A Quaker Portrait:
_____________________ Helen B. Corson
by Maryann McNaughton Swinehart
 IN MY deepest heart I know that some of us have to face our comfortable, self- oriented lives all over again. The times are too tragic, God's sorrow is too great, man's night is too dark, the Cross is too glorious for us to live as we have lived, in anything short of holy obedience." Thus wrote Thomas Kelly in A Testament of Devotion as he talked about suffering, simplicity, and recreative change within the Society of Friends.


Creative simplicity and change among friends and Friends have been the strengths behind the story of Helen Corson's life. Her work for social change and for a world without war is a continuing story of the holy obedience of one woman, within and outside of the Society of Friends.

Perhaps at first you wouldn't notice Helen in a crowd. A tiny, slightly stooped little lady nearing the age of ninety-one, she wears her white hair bound in a braid at the back of her head, with little curls escaping all around her face. She wears bright print dresses, simple shoes and beaded necklaces, but one gets the feeling that the outward picture of the woman is to her just a practical affair not of major importance. It is the inner spiritual strength that demands attention in Helen's sharp eyes, and in her incisively simple words which cut to the centers of problems.

Even after a near century of life Helen never seems to droop with depressed lethargy, as so many of us tend to do at times in both our inner and outer lives. Small white head held high and expressive hands held quietly, hers is a strength and a serenity wholly attentive to the lives around her. And hers is a faith which has a great deal to teach.

Near the turn of the century, Helen Corson's family came to Chester County, PA, from Minnesota. For some years Helen stayed home to help her ailing mother on their small farm near Avondale. And she was active in a nearby women's suffrage group. "Even today women are oppressed," she says, ''but one of the worst aspects of that oppression is that often people don't realize it exists, although it does, especially in the unfairness of assumed women's roles, and in hiring and child care." She stressed, however, that men in her own farm family did not feel that ' childcare or housework was demeaning, ' and that in some ways roles then were less rigid than they are today. And Helen said she never felt the intense I societal pressure still felt now by so ' many young women, to get married and ' bear children as the major role of women.

In 1914 came the first world war, and I with it a new purpose in Helen's life. ' "Before 1914 we tended to take peace ' for granted," she says, "but between ' then and now there has never been a ' time when we have lived without war or preparation for war." Speaking recently from the small room where she lives now at the Friends Home in Kennett Square, PA, Helen's voice trembled with some pain as she described the military economy for which all too many of us continue to pay.

After the war Helen became a staunch religious pacifist and she has been so ever since, refusing to swallow the absurd idealism of a war to end all wars. And, formerly "a drifting Episcopalian," she joined London Grove Friends Meeting in 1926, where she continues now to be a strong and beloved influence. Her ministries are always gentle words of faith, full of deep Biblical study, and nearly always in them there is a key to action for change. And that, I think, is the deepest secret of the spiritual inner vitality of Helen Corson and people like her, whatever their race or religion or age. Faith for them is never an empty affair of Sunday morning verbiage. It is a vibrant force which determines the works of their lives. And, listening to Helen Corson talk, almost watching her mind move with strength and conviction, one gets the idea that age ninety-one is a pretty productive and creative age to be.

After becoming a Friend, Helen worked for some years in Philadelphia, serving Friends and other agencies including the NAACP, long before there was any explosive nationwide concern about the problems of race relations and poverty. Then during the depression years she worked with an AFSC emergency relief program among starving miners in the hidden hollers of Kentucky and West Virginia. And for two decades thereafter she was engaged in relief work of differing kinds in the South and at home, for religious and government agencies. "We weren't making much money," she recalled in a mastery of understatement, "but we had enough to live on, which is about all anybody ought to want anyway."

But in 1952, after several years of work on a county assistance project, Helen Corson lost her job and was threatened with loss of pension because "I could not in conscience sign the newly instituted Loyalty Oath, which I felt was the illegal result of a communist scare which has lasted till today and has done terrible harm," she said. She felt and still feels the oath was "an insult to free thought, speech and action at a time when even advocacy of better child labor Jaws or more conscientious religious practices was considered communist leaning." Hearing her talk now, I must ask myself whether times have really changed, when incidents like the Mayaguez are still so popular.

But if Helen Corson lost her job in 1952, she found more time for other concerns. At age seventy-three she began a much publicized fast in Washington, DC, in protest against the dangers of atmospheric nuclear testing. And as the Korean War progressed, she took part in many walks and vigils for peace, with women's and religious pacifist groups. At seventy-five she was a major participant in the nationally known Vigil at Fort Detrich in Frederick, MD, where for seventeen years the U.S. had been illegally producing germs for germ warfare.

And finally in 1962 Helen found herself in jail in Washington, DC. The reason? "For standing in silent prayer with a few other white haired people in front of the White House." The small group prayed for an end to hydrogen bomb testing. From that time until today Helen has stayed active in Washington, Philadelphia and locally, organizing and participating in radical nonviolent work against war and rac- ism. She has been active on all levels of Meeting concern, and she insists, "If people really want to change their lives they can do so, spiritually, morally, and physically as well."

Concerning her work against racism, for which she was awarded this year an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Lincoln University (a largely black liberal arts college near Philadelphia), Helen says, "Action against racism in this society takes the willingness to offend with truth, because one aspect of racism is that people often don't recognize it in themselves." Presenting the degree to Helen this spring was Dr. William T. M. Johnson, who said, "There are many liberal minded and well intentioned people who speak well and say they support equality for Blacks, but who stop short of strong action. But Helen has been willing to take unequivocal stands on issues as they are in such matters as housing, jobs and education, and her sharp analyses of situations continue to be useful."

Will one woman's lifetime of action be a help to the future? "It is only for us to say whether an action is right or wrong; we must trust the consequences to God," said Helen, adding, "We need many approaches to change, but silent meditation alone is surely not enough."

The tiny, serene looking lady sits in her little room, which is filled with books and papers and work to do. There are few frills and no luxuries, and the room is a picture of a working simplicity which reminds me of Thomas Kelly's words on holy obedience. Helen seems neither thrilled nor depressed about the prospects for the future of humanity. In true humility rarely found even among Friends, she feels no alienation from the young, but does feel distant though no less loving toward those who "give up on human dignity and are too timid to state their convictions because of fear of the opinions of others." Those who are not so timid are, she feels, the seeds for the future.


Maryann McNaughton Swinehart and her husband live in Chester County, PA, where she is a news feature writer. Formerly an employee of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and A Quaker Action Group, she was a crew member of the ship "Phoenix" which took medical supplies to north and south Vietnam during the late sixties. She is a member of London Grove Friends Meeting.

October 1, 1975 FRIENDS JOURNAL
This article is reprinted with permission from Friends Journal.