Quakers and Capitalism — a lost history

October 29, 2010 § 11 Comments

I have been writing a history of Quaker contributions to capitalist culture and of the ways that Quaker fortunes have, in turn, shaped Quaker culture, with a commentary on this history’s significance. Most of the history portion of the book is basically done, up into what I call the third transition period, between the great conferences at Richmond and Manchester and the end of the Great War. My interest is not in how Quakers deal with money, in their personal lives or even their professional and business lives, but rather with how we as a community have related to the capitalist economic system itself, as a system.

It is almost impossible to exaggerate how important Quakers were to the transition from mercantile capitalism to industrial capitalism and to the progress of the industrial revolution itself. It is also almost impossible to exaggerate how unknown most of this incredible history is to most Friends.

This has always been a mystery to me and is, in fact, what got me started on this project in the first place: what is it about Quaker culture that finds this radical historical amnesia useful, given how obsessed we are with our own history?

I’m always on the lookout for new sources in this project and recently came across a great book published in 1953 and edited by John Kavanaugh, then Public Relations Director of AFSC (the edition available on Amazon.com was published in 1970). The Quaker Approach to Contemporary Problems is a collection of essays by Quaker luminaries of the time, including Henry Cadbury, Howard Brinton, Elton Trueblood, and Clarence Pickett, and includes chapters on Peace and War, Education, Race Relations, Health and Healing, and so on. But it was the essay by Kenneth Boulding, the Quaker economist, on Economic Life that caught my eye. Here are his opening paragraphs:

The history of the application of the Quaker experience in the realm of economic life presents a curious paradox. On the one hand we do not find the apparently clear-cut “testimony” which is found in the peace testimony, where a relatively simple standard of conduct has come down almost unchanged through three centuries. It is difficult to find any simple standard of economic conduct or judgment which deserves the name “Quaker.” Quakers have been both capitalists and socialists, bankers and civil servants. Friends have, of course, maintained a testimony for the “minor virtues”—honesty, truthfulness, fulfillment of promises, thrift, hard work, punctuality, and so on in their economic activities as well as in other aspects of daily life. Such testimonies, important as they are, do not, however, constitute a specific attitude toward economic institutions or systems. On the great question of socialism versus capitalism, for instance, the Quaker trumpet seems to  speak with an uncertain sound.

In spite of—or perhaps even because of—this apparent weakness in the clarity of the theoretical position, the practical impact of the Society of Friends on the economic life of the world has been enormous, and quite out of proportion to the small number of Friends. Indeed, it can be argued that the greatest impact of the Society of Friends on the world has been precisely in this sphere of economic life where the theoretical contribution seems to have been small.

Boulding goes on to discuss how Friends have been “deeply implicated in the rise of the whole set of institutional and technical changes, which go under the name of ‘capitalism,’ in two of its essential aspects—the development of a wide ‘market economy,’ and in the initiation and propogation of technical change,” and to claim, as I do, that these contributions have been “a very direct consequence of [our] religious experience, and of the organization of [our] religious life.” He surveys the economic history of Friends up to his time and then turns to the future.

He also considers our shift—and his own shift—toward ever higher standards of consumption, after abandoning plain dress and speech. “In reacting against the censorious imposition of ancient and perhaps meaningless standards of consumption we have relaxed our mutual disciplining of each other to the point where there seems to be no machinery in the usual Meeting, even for the discussion of these problems.” He ends by saying that “separated from God, separated from the sensitizing of the spirit in worship and communion with the source of all love and truth, enterprise leads to damnation in pride, brotherhood leads to damnation in sentimentality. This remains the most important thing which the Society of Friends has to say, even in the field of economics.”

One of the things I want to do with this blog is to share this history of Quakers and capitalism and begin a conversation about our economic testimony and our amnesia: to try to understand why we no longer know who John Bellers was, or Seebohm Rowntree, or David Ricardo, and why these people matter; and to discern what a “clear-cut” economic testimony might be.


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§ 11 Responses to Quakers and Capitalism — a lost history

  • Emily Ranseen says:

    R.H. Macy should probably not be considered a Quaker. According to Ralph Hower (History of Macy’s of New York, 1858-1919; chapters in the evolution of the department store. [Harvard University, 1943]), though R. H. Macy was raised as a Quaker he had no strong links to Quakerism as an adult. He did instill the one price policy, a Quaker idea from George Fox, but Hower comments that his temper and his profanity were evidence “that he had strayed from the Quaker percepts of his parents.”
    A better example of Quakers in department stores are Justus Strawbridge and Isaac Clothier (Lief, Alfred. Family business: a century in the life and times of Strawbridge and Clothier. [McGraw Hill, 1968]). One a Hicksite, the other an Evangelical, they both actively worked to improve working conditions at the store, and were active in community affairs, helping to found the Germantown and Rush hospitals, supporting Bryn Mawr College and Moore College of Art, helping to found the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, the Home Industry for Discharged Prisoners, and the Little Opera Company, as well as developing open spaces and play areas within Philadelphia.

    Regarding John Woolman, one should never overlook his background as a businessman, which enabled him to understand Adam Smith’s law of supply and demand, as well as the customs of the times, understanding how slaveowners were caught in the moral conventions of their own times, so that he could effectively preach to individuals to forego those customs. (Haskell, Thomas L. “Capitalism and the origins of the humanitarian sensibility,” parts 1 and 2. American historical review, April, June, 1985).

    • Thanks, so much, Emily for your comment. I especially appreciate your knowledge of Macy and Strawbridge & Clothier and the references you provide. For most of the people and families who created the companies and industries I outline in my history of Quaker contributions to capitalist culture, I’ve not yet drilled down to the level of biography, and I’m grateful to anyone who can add even this level of detail. I’ve focused so far on the bigger picture and on the secondary literature that discusses broad themes, like Quakers in Industry and Commerce and Meetinghouse and Countinghouse.

      I have all along hoped to find collaborators who could fill in such gaps and even started a wiki as a platform for such collaboration. But that was in the beginning of this blog and I had not attracted enough Friends with the expertise and the interest to keep it going. Are you at all interested in doing some writing about Strawbridge & Clothier? And do you have similar knowledge of other areas I’m covering in this project? I plan soon to start writing query letters to publishers on this book, but I’m not committed to sole authorship and would welcome other contributors.

      • Emily says:

        Hi Peter,
        Sorry for my delay in responding to your response. I only realized by accident that you had responded, and then later I only by accident found it recently because it’s no longer reachable by scrolling backwards on your blog.
        What is the goal of your book?
        I would be glad to contribute ideas on the Quakers involved in business to your book. We do have very different viewpoints on history, however, and I didn’t know if your book was intended to have an “opposing viewpoints” orientation.
        None of the businessmen I’ve researched (some 50) fit the historic paradigm you’ve developed, so I can’t fill in information to prove your points. I’ve never found evidence of any “double-culture,” of Quaker businessmen removing themselves from the outside world to focus solely on Quakerism or on their businesses. Almost every individual I’ve studied was strongly engaged in working to make the world at large and their worlds at work better places; the exceptions were family members who were falling away from Quakerism, frequently to the despair of relatives and Friends. Quaker merchants, businessman, and bankers worked to abolish slavery, improve working conditions, reform prisons, obtain universal voting rights. They built hospitals, libraries, baths, schools, and museums for the public; they worked to improve working conditions, including the building of villages with housing, museums, libraries, and schools, which, according to architectural journalist Gillian Darley, “fundamentally changed the way we live.”
        Because they never disengaged themselves from the world at large, they didn’t need a Seebohn Rowntree to reengage them in the world; Rowntree’s ideas were built upon concepts held by many Quakers in his time. They didn’t need evangelicals to reengage them in the outside world–Hicksite businessmen and British Quakers of Unitarian orientation were as interested as were Quaker evangelicals in giving to the outside world. They didn’t need World War I to reengage them in the world, though World War I did cause changes in the peace movement which affected Quakers.
        Since you wrote that you wanted this website to be a forum for discussion, I hope soon to make further comments on how I see these issues more directly on your September 9th, February, May, and June entries, and to list some of the books I’ve read on your “books to check out” blog, since the entry to which I’m responding has been removed from your index.

  • Have you delved into Thomas Clarkson at all? He was a friend of the Friends, an Anglican anti-slavery advocate who got to spend time with the Friends just as they were coming out of their isolationist shell–only a generation or two before some started abandoning many of the testimonies. Around 1800 he wrote an account of his experiences, much of which is surprisingly sociological. For example, when talking about plain dress he said that one reason they maintained the standard was that they found young people who rebelled against it were likely to rebel against other portions of the Quaker testimony. This sounds a bit like Boulding’s observation from the other end of this change.

    My employment experience has been in the modern Quaker institutionalism–a phenomenon which is only a few decades old but which has grown to dominate Quaker life. The large staffing and the need for constant fundraising is something that didn’t exist before the middle of the 20th Century. I wonder if it’s something of a socialist plutocracy, as priorities are set by a small base of wealthy donors and power is a function of social connections. I believe this model has serious structural problems, but many see it as the most direct form of Quaker service. I suspect many everyday Friends don’t realize how radically different it is from traditional Quaker religious organization.

    I myself have dropped out of this model. My QuakerQuaker.org publication is a project of my sole-proprietor business. There’s no 501(c)3 status, donations aren’t tax deductible and I don’t apply for grants. This is all completely radical in 2010. Economically, I consider it more akin to the old publishing houses that printed the classic Quaker journals. QuakerQuaker is only bringing in about $6000 a year but that’s (almost) enough to warrant all the time I spend on it.

    • I don’t know Thomas Clarkson, but I took a quick look at his entry in Wikipedia. Obviously an important and interesting guy. And what do you know! His A Portraiture of Quakerism is available through Google Books. Thanks so much for the tip.

      I’ve been concerned about the institutionalization of Quakerism myself, not just in terms of paid staff but also in the rise of the standing committee at all levels of meeting life. I plan to devote some future posts to this topic, exploring how committees tend to undermine and virtually replace the faith and practice of traditional Quaker ministry. But I wonder what evidence you see that the institutionalization and the fundraising lead to a “socialist plutocracy, as priorities are set by a small base of wealthy donors and power is a function of social connections.” I suppose this might be true in Britain Yearly Meeting and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, where there’s still some real money left. But I come from New York Yearly Meeting originally, and NYYM lacks any significant base of wealthy donors, as far as I know, and the social connections dynamic in that Yearly Meeting are important, as they are in any organization, but seem to have nothing to do with social class. But maybe you don’t mean yearly meetings.

      It might be a different matter in AFSC. I don’t have any direct experience of its priorities-setting processes or its donor base, but I suspect it’s become increasingly vulnerable to the pressures you describe as it has shifted from a service organization to an advocacy organization staffed by professionals who are increasingly nonQuaker and as it has looked outside Quaker circles increasingly for funding.

      So I’d like to hear more about which Quaker organizations you mean, and what evidence you see for the (dare I say?) corruption of their priorities by wealthy elites.

      • Hi Steven: I don’t want to get into an online pissing match with advocates for particular Quaker organizations so I’ll beg off naming names. But the whole phenomenon of staffed organizations is relatively new. One observation that blew my mind was realizing that the name “General Secretary” comes from the job’s original role: a simple one-person, part-time secretary whose main job was to forward mail to committee clerks.

        I’m fascinated that the AFSC model has become seen as the only legitimate model for so many Friends. Many Friends think the first step toward following a concern is pulling together a board, hosting a national conference, writing mission statements and spending years in fundraising. The internet has made small self-funded projects more viable, just as organizations like the AFSC have had to slash budgets and programs. I wonder if we’re in the first stages of a shift.

  • Roger Dreisbach-Williams says:

    The story of R.H. Macy may be relevant. He provided space in the basement of his store to Jewish peddler who became so successful that he bought out his landlord. The Quaker industrialists have fallen to corporate culture, and Parker Palmer’s work to produce a more humane corporation has fallen to cheap labor and corporate greed.
    Quakerism has also, particularly since the early 1950’s, attracted liberal intellectuals who revere John Woolman (overlooking his early life as a successful merchant) and see communal economics (along with fair wages and environmental concerns) as a natural outgrowth of there-is-that-of-God-in-everyone Quakerism.

    Thank you for taking on this topic. It needs your gifts and skills and I look forward to reading more.

    • Hi Roger

      I see major transition periods in Quaker economic history that last roughly a generation spanning the turns of the centuries: circa 1700, we came out of the persecutions to found the industrial revolution and engineer the transition from mercantile capitalism to industrial capitalism; ca 1800: the emergence and ultimate hegemony of evangelical political economy paralleling the rise of evangelical theology (Malthus was an evangelical minister and, more important for Friends perhaps, Thomas Chalmers, a close friend of JJ Gurney; more about this important person and relationship at some point in the future); ca 1900: the beginning of the end of the great Quaker fortunes and the emergence of liberal Quaker theology and liberal Quaker political economics, with Seebohm Rowntree as the key figure in economics.

      The key worldly factor in the decline of Quaker wealth at this time, though, was the final step taken in England in the 1890s in the legalization of the limited liability corporation, making it possible for the first time for anyone to buy shares in a publicly held company and decisively removing fiduciary liability from those shareholders and the managers by making the corporation the legal equivalent of a person, at least in the most important regards. One by one through the 20th century, the great Quaker companies went public: they left family hands for the stock market, and the families—the Rowntrees, Cadburys, Levers, Barclays, etc.—ended up managers in their own firms under the new business model—or they left altogether.

      Business was no longer the only outlet available to Quakers looking to follow a calling or make a contribution and shaping the company’s culture according to your reading of gospel order became impossible. Business lost the social driving mechanism that had driven Friends into business in the first place and the appeal it had once had for expression of the Quaker ethic disappeared.

      It’s only gotten worse since then, as far as ethics goes, for the only constraints on publicly held companies now must come from government (the “invisible hand” of the market notwithstanding), and governments have not been able to keep up. Alvin Toffler of Future Shock fame has analyzed the rates at which various sectors of society change, and the only sector that changes more slowly than government is education; nothing changes faster than business. (I don’t remember what he says about religion.)

      We need an all-new political economy. But new economies are built by the people who make the technological innovations and use these technologies to build the first businesses, the way Quakers did at the beginning of the industrial revolution, the way that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs did at the beginning of the digital economy. Futurists think the next economy will emerge from the life sciences. In any case, Quakers are not positioned to be the innovators, as far as I can see, and so we will be left to wrestle with corporate capitalism by trying to leverage what’s left of government’s regulatory power—OR rediscover our prophetic voice and turn our creative intelligence to new ways of testifying to the Truth in ways that the Powers will actually hear (or fear—but that’s another post).

  • Thank you for doing this research, and for starting your blog! I have heard of your work in this area from another Friend. It is very interesting to me and relevant to my work, which draws on Quaker principles in work with organizational change and leadership. This week I’m working with a Quaker school (www.olneyfriends.org/summit) as they make plans for starting a business that is connected with the school–and questions of the Quaker relationship with capitalist system are informing much of what we are doing.

    • biblemonster says:

      I’m about halfway through a book you might be interested in, if you do not know it already. It’s Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia: Two Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Class Authority and Leadership, by E. Digby Baltzell. He starts with the observation that Boston and Massachusetts have produced many more leaders in all areas of life in American history than have Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, and then analyzes how Puritan and Quaker culture helped make this so. He also observes that Quaker leaders tend to be one-offs, where as Bostonian leaders tend to belong to families of leaders in a lineage of several generations, the Adamses being the classic case, though he cites many more. The book is really a study in the dynamics of two ruling classes—50 prominent families from each city—and, on the Quaker side, how our egalitarianism, rejection of all the vices related to vanity, anti-intellectualism, and individualism tended to undermine the kinds of public leadership that characterizes the great families of Boston:

      The members of the upper classes in egalitarian societies that lack a clear hierarchy of values recognized by all classes tend to avoid positions of authority and to project themsleves from the masses behind a high wall of wealth. Aritstocracies, in contrast to plutocracies, are led by a class whose authority is recognized by all, which lessens the need for the protection of pure wealth.”

      It is my own experience that (liberal) Quakers are somewhat dysfunctional when it comes to leadership. Leaders tend to make us nervous and I have seen them get destroyed by the community. Also, it’s a little weird to hear Quakers referred to as a ‘plutocracy,’ but I have to say that it does seem to fit, not just in Philadelphia, but also in England during the centuries of Quaker fortune.

      One historical factor he has not mentioned yet that must weigh heavily, I think, is that Pennsylvania was founded in the midst of the persecutions in England, in which Quaker leadership was singled out and nearly wiped out and literally illegal in virtually all spheres of public life. Baltzell gives only three pages to this topic and talks mostly about the Naylor affair; he virtually ignores the decades—in some areas, centuries—of exclusion from public leadership roles. As Doug Gwynn points out in The Covenant Crucified, the collective trauma of the persecutions turned Friends from radical engagement with the world to semi-quietist withdrawal in a generation, and specifically, to a new agreement with authority: you leave us alone and we’ll leave you alone. This ‘covenant crucified’ of Gwynn’s title was the sine qua non for the rise of capitalism, and, ironically, economics is the one sphere in which Friends did not withdraw from the world, but dove in with all they had.

  • Bill says:

    The Boulding quote describes “honesty, truthfulness, fulfillment of promises, thrift, hard work, punctuality” as “minor virtues.” I see them as major – as fundamental to any economic or social system, whether capitalist, marxist, socialist or feudal. Economic systems begin to collapse when these “minor virtues” are not there, witness the recent history of the United States. What Quakers did was force culture to apply these values to the economic system. Which, on a lighter note, is why Quaker Oats are Quaker Oats.

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You are currently reading Quakers and Capitalism — a lost history at Through the Flaming Sword.