The Quaker movement, also called the Society of Friends, was founded in England during the middle of the 17th century. The group took its name from the "quaking" that is sometimes associated with the agitation of religious feeling.
Within a few decades the Quaker philosophy spread from the British isles to northwestern Europe and the British colonies. The Quakers adopted a simple congregational type of rite that consisted of local meetings for worship and meetings for church business. The early Quakers were often persecuted, fined, and put in jail for violating religious and civil laws. They refused to attend established churches, to take oaths of office, to pay tithes, or to bear arms. They insisted on holding meetings of their own and in proselytizing even where it was forbidden.
During and after World War I the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a US-based Quaker aid society, was instrumental in providing relief services in Germany and later throughout Europe. These activities created a great deal of good will in Germany and elsewhere. In the early years of the Nazi regime, however, AFSC activities on behalf of refugees were limited. This has been attributed to the dilemma faced by Quakers who feared that speaking out against the persecution of Jews would compromise their reputation in Germany, which they had built up over many years.
After Kristallnacht (the "Night of Broken Glass") the AFSC, under the leadership of Rufus M. Jones and the chairmanship of Clarence E. Pickett, became more active in the refugee cause. In 1939, they championed the ultimately unsuccessful Wagner-Rogers extra-quota child refugee bill. Such activities were, however, inhibited by the refusal of the Quaker rank and file to assist actively in relief, either financially or by taking in refugee families.
The AFSC became the main source of support for the non-sectarian Committee for Refugee Children and its successor, the non-sectarian Foundation for Refugee Children. Both were established in 1940 to help refugees—primarily Jewish children—resettle from Europe to the United States.
Because of the involvement of the AFSC in relief services throughout Europe before World War II, the Nazis treated the Quakers with respect and permitted them to continue welfare activities in southern France during the occupation. The AFSC cooperated closely with Jewish welfare agencies, including the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and provided assistance to Jewish refugees in France, Spain, and Portugal.
During 1941 and 1942, the AFSC chose Jewish children from children's homes and refugee camps in southern France for transfer to the United States under the auspices of the US Committee for the Care of European Children. The actions of the AFSC showed that interfaith activity on behalf of European Jews could be successful.