Quakers & Capitalism — The Double-culture Period: Factors in Quaker Success

January 26, 2011 § 3 Comments

Here’s the next installment in Quakers and Capitalism, outlining aspects of Quaker character and community practice that helped make Friends so phenomenally successful in business during the ‘double-culture period” between roughly 1700 ad 1900. I realized while working on this section of the book that the last post in the series, on the Protestant ethic as discussed by Max Weber in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, really belongs with the material I had planned to publish in this post, so I’ve deleted the earlier post and combined the contents of both in a longer section.

This section would have been too long to post in its entirety here, anyway, so I invite readers to download Factors in Quaker Business Success; it’s also available on the Quakers & Capitalism page, whose link is to the left. So here’s a brief precis:

Quakers & Capitalism—The Double-culture Period: Factors in Quaker Success

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.

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 a 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.

Quaker Culture and Quaker Character

Quaker culture cultivated other personal character qualities that also served the phenomenal financial success of this period. Some, like their famous frugality, moderation and financial prudence and their Puritan rejection of entertainment, drink and gambling, protected their wealth from dissipation. Some traits, like their integrity and discretion, built up a reputation that engendered trust and attracted customers, suppliers, and business associates. Some, like their meticulousness and their sense of business as service, directly affected the quality of their products and services.

Here, I offer a simple bullet list of these character traits. For the fuller treatment of each trait, see the pdf file.

  • Business as service
  • Spiritual standards for daily life
  • Meticulouslness
  • Silence and discretion
  • Simplicity, frugality and moderation
  • Prudence and debt

Quaker Practice and Quaker Wealth

Corporate community practice also guided, supported and constrained Quaker business practice, and in many ways, these were more important even than Quaker character in helping them build their fortunes:

  • the emergence of testimonies on the conduct of business that were enforced under the disciplines of gospel order, including
  • the testimony against civil suit;
  • apprenticeships;
  • more or less enforced intermarriage; and, most importantly,
  • traveling ministry, intervisitation and correspondence.

The written and visitation ministry networks soon became so active and fully developed that often only one or two degrees of separation stood between one Quaker business person and another. Students of the Internet have been developing network-oriented business theories that would offer very interesting opportunities here for more fully understanding this aspect of Quaker success. I suspect that this ‘network effect’ is the most important factor in the rapid expansion and extraordinary success of early Quaker capitalists.


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§ 3 Responses to Quakers & Capitalism — The Double-culture Period: Factors in Quaker Success

  • Emily says:

    I’m glad you appreciated the posting. I’m working now on an essay on Quaker businessmen of the 19th century and the changes they were working to make in the world during that period, the time of Henry George, Marx, Engels, and Rowntree, and I hope to post it on your site soon.
    Regarding Quaker culture, the historians I’ve read never indicated that Quakers were withdrawing from society at large; I think they were using the words double and withdrawing to indicate several different ideas.
    Frederik Tolles, for example, wrote that Quakers withdrew from converting the world into moving inward for the perfection of their own spirituality, part of which spiritual is active engagement. So that inward withdrawal actually precludes withdrawal from the world at large. As one biographer of Isaac Hicks wrote, those who preach withdrawal are often those who withdraw the least. The title of Tolles’ book, the Meeting House and the counting house, also implies the existence of two separate worlds, the spiritual and secular, but what Tolles describes, I think, is how Quakers married, not divorced, those two worlds. Frederik Tolles also describes Quakers as tribalistic, but so are all groups who want to establish their identity, but that doesn’t necessitate separation from the whole world. Indeed, because Quakers were so highly respected for their honesty, recognition for being part of that tribe might have been a badge of honor in the outside world. James Walvin discusses how Quakers developed new rules to establish Quaker separation from the vanities and corruptions of the outside world, but it was the vanities and corruptions of the world, not the world at large, from which Quakers wanted separation–as did many non-Quakers.
    Different Quakers treated this in different ways. As a child, Elizabeth and Joseph John Gurney and siblings grew up in a world of Gay Quakers; some Quaker visitors scolded their home and their local Meeting for the gayness and the openness to non-Quakers, but the Meeting itself enjoyed its gayness, and the kids loved mocking the stricter Quakers. The Gurney children had to make their own religious decisions, and when Joseph John Gurney decided to become a Quaker in his 20s he adopted the Quaker uniform, but he didn’t then withdraw from the world at large, but instead he continued to invite people of all faiths to meet at Earlham when he inherited his father’s estate. Hicksite Joseph Wharton knew more non-Quakers than he knew Orthodox Quakers–but he didn’t want his children to interchange with non-Quakers without his supervision. In Philadelphia Quakers created a separate community so they could maintain their integrity, but it was never a gated community, and during the 18th century they had to learn to accommodate themselves to the larger American culture. Nantucket developed as a separate community also, for similar reasons, but their separation also faded also as other non-Quakers moved in.
    All humans live in multiple worlds–I don’t have a television, but that doesn’t mean I am living in a “double culture.” I have friends who are orthodox Jews and Muslims, who wear a wig or hat or veil to brand themselves as belonging to a world I don’t live in, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily have a double culture, though there are some Jews and Muslims who have chosen a double world.
    Regarding Gwyn, I don’t see how one had only two choices–“radical opposition” and “quiescent accommodation;” in fact, there’s much valuable between. There’s a Zen saying, “go with the flow,” which doesn’t mean what it implies in English, to just accept whatever happens. It means to be so cognizant of the flow of what is happening in the world at large, and simultaneously so cognizant of the moral course of action that at the exact propitious moment the moral person can truly effect change without wasting time knocking himself out whamming into the immovable boulders in the stream.
    I don’t agree with Gwyn that God determines history. I wish he had told the reader what choices he felt the 17th century Quakers should have made. Those Quakers were actually following George Fox in his own path as a “capitalist” by trade; they were following his moral exhortations to “not forget the poor;” they were undermining the power of those landholders which Fox, the Levellers, and the Diggers all despised. Since Fox, given his opposition to state-centered power, would certainly never have advocated socialism or communism I don’t know what choices those Quakers had.
    I don’t understand Gwyn’s view of human nature, either, as he doesn’t see people as being hemmed in by events of their own times or by their own capabilities, as making mistakes, as taking chances, as simply muddling through in difficult times; instead, they determined what would happen for three centuries after their deaths–and they would have known it. I don’t think we should blame on a few 17th century Quakers humanity’s inability to reach utopia.
    Too bad many Quakers don’t know Bellers’ name. There are indeed many Quakers who deserve to be better known. For me personally, it’s Lewis Fry Richardson I wish more Quakers would recognize, and I learned of him totally by accident.
    My own research started when a Friend who works on Wall Street told me he wanted to research Quaker business practices after a client had expressed interest in incorporating some Quaker practices into his own workplace. I offered to do an annotated bibliography for him. I knew nothing of the subject when I started, and since there’s no one “subject” through which to search for materials, initially I read books and articles on ethics, history, and biographies as I found them since I didn’t really know what I should be looking for.

  • Emily says:

    I would argue that Quakers never entered a double culture period, as they never withdrew from the world at large.
    In the 18th century Friends took on a quieter ministry of humanitarian services based on an economic ethic which stressed, as Frederik Tolles put it, “the doctrine of stewardship and the social responsibility of the man of wealth” as they stepped away from the flamboyant vocal ministry that was their hallmark in the 17th century Hobbesian world of George Fox (who was himself, along with his wife, a businessman) and entered the world of business. Quakers lived in many worlds during this period.
    Quakers were curious and well-informed. Fur trader James Logan, once William Penn’s clerk, diagnosed himself as having a “disease for books,” and built up one of the earliest libraries in the New World; he boasted of being the first American to own Newton’s Principia Mathematica. Logan also worked with other Quaker businessmen and Benjamin Franklin to found the Library Company of Pennsylvania, the oldest successful lending library in North America. Merchant John Smith, another member of the Library Company, was manager and secretary of the American Philosophical Society, America’s first learned society In Philadelphia Friends frequented bookstores stocked with books and periodicals from Europe; they also read Benjamin Franklin’s weekly Pennsylvania Gazette. William Bradford published the New York Gazette, the Colony’s first newspaper. Friends also corresponded with merchants and Friends from almost literally around the world. Quaker Isaac Collins developed the New Jersey Almanack. Moses Brown, and his Baptist brother Nicholas, founded Brown University; James Logan helped found the College of Philadelphia, now the University of Pennsylvania.
    The diaries of the Quakers who lived in that period are filled with tales of worlds other than business. Merchant John Reynell travelling to Jamaica, recording it as the “wickedest place he’d ever seen” because of the wealth of the landowners and the savage treatment of the slaves; he thereafter refused always to trade in slaves or goods made by slaves, one of many traders in the “free produce” movement, what today is termed “fair trade. Shipping magnate Richard Champion and his ship’s commander Nicholas Pocock sailed together between Britain and the Carolinas. Richard Champion thought about economic principles throughout the voyages, and after the Revolutionary War published pamphlets promoting free trade as a means of maintaining peace between England and the United States. Pocock illustrated his log books, and after his own retirement in 1780 he exhibited them with the Royal Academy in London. In 1804 he helped found the Water Colour Society in London. Thomas Chalkley, a mariner who preached to Quakers up and down the Atlantic Coast, wrote beautiful poetry while onboard ship, and none of his poems concerned business.
    All Friends’ Meetings continued to dispense aid to the poor. William Moraley, one of many indentured servants emigrating from England to the New World during the 1730s, described a Quaker yearly meeting he once attended:

    “They meet yearly at one of these places alternately, by Agreement, when all Sorts of the best Provisions are provided for the Reception of great Numbers of the Brethren assembled from all Quarters, who are sometimes so numerous, that there is not room for them; which obliges them to disperse into the adjacent Villages for Quarter, but return in the Day to the Town.
    At these times they dispense their Charity to the Poor and Needy, without any regard to particular Sect or Party: I have partaken of their Benevolence. Their stay is from Saturday Night, when they first arrive, till about Wednesday; when they reward the Servants where they reside liberally, and usually leave Money in the Family, for the Use of the Poor, which is given at their Discretion. These Meetings are for the rebuking of Schisms that sometimes arise among them; and to inquire into the external Behaviour of the Professors, and to preserve Unanimity. In a word, they shew to Mankind, that they are strict Observe[r]s of good Nature and Hospitality, and keep up to the due Observance of the Evangelical Precepts, and the Moral Law.”
    “At these times they dispense their Charity to the Poor and Needy, without any regard to particular Sect or Party: I have partaken of their Benevolence. Their stay is from Saturday Night, when they first arrive, till about Wednesday; when they reward the Servants where they reside liberally, and usually leave Money in the Family, for the Use of the Poor, which is given at their Discretion. These Meetings are for the rebuking of Schisms that sometimes arise among them; and to inquire into the external Behaviour of the Professors, and to preserve Unanimity. In a word, they shew to Mankind, that they are strict Observe[r]s of good Nature and Hospitality, and keep up to the due Observance of the Evangelical Precepts, and the Moral Law.” Philadelphia Monthly Meeting in 1772 appointed a women’s meeting to pay respects and give support to anyone in trouble. The London Meeting for Sufferings, established in October 1675 to help Quakers who were imprisoned, expanded into lobbying Parliament (initially, against the payment of tithes and the making of oaths).

    Meetings expanded their help the unfortunate: Philadelphia Monthly Meeting provided land to several merchants to build an almshouse in 1702. London Yearly Meeting in 1697, having listened to John Bellers’ proposal for a work cooperative for the unemployed poor, established a cooperative at Clerkenwell in 1702. Friends across Britain regularly appointed members of Monthly Meetings to inquire into the suitability of poor children for apprenticeships available at that workhouse and at Friends’ schools, which by most British Monthly Meetings in Britain had established by the first decade in the 18th century. At the end of the century, many British Quaker meetings began programs to teach the working poor to read, which later Quakers developed into the Adult School Movement. Philadelphia Monthly Meeting in 1772 appointed a women’s meeting to pay respects and give support to anyone in trouble.
    Quakers began a slow, although generally discouraged, move into politics. The London Meeting for Sufferings, established in October 1675 to help Quakers who were imprisoned, started lobbying Parliament against the payment of tithes and the making of oaths. After the Revolutionary War trader Moses Brown participated in the Constitutional Convention. In 1790 the American Society of Friends petitioned Congress to abolish slavery.

    Many Friends worked to maintain the property rights of Native Americans, for which fur trader James Logan earned the appellation “fast friend.” Storeowner John Smith worked with other Quakers in 1757 in Burlington to found the New Jersey Association for Helping the Indians to obtain reservation land for dispossessed Delaware Indians. Philadelphia Friends trained Native Americans in milling, building, spinning, and weaving, and agriculture.

    Moved by the suffering caused by war, Yearly Meetings during the French & Indian War organized committees “to relieve the problems of war.” Quakers undertook their first large-scale program of war relief during the American Revolution, giving money, clothing, and provisions to their suffering compatriots. The minutes of New England Yearly Meeting alone record donations of aid to between 5,000 and 7,000 noncombatants.

    In the 18th century that Quakers began work to abolish slavery, initiating for the first time in history a corporate recognition that slavery violated human rights. Individual traders had personal experiences in the slave trade which brought them to their realizations of the ills of the institution: John Reynell saw the conditions of slaves in Jamaica; John Woolman as an apprentice had to maintain account books detailing the trading of slaves; cotton manufacturer and trader Moses Brown learned of a slave revolt occurring on a ship he owned. These Quakers and many others began working against slavery, through refusing to trade in slave and the products of slaves, by preaching and campaigning against slavery. By the mid-18th century someone in virtually every American yearly meeting was raising the issue of slavery. In 1744, New England Yearly Meeting forbade Friends from buying imported slave labor. In 1758, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting removed all slave-owners from positions of power. In 1783, London Yearly Meeting established a slave trade committee, advising Friends not to utilize goods produced by slaves as part of the so-called “free produce movement” begun by traders such as Reynell and Brown; Hicksites expanded this movement in the 19th century. In 1790, the American Society of Friends petitioned Congress to abolish slavery. In 1796, several Quaker merchants in Alexandria, Va. Meeting, organized one of the first anti-slavery societies separate from their

    Based on the idea that helping the poor who were sick was superior to letting them become beggars, several Quaker businessmen worked with Benjamin Franklin to found the first hospital in North America. Pennsylvania Hospital worked extensively with the Quaker-run Plough Court Pharmacy in London, with Plough Court supporting medical students in London and the two institutions exchanged drugs, plants, and publications. The Lloyd family built the first hospital in Birmingham, England. Many Philadelphia and New York Quakers are recorded as volunteering for the Pennsylvania and New York hospitals.

    Quakers worked to improve their cities. John Cox, Jr. in his history of Quakers in New York, details Quaker activity in civic affairs—with Quakers volunteering not just at their hospital, but with the fire department, and helping to found various civic associations like the Chamber of Commerce, charged with mitigating trade disputes. John Smith served as justice of the peace in Burlington. Moses Brown worked to improve the Providence, Rhode Island sanitation system. The Quaker London Lead Company built 22 schools over the course of the 18th century In Liverpool, England. David Barclay and John Gurney, Joseph John Gurney’s father, together planned and built the House of Industry at Ackworth.

    Quakers gave as individuals as well: Kitty and John Gurney, parents of Elizabeth Fry and Joseph John Gurney were wealthy liberal “gay” Quakers who emphasized daily giving: after prayers every morning Kitty Gurney had the children gather fruits and other comforts in baskets to deliver personally to the poor. The children were encouraged to make their own religious decions more than decisions on the importance of giving.
    John Cox, Jr. records many New York Quakers who gave privately to charity. Prominent merchant and shipper William Rathbone III, a leader of Liverpool Quakers, gave so much to charity that his successors had to restore his business. Wealthy merchant John Reynell, perhaps more wisely, appointed Anthony Benezet as his almoner to determine where his charity moneys should go; schoolteacher Benezet himself gave his own time to the teaching of Negro schoolchildren.

    Quakers never withdrew from every area of the world except business. During the 19th century Quakers, building on their 18th century advances, expanded even further their help to Native Americans, to the working poor, their work in education, to the causes of peace and the abolition of slavery.

    • Emily, thank you so much for your comments. I’ve been away on vacation for the past couple of weeks and only now am able to respond to you. And right now, I don’t have time to do so in detail. So I just wanted you to know how much I appreciate our contributions.

      It looks like I may have to rethink my ‘paradigm’, as you put it. Clearly many individual Friends remained engaged with the world around them beyond just their business activities. My focus has been on Quaker culture, however—on the broader trends of the Society as a whole. In this regard, virtually every history I’ve read agrees that Friends withdrew into themselves during the so-called quietist period: marrying only each other, adopting plain spech and dress as outward signs of their distinctiveness, continuing to eschew many of the cultural trends and social options of those around them.

      I have also focused on the difference between individual engagement with specific social problems caused by capitalism and engagement with the system itself as a system. The Levellers, the Diggers, Marx and Engels, socialists, even Georgists, sought to change how capitalism worked, while Friends tended to try to fix the problems over which they themselves had some sway—until Seebohm Rowntree. The great exception, of course, is the fight against slavery, and this admittedly is a weakness in my work so far. I’ve not really dealt with it yet.

      Another weakness is a shortage of just the kind of research you’ve been doing, on how Quaker business people pioneered reforms in the treatment of workers. This topic deserves a whole chapter to itself, which I’ve not yet written. Maybe you would like to help develop this chapter?

      Meanwhile, I’ve followed Doug Gwyn, in The Covenant Crucified, in tracing how Friends disengaged from radical opposition to the social order into quietist accommodation. Do you think he’s wrong about this?

      As for Bellers, his anthologist George Clarke claims that he was quite frustrated with the Yearly Meeting’s relative inaction on the Colledges of Industry, so that he ended up representing his ideas several times over his lifetime. All they did was create Clerkenwell, which was not much more than a more humane workhouse on a model not much different from those established under the Poor Laws. And, given his other truly significant contributions, I still think it’s weird that he is virtually unknown among us, and has been for centuries. When I give talks about Quakers and capitalism, I usually start by asking the question I asked in the beginning of this series, about who Friends think is the second most famous Friend, and it’s not uncommon for no one at all in the group to have heard of Bellers.

      Well, I have to get ready for work, But, again, thanks for commenting. I would love to know under what auspices you’ve done your research. Are you doing it on your own, as I have been? And I would like to add your bibliography to my list on this blog, not to mention my own research. I don’t think you will be able to add them—I’ll have to see how interactive that section of the blog can be.


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