time was alleviated by Quaker feeding. What was distributed to the needy at that time?

Heinrichs: They distributed mostly soups, but also with meat. The Germans mostly relied on milk. At school lunches and evening meals, especially for malnourished pupils, the communities gave milk, and the Quakers supplemented that well by giving rice, semolina, bean, pea, barley, and oatmeal soups to children and nursing mothers. Bean soup was served with a meat garnish, and barley soup was usually served with a plum garnish. Each child was given a sweet yeast roll to go with it. This made a great impression.
Later, in the Third Reich, the Quakers were outsiders because of their faith and their pacifist attitude. But the community also made compromises to its members. They not infrequently offered a place of refuge to persecuted people. Even high-ranking Nazis, such as Hitler's secretary for a time, Hans Thomsen, later ambassador to the U.S., and Hans Hanfstaengl, Hitler's press chief who later broke with him, maintained friendly relations with the Quakers, allowed them to support even so-called "enemies of the state" in connection with the U.S., and recalled how Quakers had saved their children's lives by feeding the poor in 1920-23.

By 1925, about 700 million portions had been distributed. The number of children who received a meal in Germany is estimated at up to five million. Where did the enormous donations come from?

Heinrichs: For the most part, these came from funds of the American Welfare Association of the "Friends". The "Friends" from the Netherlands also donated. The Dutch Quakers also stood by the needy during the period of National Socialist rule. A prominent example is the Wuppertal stage and costume designer Hanna Jordan, herself a Quaker, who was able to spend her school years at the Quaker school Eerde (1935-39) in the Netherlands because of her mother's Jewish ancestry.
Even after the Second World War, large donations came from the USA. The Quakers worked together with other religious communities, for example with the Methodists. This worked because they did not have such a narrow denominational leadership and could thus animate other fellow Christians to help. For the feeding of the poor, the municipalities, in Wuppertal through the mediation of the West German Administrative Committee, bore two-thirds of the costs, and the "Children's Aid of the Quaker Religious Society" took over one-third. Above all, the Quakers ensured that the approximately 450 calories provided for school lunches were supplemented by protein, fat, minerals and vitamins. A doctor also took part in the school meals, which were served in all schools - even the children of the middle class, as well as high school children, were undernourished - and provided accompanying tuberculosis care.

The Quaker community consists of about 300,000 believers worldwide and about 300 in Germany. They live a life of simplicity. What does that mean today, to live simply?

Heinrichs: That means that they don't see material life as the real thing, but spiritual life. That doesn't mean that they are all poor, but they can give. They are a great example in that respect. They are concerned, as the Bible also says, with providing wealth in heaven by also giving to the poor. And they continue to make a colossal commitment to this worldwide. The Quakers were one of the first to oppose slavery. They led slaves across the Canadian border to freedom in the U.S. They have always done a great service for those who were deprived of their rights. In the U.S., there was a movement against forced prostitution. The Quakers rescued many women from this form of slavery. A very wide range of help, all based on this consensus: people are equal.
The Quakers were also persecuted in Germany and from this persecution situation they always thought of helping others. Their work in Russia is also exemplary. There they worked together with the Mennonites and made sure that people/persecutees could emigrate.
And then there is also this state, which should not be left unmentioned. Pennsylvania was founded and named by the Quaker William Penn. The capital Philadelphia means brotherly love, which includes all mankind. And that has remained characteristic of the community.

Uwe Blass (Interview on February 8, 2021)


Wolfgang Heinrichs is Associate Professor of Modern History in the School of Humanities at the University of Wuppertal, with special emphasis on church history. He teaches at the Freie Christliche Gymnasium Düsseldorf, history and Protestant religion.  He is also a pastor in the Federation of Free Evangelical Churches.