Quakers and capitalism – enigma & amnesia

November 4, 2010 § 15 Comments

Who would you say is history’s second most famous Quaker? I am assuming that William Penn is the first most famous Quaker, and that Richard Nixon does not qualify as a Friend, despite his nominal membership.

In the United States, it might be Herbert Hoover. He’s certainly famous enough. Problem is, so few people know that he was a Friend. When I ask this question at the beginning of my presentations, many people propose John Woolman, George Fox, Lucretia Mott or Alice Paul.

The answer I propose is John Bellers. A prominent British Friend around the turn of the 18th century (1654 – 1725), Bellers was well known to his contemporaries. Yet you would join an overwhelming majority of modern American Friends if you have never heard of this man.

So why do I say he’s the second most well-known Quaker in world history? Because some of his essays were required reading in Soviet schools throughout the Soviet period in the former Soviet Union—tens of millions of Russians have known who he is. Because he impressed Karl Marx and Friederich Engels so much that Das Kapital mentions him by name.

Here is a man who enjoyed the fullest respect of his own generation, who possessed a deep, compassionate heart and a creative and far-ranging mind, who brought these faculties to bear on the problems of his own time in searching moral critique and bold proposals for pragmatic solutions to the problems he so clearly defined—in some cases for the first time. With equal measures of insight and foresight, Bellers wrote about economics and the plight of the worker, medical research and education, international politics and domestic social policy.

He was the first person in the English-speaking judicial tradition to call for the abolition of the death penalty. He added his voice to that of William Penn in calling for a unified government for Europe. And Bellers was the first to propose a national health service and a number of other reforms in health care:

  • standardized medical education, so that all doctors would be trained in the best treatment practices and the public would have some protection from quacks and charlatans;
  • medical conferences and journals to keep doctors abreast of new developments in medicine; and
  • testing and certification of medicines to guarantee their efficacy and protect patients and patient’s families.

But his most important contribution in his own eyes was his proposal for “colledges of industry”. These were working and educational communities of (ideally) 250 or so people, made up mostly of the working poor, built around profit-making businesses in a wide range of trades that also conducted industrial research. His model anticipated that a third of the time and profit from the college would be surplus and would be reinvested in the research and used for relief to the poor. He wrote several essays on this topic throughout his life, never giving up on it, writing to Parliament and to London Yearly Meeting (essentially a grant proposal). Parliament didn’t listen. London Yearly Meeting created a workhouse at Clerkenwell, but this frustrated him no end, because they had ignored the most important aspects of the idea: community, education, research, profitable contribution. Clerkenwell was a palliative, not a systemic solution.

So how has this important contributor to Quaker—and even Western—history fallen into such relative oblivion among his own people? Why did even his own contemporaries shy away from his genius? And what, if anything, does our amnesia say about Quaker culture and our testimonial  relationship to the concern that most exercised him: the social organization of capitalist enterprise? Why do I start my exploration of Quakers and capitalism with John Bellers?

For me, our Bellers amnesia is a useful indicator of a bigger puzzle. Bellers is not the only important political economist whom we’ve forgotten; I would add Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree (1871 – 1954) and, more importantly, David Ricardo (1773 – 1823). (Will we forget Kenneth Boulding, too?) Moreover, while Quakers from their earliest days have had a disproportionate influence on capitalist culture, especially in Great Britain, as we shall see, nevertheless, we are only now beginning to develop a coherent, comprehensive testimony on economics. To my knowledge, no one has tried to write a comprehensive economic history of Friends, despite its obvious and enormous importance, until this leaky vessel you are reading right now, though there have been some marvelous treatments of specific people and topics. Friends are weird about money, too, as anyone who’s served on a finance committee well knows. Why?

Why, when we have for so long been in the forefront of efforts to reform prisons, stop war, serve its victims, advance the rights of women, and end slavery, have we been so tardy in addressing the social failures of capitalism? For years, I have felt led to try to answer these questions and John Bellers was my first poster boy, if you will.

I would like to start a new conversation along these lines.


Tagged: , ,

§ 15 Responses to Quakers and capitalism – enigma & amnesia

  • […] genius? And… Nov 6th, 2010 by Martin Kelley. // nRelate.domain = "www.quakerranter.org"; //Steven Davison on John Bellars, history’s 2nd-most famous Quaker, who Friends have largely for… /**/ Share this:EmailFacebookPosted in: misc. ← Micah Bales: Missional Quaker Faith – […]

  • T H says:

    My question is more about Henry George himself. From what I understand George had a basically pro-free market streak outside of his belief in a single tax on land.

    Is this true?

    Was this the generally the view of many Quakers around the turn of the century?

    Thanks so much for your time.

    • I haven’t really studied Henry George enough to speak with true authority on his attitudes toward free markets. You might check out the Wikipedia entry, which I found (as usual) quite helpful. It includes this analysis:

      [In his 1879 book Progress and Poverty he “made the argument that a sizeable portion of the wealth created by social and technological advances in a free market economy is possessed by land owners and monopolists via economic rents, and that this concentration of unearned wealth is the main cause of poverty. George considered it a great injustice that private profit was being earned from restricting access to natural resources while productive activity was burdened with heavy taxes, and indicated that such a system was equivalent to slavery—a concept somewhat similar to wage slavery.”

      He believed that natural resources (including, I think, the industrial commons, like utilities and railroads) should be either owned or heavily regulated by the state, and was against monopolies. So it seems that he accepted the free market in principle, but had strong ideas about how it should be regulated to prevent monopolistic power and keep incomes as equal as possible. To me, that sounds like a variant of socialism.

      • T H says:

        Thank you for your fast response.

        However, I must object on one count: is that socialism? I’ve been doing some reading on George and it doesn’t appear so.

        From this page it seems that most of what he stands for is closer to Milton Friedman than the average liberal today http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_George#Policy_proposals

        Government control of natural monopolies? That’s your utility company. Also, he favors breaking up government created monopolies in areas of non-natural monopolies.

        His policy recommendation to correct for improper wages was a single tax on land. As your quote says, he advocated decreasing the tax burden on other “productive”(capitalist?) activities.

        The lack of a gold standard is something that is disagreed with by many free-marketers but many free-market-leaning Chicago School economists would agree with George there should be no gold standard.

        Furthermore, I remembered hearing that Hayek became interested in economics through George. A source for this is here:http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0254/is_2_63/ai_n6141843/ . Apparently, his largest change was his view on land.

        In addition, the most prominent modern Georgists I found on Google were those who were the Geolibertarians.

        Sorry to say, but if Quakers were members of this group, I think it is fair to say they were more capitalist and more libertarian than the average American of their time.

        Thank you for you’re quick response. I hope this hasn’t been a bother.

  • HelenQP says:

    (My responses will be highly subjective/intuitive. I have studied neither economics nor Quakerism in depth, but having grown up in a meeting and Quaker school in Philadelphia taught me a lot by osmosis.)

    I was very interested to see the reference to Balzell’s book. Having grown up in Philadelphia Quakerism, the book rang true to my personal experience when I first read it years ago. I have stopped being surprised by how little native Philadelphians know about Quakerism–even parents at my daughter’s Quaker school look at me with a kind of wonder, as if I were a rare and admirable sociological specimen, when I tell them my family is going on 5 generations now in Philly Quaker schools. Some of the parents, SUVs and all, are there to get their kids into top colleges. The schools work (some harder than others) to maintain the testimony of simplicity, but when you’ve got donors throwing millions of dollars at a school and the auditorium is named for a child, you’re dealing with issues that challenge the core of Quaker testimony. (Would someone please throw 128 mil at MY daughter’s school?!) This is all, arguably, a facet of the economic issue.

    But what about the ignorance of many Philadelphians about Quakerism? Balzell cites the Quaker value of modesty as partially to do with our reluctance to engage in what I’ll crudely call “public relations.” I was taught mostly in an unspoken way that “vaunting oneself” was bad, tasteless, vulgar…and felt the implied judgment against “showy” people.

    There’s a psychological dimension to economics when it comes to the values one espouses, isn’t there?

  • Rodney Owen says:

    For me, the thing that stands out in Powelson’s essay is the change that developed over time in Friends’ attitudes about economics and social/political solutions. I am dismayed by the general liberal/progressive political nature that is so prominent among most Quakers. And it’s not the individual political orientation that makes me uncomfortable, but the often narrow view and disdain of other views, as pointed out by Powelson, that I find inappropriate and divisive.

    Of course for Powelson to expect Friends to conform to his economics is equally inappropriate. Perhaps politics has little or no place in the Meeting House. Perhaps the Gospel is a better guide.

    • I suspect that many of us have experienced illiberal treatment of nonliberal views from ‘liberal’ Friends. (Full disclosure here: I am by most measures a ‘liberal’ Friend myself, I have not personally suffered this treatment, and, to the contrary, I have been the intolerant liberal Friend we are talking about.) Liberal Friends have some important work to do here and Powelson in this essay testifies rather powerfully I think to how painful it can be, and how wrong.

      But I’m less worried about Friends becoming “too political,” as he puts it, or about politics in the meeting house. What’s the alternative? Separating our lives into discreet compartments called religion and politics and keeping them apart? This is the crucifixion of the covenant that Doug Gwynn describes in his book by that title and was the deal we cut with political culture in the late 1600s that gave us two centuries of disengagement and isolation. It seems to me that the testimony of integrity requires of us that we try to live one whole life, in which the inner life and the outer correspond, and over which we invite the spirit of God to rule.

      For me this means that moral judgment belongs in the economic and political spheres no less than any other. Where we err, I think, is when we start judging people for holding to a perspective rather than recognizing and addressing the causes and consequences of violence, whether it’s economic or political in character.

      I would argue that capitalism is, in fact, inherently violent. That is, it harms people as a natural outcome of it’s basic structure. But that’s another post. One of the things I hope to accomplish with this blog is a more thorough examination of capitalism in the light of our testimonies. Several clearly apply: peace, simplicity, equality, truthfulness, these at least.

      On a different tack, I think Powelson is just wrong about his history when he ties 17th century Friends to classic liberalism as he defines it. For one thing, the first classical liberal “economist” (the term hadn’t really been invented yet), Adam Smith, didn’t write The Wealth of Nations until 1776. The next classic liberal “economist”, David Ricardo, wrote in the early 1800s.

      Meanwhile, whatever political or economic ideology early Friends possessed sprang from their religious experience, not from liberal intellectual thought. In the 18th century, we barely paid attention to political economics. In the 19th century, our thinking was colored more by evangelical theology, as I’ve said elsewhere in this thread, or, in the case of nonevangelical Quakerism, it just continued the double culture of withdrawal from “the world” except for the intense engagement with the world of money, business and trade. I don’t think there was any “180 degrees of deviation from the classic traditions of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries”, as he says. In fact, Kenneth Boulding mentions offhandedly in an essay published in 1953 that most Friends are Republicans! I think the liberal Quakerism he rails against is really just a post-Vietnam War phenomenon.

      Moreover, liberal Quakerism is in no way socialistic. It’s true that a small group of socialist Friends were very active around the time of the Manchester Conference in England. They had an influence disproportional to their numbers on the general direction of the conference, but not on its actual content. And they were very frustrated that Friends did not realize in any large numbers or any meaningful way that Quakers naturally ought to be socialists. This debate did resurface now and then (notably during the landmark London Yearly Meeting sessions in 1918 and carrying over into the first Friends World Conference in 1920), but never did Quakerism come close to embracing anything like socialism.

      And especially not now. As an economist, I think he should know better. Favoring a robust role for government in caring for its people and regulating business and markets is not the same thing as socialism. But haven’t we heard that word slung around indiscriminately a lot in the last couple of years? “Socialist” is just an epithet, now, not a meaningful economic or political term anymore, at least here in the US.

  • Rudy says:

    Steven, thank you for your thoughtful response to my hasty and dismissive post. Thank you also for reminding me to treat people, and Friend Powelson in particular, with respect.

    Did the “social Gospel” have any effect on Quakers? This was a largely evangelical economic movement.

    I wonder whether in the US, in the late 19th and early 20th century, the populist movement with its strong anti-capitalist and cooperative bias had any influence on Midwestern Quaker farmers.

    There is also Henry George, whose ideas influence the Quaker Lizzie Magie to develop the predecessor of the “Monopoly” board game.

    • I don’t know enough about either the Social Gospel movement or the populist and Progressive movements to really answer this question (any historians out there who can?). This is just the point I’ve reached in my research, and I’ve not really studied it yet. I would add the modern Pentecostol movement, also, which emerged at roughly the same time and I think had some ties with the social gospel movement. In the early days, the Pentecostal movement was racially integrated and very egalitarian. The Social Gospel movement was the religious wing of the Progressive movement, prefiguring in a way how the Christian right today has acted as the religious wing of the Republican Party.

      These questions are certainly on my list, as is Henry George. I know about Quakers developing the prototype of the game Monopoly using his ideas, a fascinating story that I plan to get to when I move more deeply into the 20th century. The game uses the streets of Atlantic City because the Quaker school in Atlantic City took up the game from its creator (whose name I forget), and it was there that some of the other elements were added: I believe this includes at least Get Out of Jail Free and Community Chest. Interesting that Monopoly started out as a quasi-socialist, anti-capitalist game.

      I think, though, that the answer is probably yes, there was some influence. I’m pretty sure I remember reading that Rufus Jones was sympathetic to its methods and goals and took some heat for it, while he has editor of Friends Review, and that he helped export it to Britain, especially through his close friendship with John Wilhelm Rowntree, who is often cited as the genius behind the turn toward liberalism in British Quakerism. I suspect that all these factors helped push Quaker culture toward liberalism, a shift that really got going at the same time, beginning in England, anyway, with the Manchester Conference in 1895.

      If there was some influence, as I suspect, it would mark a real shift in Quaker relations with outside movements. Until about this time, Quaker culture was so internally cohesive and distinctive and, ultimately, withdrawing that it seems to have resisted this kind of influence from outside movements. The classic case is the absorption of the Diggers and the Levellers in the 1650s. The Diggers were radical economic communitarians and the Levellers were radical political egalitarians, the forerunners of today’s Libertarians. Both movements emerged from Cromwell’s New Model Army, itself a radical rejection of Britain’s class structures and aristocratic dominance, and a fertile petrie dish for political and economic innovation of all kinds. Both movements grounded their ideas in Christian faith and fresh interpretations of scripture.

      Cromwell drove both movements out of the Army around 1649, though, because they were too radical. Many of the leaders and members of both movements joined the Children of Truth. The Quaker movement absorbed these two radical social movements that could have turned Friends’ attention toward a truly forward-thinking testimony on economic relations and policy—but this didn’t happen. I’ve not found any clear evidence that Friends took up any important elements in their agendas or ideas.

      On the other hand, there is one huge exception to this kind of resistance: the evangelical movement, which Friends embraced to a great degree. Even those elements of Quakerism that resisted evangelical influence were redefined by it. Evangelical thinking and leaders ended up heavily influencing, even dominating, Quaker history throughout the 19th century, including Quaker social testimonies.

  • Thank you for this great piece. I am a UK Quaker and I am certain that the name of John Bellers is as unknown here as in the States. I do have to say, however, that (as a chemist myself) the most famous Quaker in the world could be John Dalton who’s atomic theory is taught to every school and college chemistry class on Earth. I have seen items on him in elementary chemistry books from the peoples republic of China, Russia and many European countries, most mention that he was a Quaker with some brief explanation.

  • Rodney Owen says:

    Rodney Owen provides this link to an essay by John Powelson, titled “The Political Ideology of Unprogrammed Friends,” published in Volume 13, number 1 of Religion and Liberty a publication of the Acton Institute for the study of religion and liberty:


    • Rudy says:

      The essay by Powelson contains little historical information. It is a complaint that modern unprogrammed Friends are not libertarians (“classic liberals”), and that somehow this is a change for Quakers.

      John Bellers is a counterexample to Powelson’s account. In any case, modern coporate capitalism has little or nothing in common with the kind of economics Quakers have advocated or practiced in the past.

      • Jack Powelson is a controversial figure in the history of Quakers and capitalism. He has a long and impressive bibliography and he spent his whole career doing on-the-ground economic development, I believe primarily in China and other developing countries. Economic development was his specialization. He’s often been criticized by more ‘liberal’ Friends for being too friendly toward corporate culture and too enamored of and too committed to traditional models for development.

        It’s been a while since I followed these debates, but I believe I remember that they caused him some pain, that he felt his critics had not really understood (or even read) his work and his approach, and that the actual evidence was clearly on his side. The criticism was familiar to me: it felt like the kind of treatment I’ve seen Republicans and conservatives in general, and especially, people who questioned the peace testimony, often receive in our meetings: dismissive, even contemptuous and sometimes mean.

        I’ve read a couple of his books and, though I don’t remember them very well now, I do remember realizing how ignorant of real economic theory I was at the time, and that, once I thought I understood his arguments, I still did not agree with him about some things.

        I plan to treat Powelson’s work more carefully sometime down the line, when I have time to read and reread more of his books. He deserves careful study in the history of Quakers and capitalism I am undertaking (and I’m weak on the twentieth century so far). I welcome input from Friends who are more familiar with him and his work. And he deserves the respect we profess when we claim that there is that of God in everyone, that we should give anyone, especially a fellow Quaker, and because he was a respected and honest-to-God economist. I mean this latter comment in earnest, and in both meanings: one of his books is titled The Moral Economy, another, Facing Social Revolution: The Personal Journey of a Quaker Economist, a third, Seeking Truth Together. Jack Powelson was both a dedicated economist and a dedicated Friend.

        Finally, I think Bellers probably is the counterexample to Powelson that Rudy claims, but Bellers may be an exception. He’s closer, I think, to the apocalypticism of Fox and other early leaders in the 1650s, and to the liberal economic sentiments of modern Friends, but Quaker economic ‘theory’ leaned more toward the ‘libertarian’ that one might think during much of our history.

        In the 19th century, it was dominated by evangelical theology, which was much closer to libertarian, except that it’s foundation was not political but moral: laissez faire, deregulation and hands-off government were the rule because the ‘invisible hand’ of the market was believed to be the hand of God. Economic downturns were, like everything else, God’s punishment for sin. And the solution was to address the sinfulness of individuals (the poor, especially) and of society, rather than try to intervene with a ‘program’, government sponsored or otherwise. Here, the relationship between Thomas Chalmers, a leader in economic policy and an evangelical minister, and Joseph John Gurney, is instructive (too big a topic to continue here). Businessmen (sic) should be left free to act without intervention because judgment and salvation were individual matters and the state had no business getting involved. Nor was evangelical economics well equipped to perceive, let alone understand, systemic or structural evils in the system, for the same reason of its tight focus on individuals, their sin and their salvation. This led to catastrophic consequences in the early years of the Irish famine (ca 1848), when the British government initially took a more or less explicitly evangelical policy approach to the crisis, and made things vastly worse. In fact, it was this policy debacle that was the beginning of the end of evangelical domination of political economics. It just lacked effective tools for dealing with real economic crises, and it was increasingly perceived as lacking in compassion. (Things have hardly changed, have they?)

        Likewise, in the 18th century, Friends had withdrawn so completely from all aspects of society except business that they were ‘libertarians’ by default. As Doug Gwyn has so thoroughly documented in The Covenant Crucified, Friends had cut a deal with the state after the Toleration Act lifted the persecutions (more or less; 1695, I think): leave us alone and we’ll leave you alone.

        I agree, also, that Friends gradually left business during the twentieth century, for a variety of reasons. But strong among them was that ‘corporate capitalism’ gave you less and less room to exercise a Friendly ethic in business. This was a structural problem that could not be overcome by individual good will in the workplace or the board room, or by incremental reforms of the system.

  • Justin says:

    Fascinating and very important post. Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading Quakers and capitalism – enigma & amnesia at Through the Flaming Sword.