Quakers & Capitalism — The Double-culture Period: The Protestant (Quaker) Ethic & the Capitalist Spirit

January 22, 2011 § 7 Comments

The Protestant (Quaker) Ethic and the Capitalist Spirit

The early, groundbreaking sociologist Max Weber, in his most famous book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904), offers a useful framework for approaching the relationship between the religious culture of early Friends and the social culture necessary (or at least optimal) for the rise of capitalism. Weber himself mentions Quakers frequently, not just as a community, but also George Fox and Robert Barclay. He devotes a lengthy section of his book to “The Baptist Sects,” in which he includes Quakers. To my mind, he seems to understand Quakerism rather well.

Apropos to our current exploration of Quaker character and how it served their extraordinary financial success, Weber discussed at length in his book how two qualities of the “Protestant ethic” converged to produce just the double culture we are discussing: material engagement in a world from which you are spiritually withdrawing. The two forces he describes are worldly asceticism and rational asceticism.

Worldly Asceticism

Friends defined the ultimate spiritual value as the inward experience of Christ and then sought to ground all their actions in the world in the promptings of the Holy Spirit. This led to a rejection of the world as source of spiritual fulfillment and recast the world as the sphere of spiritual expression. The combination generates an impulse to be perfect in the world. When you see leadings and moral direction as revelations of God, it sanctifies all action as calling. At the same time, hearing the call requires silence, that is, removal from the world.

Rational Asceticism

When you cannot achieve grace through sacraments, good works or confession, the only proof of grace is a way of life that is unmistakably different from that of others. This requires a certain withdrawal from the world. It requires the individual to supervise her own state of grace in her conduct—that is, it permeates the life with asceticism, forcing the “rationalization of conduct within the world for the sake of the world beyond,” as Weber put it. The requisite “rational” planning of one’s life in accord with God’s will forces you to reengage the world with a plan—or, more accurately, with a discipline (discipleship); that is, a self-conscious deliberateness that includes robust structures and processes for drafting the plan (discerning God’s will) and correcting mistakes through negative feedback (gospel order).

These are highly adaptive qualities for sustainability in the high-risk, intensively entrepreneurial and opportunistic environment of rapidly-evolving capitalism in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. First, though, you must get into the world of commerce in the first place. These ascetic spiritual qualities might have actually impeded Quaker involvement in the world of money and business, if Friends had been left to themselves. But they weren’t left to themselves; in fact, they were left no choice. Fate—in the form of the persecutions—threw them into the counting houses and fledgling factories of England. Of course, early Friends didn’t believe in ‘fate’; they believed in God’s ever-guiding hand. Once into the deep water, they determined to swim as though God had thrown them in.

The next post in the Quakers & Capitalism series discusses specific character traits emphasized in early Quaker culture and how they fostered Quaker success in business.

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