Quakers & capitalism—a schematic historial outline

December 10, 2010 § 1 Comment

Here, finally, is the schematic or thematic outline that I’ve been using to organize my thinking about Quaker economic history. It’s sort of an annotated table of contents for the book I’ve been writing, and a proposal for how to organize the wiki on Quakers and Capitalism. I invite Friends to comment on it, and to contribute whatever they might know about our economic history during these various periods. I will try to get this and other material up on the wiki itself in the next couple of weeks.

I separate the history of Quakers and capitalism into three more or less distinct periods characterized by radical reversals in Quaker engagement with the world and especially, in how the religious ethos of the Quaker community found expression through outward engagement with the worlds of business, commerce and industry. Between these major periods in Quaker economic history lie periods of transition lasting about a generation, in which external forces driving changes in the wider economy and in the economic life of Friends have collided with internal forces driving change within Quaker culture. The middle period, from roughly 1700 to roughly 1900, was puntuated by a less radical transition in which evangelicalism eo-emerged with the new social science of political economy around 1800. Here is a brief overview of this historical scheme:

1     The 1650s: The Lamb’s War and the Social Order

The newly emerging movement of the Children of Truth preached and lived a vision of a radically reconstructed economy as a natural outgrowth of the Lamb’s War on behalf of Christ’s active return, though the economic dimensions of the anticipated renewal of the world remained only partially and vaguely articulated. As Doug Gwyn has described in The Apocalypse of the Word and A Covenant Crucified, Friends in the 1650s expected the ensuing second coming of Christ to make all things new, including the social-economic order. The religious vision of the Lamb’s War subsumed the more narrow vision of a redeemed ‘economics’ (the term ‘economics’ had not even emerged yet as a signifier of a distinct sphere of human activity). Some contemporary movements—notably, the Levellers and especially the Diggers—were very articulate on what we now call economics, and, as history (or God) would have it, the Children of Truth absorbed many of their members and leaders when they were disbanded, but did not absorb much of their political economic thinking.

Major transition: persecution and gospel order (1661 – 1695)

A transition period began with the Restoration (1661) and the ensuing persecutions and culminated with the Tolerance Act and the first Advices and Queries in the 1690s. The transition is characterized by the paradox of intense economic persecution of the Children of Truth, on the one hand, and their remarkable financial success, on the other. The external force of persecution met the internal imposition of gospel order. In this crucible, Friends completely restructured their community and its response to the outward world. As described in Doug Gwyn’s The Covenant Crucified, Friends cut a deal with the powers that be: you leave us alone and we’ll leave you alone; we will abandon our apocalyptic push for a remade world order and practice our religion as a private affair if you will practice a measure of religious tolerance. Friends withdrew from the world in virtually every sphere—except when it came to commerce and industry. With this sphere they engaged with incredible energy and intelligence. In this arena, they were, in fact, poised to remake the world order, after all, and they emerged from this transition period as one of the wealthiest communities on the planet. All these forces helped to shape the genius of John Bellers, the first important ‘political economist’ among Friends, who tried to lead his community into a deeper engagement with the structure and consequences of emerging capitalism, but Friends refused to respond.

2     The 18th and 19th Centuries: The ‘Double Culture’ Period

By the turn of the 18th century, these conflicting forces of thriving economic life in the face of active economic persecution had forged a singularly cohesive people, especially in their economic structures and relations, with a peculiar, schizoid cultural character. A long period of cultural dualism ensued, in which Friends withdrew from the world socially, politically and religiously while at the same time, they aggressively engaged the world in commerce and industry, the sciences and applied arts. With an effectiveness and intensity that attracted the world’s admiration, Friends made essential contributions to the newly emerging capitalist culture. It’s hard to exaggerate Quaker influence on industrial capitalism; certainly, the industrial revolution would have taken place without Friends—but it didn’t. In almost every area—finance, technological advances, the development of physical infrastructure, the creation or revitalization of essential industries, the invention of new modes of social organization—in all these areas, many of the key developments took form initially in Quaker hands. At the same time, Friends were responding to the downside of what they and their industrial contemporaries had wrought. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Quaker business people experimented with internal reforms that would improve the lot of their workers.

Minor transition: evangelicalism and political economy (1795 – 1829)

A second minor transition period began with the emergence of the Christian evangelical movement at the turn of the 19th century and the co-emergence of the discipline of ‘political economy’ in the work of moral philosophers strongly influenced by their evangelical faith. One of the first and most famous was Thomas Malthus of ‘Malthusian theory’ fame, an evangelical minister and early influential economic theorist. By the time of the Hicksite separations in 1828-29, evangelical thinking dominated discourse in both religious and economic policy circles.

3     The 19th Century—Fragmentation and Partial Reengagement

Evangelicalism and the intellectual discipline of ‘political economy’ co-evolved as the century progressed into the Victorian period. Evangelical theology dominated both economic thinking and policy and Quaker culture deep into the 19th century. Joseph John Gurney and his relationship with the political economist Thomas Chalmers illustrate the ties between these new ‘ideologies’ and how Quaker attitudes toward poverty and the economy were shaped by evangelicalism. In Great Britain, Friends continued to hold themselves apart from surrounding society until the mid-19th century, while they continued to amass their fortunes. While the juggernaut of industrialization in England continued to build vast Quaker fortunes, evangelicalism gradually called them out of their quietism and helped to renew Quaker engagement with social issues and to nurture benevolent ministry to the poor through a culture of philanthropy coupled with moralistic paternalism. Quakers took the lead in establishing paternalistic philanthropy as the signature response to capitalism’s excesses in the Victorian period. However, evangelicalism actually inhibited meaningful engagement with the causes of poverty and the effective management of an increasingly complex macro-economy. Meanwhile in America, the 19th century separations fragmented American Quakerism, where economic life had always been more diverse than in Great Britain, making the economic history of American Friends much more complicated than in England.

Major transition: corporate capitalism and liberal Quakerism (1891 – 1920)

A third transition period began with the Richmond Conference in Richmond, Indiana (1887) and the Manchester Conference in England (1891), which signaled the rise of a new liberal spirit in Quakerism. The great external forces of the period were the full legalization of the limited liability corporation, which gave rise to corporate capitalism, and World War I. Just as the transition to a radically new form of organization—the corporation—was gaining momentum, the Great War reinvigorated industrial production. At the same time, Friends faced persecution for their religious beliefs for the first time in two hundred years for conscientious objection to the war. By the end of the War and this transition period, Friends in England, at least, had reengaged with the world, had shifted decisively from an evangelical to a liberal culture, and, simultaneously, the great Quaker fortunes had begun their long decline, as one Quaker company after another went public. Seebohm Rowntree and Herbert Hoover exemplify two kinds of economic policy during this period. Rowntree helped launch and shepherd the welfare state in England at the beginning of this transition, even while he found it hard to abandon his own paternalistic instincts in his own chocolate business. Hoover combined the new technocratic vision of public management, which he applied with miraculous success to the incredible suffering caused by the Great War, with the vestiges of the evangelical ethos, which he applied with catastrophic results to the suffering caused by the Depression.

4     20th Century—Liberal Reengagement

The liberalization of Quaker culture at the turn of the 20th century brought reengagement with basic social issues. In fits and starts, Friends, at least in the liberal branches of the movement, focused more and more on the structure of the economy and systemic oppression, breaking with their two-hundred-year-old tradition of leaving ‘the system’ more or less alone. British Quaker demographics shifted throughout the century, sliding from the upper and upper middle classes to the middle middle class. The picture is more complex in America, but in general, English-speaking Quakers were increasingly employed in the ‘secular church’ of education, health and human services and were people of modest means. This led to a broad abandonment of leadership roles in the wider economic culture and greater willingness to consider institutional reforms of capitalism itself. Committees organized around concerns like peace and social justice emerge as the primary vehicle for this Quaker engagement, replacing the traditional culture of Quaker ministry. Only one of the widely recognized committees organized around a concern focuses specifically on economic issues (Right Sharing of World Resources) and Quaker meetings have articulated a specifically economic testimony only in the last decades of the century, if they have done so at all.


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