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.
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.
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
- 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;
- 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.