Quakers & Capitalism – The Double-culture Period (1695–1895)

January 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

Quakers & Capitalism – The Double-culture Period (1695–1895)


The Restoration of Charles II and the persecutions ended a period of radical Quaker engagement with virtually all the institutions of English society. But the Lamb’s War focused particularly on religious institutions and not so much on those governing commerce. Capitalism had yet to emerge in any meaningful way. The primary engine for wealth creation was still the land. As trades people and yeoman farmers (that is, agricultural producers who owned their own land), early Quakers were not at the bottom of this food chain, but they started out more or less frozen in their places, without much visible prospect for change. But change was all around them and Friends adapted with remarkable resilience.

By the end of what I am calling the first transition period in the economic history of Friends, they had not only survived an economic harrowing, but had actually thrived, and not just in spite of it but, in some ways, paradoxically, because of it. They were thrust into uniquely challenging economic circumstances and they turned their tribulations into opportunities. But they responded to these challenges with an oddly bipolar cultural alignment.

On the one hand, they built walls around themselves. Take plain speech and plain dress, as only one front on which Friends retreated from the Lamb’s War. Originally these cultural forms embodied early Friends’ testimony to equality in the spirit before the Lord, which they found in scripture and which they confirmed in their hearts. In what I am calling the “double culture” period, these practices became cultural identifiers that told the rest of the world, “We stand apart.” This happened quite quickly, before even the first generation of leaders had passed away. Margaret Fell expressed her concerns about the shift in one of her later epistles. Similarly, in one area after another, Friends withdrew from the world around them.

All but one. They left one wide gate in their wall against the world. This gate opened into a new country, one that was sparsely peopled, nearly devoid of institutions, of infrastructure, of rules and conventions, a virgin landscape waiting to be developed—an economy based not on land and its produce but on technology and industrial production, an economy in which wealth was created by private (or corporate) ownership of capital goods, by investment determined by private decision rather than by state control, and by prices, production and distribution of goods determined mainly in a free market, that is, in a market relatively free from government regulation. In a word—capitalism.

As I have rather arbitrarily defined it, the first transition period stretched between the Restoration in 1661 to 1695, when Parliament passed the Quakers Act of 1695, which allowed Quakers to substitute an affirmation where the law required an oath, except when giving evidence in a criminal case, serving on a jury, or holding an office of profit from the Crown.* (The new affirmation read: “I, A. B., do declare in the presence of Almighty God, the Witness of the truth of what I say.”). One might close the period of persecutions with the passage of the Toleration Act in 1689, which granted freedom of worship to Nonconformists of the Church of England, Protestant dissenters like Quakers, Presbyterians, and Baptists (it deliberately excluded Roman Catholics and Unitarians, however). The Toleration Act did significantly ease the state’s assault on Friends, especially the financial burden, though local compliance was somewhat erratic for a long time and Friends continued to pay fines for failure to pay tithes into the 19th century. So the Toleration Act closed the door, more or less, on the persecutions. But the Quakers Act opened the door to more or less unhindered economic life, because of the importance of law in the conduct of business. Without the Quakers Act, Quaker business might have remained a much smaller, more self-contained endeavor. With the right of affirmation, however, Friends were free to fully participate in the new contractarian social order that was a necessary precondition for the rise of capitalism. They used this freedom to build an all-new economy.

This was an extraordinary achievement: despite huge financial losses during the period of the persecutions, Friends ended up rich. Really rich. By the beginning of the second period of Quaker economic history, fourteen Quaker families enjoyed revenues over £100,000. And this was only the start of something big—there followed two hundred years of thriving economic life characterized by incredible wealth-building and by a perennial stream of significant contributions to emerging capitalism, industrialization, technological innovation, social reform and philanthropic work.

Quakers became a people with a double culture. Their economic culture could not have been more engaged with the world. Their social-religious culture could hardly have been less engaged.  Even as late as the 1860s, a woman might be raised to adulthood in a well-to-do Quaker family in Baltimore without ever coming into contact with nonQuakers. When Quakers call the 18th and 19th centuries the “quietist period,” we mean the religious culture and we forget the economic culture.

Yet, these two cultures were intimately related. This was one people, after all. Individual Quakers, their families and meetings, lived these two cultures as one life. They fused the two cultures without apparent contradiction and with phenomenal success.

How did they do this? What sociological factors fed their material success and economic engagement with the world and denied them social and religious engagement? These are complex social dynamics and I’m not a sociologist. But I think I see three general areas in which Quaker culture encouraged creative, successful economic engagement in the world—with phenomenal financial results—out of the spiritual values that drew them inward toward each other and toward their Inner Teacher and away from the wider world.

  • Quaker character. The first area is the fortuitous ways Quaker culture helped shape Quaker character so as to make Friends successful business people. One aspect of this Quaker character was an ethos Friends shared with their radical Puritan forbears and contemporaries, which they exemplified with extraordinary energy. We’ve already touched on how the Protestant ethic gave birth to the capitalist spirit, a la Max Weber, and here I want to elaborate on two of Weber’s key ideas as they apply to Friends: “worldly asceticism” and “rational asceticism.” Furthermore, Quakers expressed this ethos in distinctive ways and even encoded some aspects of the Quaker character in their testimonial life. Quakers became famous for a set of character traits that served to guide their behavior in business and to build a reputation that nurtured their success.
  • Quaker practice. Quakers also adopted corporate practices that fostered economic and financial success. It’s hard to exaggerate the importance of corporate Quaker practice in building their personal fortunes. Quakers did not—could not—build their fortunes by themselves.
  • Sublimation. All the energy (and money) that Quaker character and culture repressed had to go somewhere. Thus, when Quaker character, with the indispensable support of Quaker culture, tackled a worldly problem, it tended to generate amazing creativity and innovation, a freedom of modes of thinking that was paradoxically opposite to the gradually solidifying (and ultimately ossifying) modes of religious thinking that took hold in Quaker culture. It would barely stretch the truth of the matter to say that Quakers were the wellspring from which gushed many of the main streams of industrial capitalist development, even as their own well of spiritual vitality gradually went dry.

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* The Act also allowed legal proceedings to be taken against Quakers before a Justice of the Peace for refusing to pay tithes if it did not exceed £10. The Act would have expired in seven years but, in 1702, Parliament extended it for another eleven years by the Affirmation by Quakers Act 1701 and then made it permanent in 1715.

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