Because Quakers oppose violence in all of its forms and therefore refuse to serve in the military, the AFSC's original mission was to provide conscientious objectors (COs) to war with a constructive alternative to military service. In 1947 it received the Nobel Peace Prize along with the British Friends Service Council on behalf of Quakers worldwide.
Today the AFSC has more than 200 staff working in dozens of programs throughout the United States and also works in 22 other nations, Its international programs often work in conjunction with the Canadian Friends Service Committee, Quaker Peace and Social Witness (formerly the British Friends Service Council), and Quaker Service Australia.
In April 1917 -- days after the United Stated joined World War I and declared war on Germany and its allies -- a group of Quakers met in Philadelphia to discuss the fact that a military draft would soon start -- and would affect members of pacifist churches such as Quakers, Mennonites, Brethren, and even the Amish. They developed ideas for alternative service that could be done directly in the battle zones of northern France.
They also developed plans for dealing with the United States Army, since it was very inconsistent in its dealing with religious objectors to war. Although legally, members of pacifist churches were exempt from the draft, individual state draft boards interpreted the law in a variety of ways. At that time, many Quakers and other COs were ordered to report to army camps for military service.
Some COs, unaware of the significance of reporting for duty, found that this was interpreted by the military as willingness to fight. One of the AFSC's first tasks was to identify them, find the camps where they were located, and then visit them to provide spiritual guidance and moral support. In areas where the pacifist churches were well known (such as Pennsylvania), a number of draft boards were willing to assign COs to the AFSC for alternative service.
In addition to conducting alternative service programs for COs, the AFSC collected relief in the form of food, clothing, and supplies for displaced persons in France. Quakers were asked to collect old and to sew and knit new clothing and to grow fruits and vegetables, can them, and send them to the AFSC headquarters in Philadelphia, which then shipped them to France. The AFSC also sent young women and men to work in France, where they worked with British Quakers to provide relief and medical care to refugees, repair and rebuild homes, and they jointly founded a maternity hospital.
After the end of the war in 1918, the AFSC's began working in Russia, Serbia, and Poland with orphans and with the victims of famine and disease, and in Germany and Austria, where they set up kitchens to feed hungry children.
During the 1930s and 1940s, the AFSC helped refugees escape from Nazi Germany, provided relief for children on both sides of the Spanish Civil War, and provided relief to refugees in Vichy France. After World War II ended, they did relief and reconstruction work after in Europe, Japan, India, and China. In 1947 they worked to resettle refugees from the partition of India, and in the Gaza Strip.
As the Cold War escalated, the AFSC was involved in relief and service efforts around the world in conflicts including the Korean War, the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, and the 1962 Algerian war of independence. Beginning in 1966, the AFSC developed programs to help children and provided medical supplies and artificial limbs to civilians in both North Vietnam and South Vietnam. During the Nigerian-Biafran War, the AFSC provided relief to civilians on both the Nigerian and Biafran sides of the conflict.
In the United States, the AFSC continued the Quaker tradition of support for the Civil rights movement, and the rights of African-Americans, Native Americans, Mexican Americans, and Asian Americans, including providing support for Japanese-Americans during their internment during World War II. The AFSC also has worked extensively as part of the peace movement, especially work to stop the production and deployment of nuclear weapons.
The AFSC is still based in Philadelphia, and its facilities include the Quaker Cherry Street Meetinghouse, one of the oldest churches in the United States.