Quakers & Capitalism — The Evangelical Transition

March 3, 2011 § 7 Comments

In this series of posts and in my book on Quakers and Capitalism, I have divided Quaker economic history into three major periods defined by the ways that Friends engaged with the world around them. These major historical periods were separated by major periods of transition, in which external forces and internal forces collided to produce a new Quaker alignment. In the first transition period, brought on by the persecutions in England in the last decades of the 17th century, the external pressures of persecution and the internal imposition of gospel order closed a period of intense apocalyptic engagement with the world and opened a period of cultural dualism, in which Friends withdrew from the world socially, politically and religiously, but channeled incredible energy outward into the world of business, commerce and finance.

Over the course of the 18th century, Friends played key roles in creating modern capitalism and the industrial revolution in England and they continued to build the new economy throughout the 19th century. The turn of the 20th century brought a second major transition, in which the rise of corporate capitalism, liberal thought and new persecutions during the First World War collided with a liberalizing movement within Quakerism. The result was a decisive turn outward, away from quietist withdrawal and into much more vigorous and creative engagement with the world and its problems, including the social fallout and political responses to capitalism’s darkside.

Right in the middle of the double-culture period, however, around 1800, Friends went through a minor period of transition brought on by the rise into cultural prominence of evangelicalism. Evangelicalism opened a door in the wall that Friends had built around themselves and allowed them to reengage with the world in certain ways without giving up their distinctive and even insular culture. More importantly with respect to a study of Quakers and capitalism, the new evangelicalism emerged and co-evolved with the new ‘science’ of economics, though the term ‘economics’ only came into use a hundred years later. Then it was called ‘political economy,’ and focused on the ways that production and consumption were organized in nation states. The first political economists, including its putative ‘father,’ Adam Smith, held chairs in moral philosophy. The first professor of political economy in England was Thomas Malthus (1805).

Malthus was an evangelical minister. Like other evangelical political economists of the time, Malthus’s moral theology shaped his economic theory and this combination gave rise to a second major school of economic thinking that stood in some opposition to the ‘classical’ school first defined by Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations (published in 1776). Together, these two schools shaped the issues and discourse that defined early modern economic thinking and this dynamic dialog found embodiment in two extraordinary men: Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo. Malthus and Ricardo were friends but friendly rivals intellectually, and their publishing duel helped define the field of political economy as it matured.

Ricardo was the second great classical economist, after Adam Smith. He was born Jewish and had emigrated to England with his family from Holland. But then he eloped with a Quaker, Priscilla Anne Wilkinson, and his family disowned him. He made a fortune in the stock market and ‘retired’ to write at the age of 43. He converted to Unitarianism.

(One of these days, I plan to research Ricardo more thoroughly, hoping to clarify his relationship with his wife’s family and her meeting and with Quakerism in general. Was she herself disowned for marrying out of meeting? Why did he become a Uniterian instead of a Quaker? What affect, if any, did his new religious identity and his exposure to Quakerism have on his economic thinking? If political economy was, in that time, essentially moral philosophy, and if theology was shaping the work of his primary intellectual correspondent, and he himself had undergone some kind of religious transformation, how could these factors not have helped to inform his own ideas?)

No Friends, evangelical or otherwise, contributed significantly to this new discipline of political economy until the second major transition around 1900, and evangelicalism did not alter substantially the momentum or direction of Quaker wealth-building. But it did help to shape the way that Friends approached poverty and other negative consequences of capitalist expansion during the 19th century. And Joseph John Gurney, the great evangelical Friend of his time, was a close associate and a deep admirer of one of the preeminent evangelical political economists of the age, Thomas Chalmers (1740-1847).

Evangelical political economy dominated economic policy and politics in Great Britain throughout the first half of the 19th century and its moral philosophical approach to social problems has returned to favor periodically ever since. In subsequent posts, I want to

  • talk about Chalmers and explore his relationship with Gurney as a window into how evangelical thought helped to shape social and political responses to the structural violence of capitalism;
  • look at how evangelical Quakerism adopted and adapted this moral philosophy;
  • examine the rise and fall and periodic resurgence of evangelical political economy and the role of some Friends in that history; and
  • look briefly at the different course that these issues took in America, where Friends had always been more diverse, not just theologically, but also in terms of social class, social and political geography, economic development, and relative influence over social policy.

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§ 7 Responses to Quakers & Capitalism — The Evangelical Transition

  • I think I would add one more note, which is that we use the word “capitalism” to apply to two disparate things: free-market capitalism, and corporatism, or crony capitalism. The first has to be protected from the second, because the first is peaceful and voluntary, while the second is coercive and violent.

  • WTL says:

    If you believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, then you believe that there is a “natural” condition of mankind. You believe there is a God. And you believe that God created man. And in the very first chapter of the Bible, we see the “natural” condition of mankind. He had a garment of light, as did Eve. They both worked in the garden, ate of the garden, lived in the garden. Does this mean that they were living in “poverty”? Poverty has nothing to do with your environment. It is a state of mind and a lack of will. One could even say that a rich man is living in poverty if he does not live a “rich life”. But a poor man is rich because he is living a “rich life”.

    We’ve just taken the word “Poverty” and perverted it to mean “Someone who has nothing ‘physical'” rather than its true meaning which is “Someone who has nothing”.

    Adam and Eve had nothing, but they were rich and didn’t not consider themselves living in poverty. Up until the serpent’s beguile. It was only then, as God began to withdraw Himself from man do we experience poverty. Then God gave us his only Son, Jesus… To show us how to live rich in God’s Word and not rely on the things of the world. It’s only then does one come out of poverty and live richly.

    • I would define “poverty” differently: I would say it’s not having the resources to provide yourself and your family, if you have one, with the necessities of life. We could debate what those necessities are, but all would agree I think on food, shelter, and clothing, at least. Adam and Eve had these, apparently, even though it’s a bit mysterious what the real state of the first body was. “The poor” was a fairly well developed category in the Bible, and it was clearly a material condition. “Poor in spirit” was a state of mind, but the phrase, which appears in one of the versions of the Beatitudes, was not, I think, intended to supplant the material definition of poverty, but to supplement it.

      As a material condition, I think poverty has a lot to do with environment, at least the social environment. Jesus structured his communities so as to try to eliminate poverty—or, more accurately, to provide the necessities of life to those who were poor.

      And that’s just talking about the Bible, which seems to be your starting point, Brian. But in today’s world, “poverty” is actually a quantifiable material condition. We have a “poverty line,” used by the government and other agencies to organize social programs. The idea of a poverty line was first defined in England by Charles Booth around 1890 and definitively popularized by the Quaker Seebohm Rowntree in his book Poverty: A Study of Town Life (1901). The current definition of the poverty line used in the US was adapted in the 1960 under Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty from a definition by a woman economist working for the Roosevelt administration in the 1930s, who adapted her version from the one in Rowntree’s book. I think we Quakers should be proud that one of ours has made such an important contribution to the relief of the suffering of the poor.

      These material definitions of poverty have real substance and real consequences for real people. I think we need to honor them with careful thought and spirit-led moral attention.

  • TheYellowDart says:

    I always find it humorous when people use the word or idea of capitalism as a boogieman. It kinda reminds me of the Anti-Theists like Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins, etc. who use faith or religion as the focus of evil in the modern world. People are evil not faith itself (or economics). You can use anything to harm people. Guns are another popular boogieman. Guns don’t kill people. People kill people. I can have a couple of drinks with friends after work have a good time and everyone leaves happy and sober, or I can pound shots for hours, get into a car and kill someone. Alcohol is not the straw man to be be blamed (nor is the SUV I was driving). The human being who is negligently reckless is where all the responsibility lies.

    The Corporatism that exist in, at least, the English speaking world is not free-market capitalism. In fact, it is just as far removed from freedom as straight up socialism/communism, and countries involved in this practice will fail under the weight of ignoring free-markets the same as the socialists ones always do.

    Free-market capitalism is not a system; it is a reflection of what is. Humans interact with each other normally and naturally in a given way. It is a sociological observation no matter if individuals are viewed in a socialist country, corporatist country, or a government-less island that has never seen the outside world. People work for basic necessities for themselves and their families, people own property, people trade with people outside that circle, etc. This is human action. It is anthropology. It is not good or bad. It just is. The accumulation of capital can be used to sustain the family/clan/community (FCC). It can be used to further invest in the FCC. It can be used to be charitable to a given FCC. Or the accumulation of capital can be used as a tool to impoverish a community, a tool like a knife or a gun used to injure others. Free-market capitalism is not such a tool. The capital accumulated can be used as a tool, but the historically normal natural human interaction that results in capital accumulation is not.

    Free-market capitalism is not a philosophy or a system; it is simply normal human behavior (thus the free part). Corporatism is a system. Socialism is a system. Communism is a system. These are structures imposed from without attempting to subvert or contort normal human behavior. These structures of necessity need the police power of the state to force people through violence to do something unnatural. I view this as an unfortunate consequence of human sloth and laziness. Instead of developing relationships with people and encouraging upright practices and virtuous use of capital rather than weapon-like use of it, people short-circuit the process of relating to one another and use the police power of the state to attempt to change human behavior.

    It is my job as a follower of Jesus to make disciples of the Way. The Way includes reaching out to the homeless, marginalized, oppressed, jailed, hungry, and hurting. The voluntary exchange of good and services does not put folks in this condition. The darkness of the human heart (both from within and from others) and uncontrollable circumstances (birth defects, natural disasters, accidents, etc) cause this.

    Now, I would argue that western industrialization is a tool used for much evil in the world. It has modernized poverty in a way that has removed the possibility of subsistence from may populations. This has absolutely nothing to do with free-market capitalism. This is the practice and philosophy of progressivism. This is pervasive in the western world and is a horror and a real shame in the history of mankind. People have centralized and subjugated more and more peoples and places using not only the weapon of the accumulated capital, but also the weapon of the police power of the state. This gov’t-corporation collusion is the underpinning of progressivism.

    Progressivism is an evil philosophy that ultimately has its roots in idolatry. The idolatry of putting the technocrat or the technocratic system in the place of God. The wealthy industrialists and their contemporary politicians gave us the Progressive Era in America around the turn of the 20th century. They wanted to reshape the world in their image. This has much more to do with power and pride than greed. Oh yes, the progenitors of this corporatist system and their descendants have been enriched, but that is not mission, the focus, or goal. The goal is complete world wide subjugation with all eyes focused on the benevolent, enlightened masters. Idolatry. The progressive philosophy is that the “right” leaders can dictate proper conduct in human affairs much better than the simple, dullard general population left to their own devices.

    The Way is personal, intimate, and loving. Local relationship is the vehicle of redemption as Jesus taught. The early church were volunteers and free agents. Not subjects a violent master. The Progressive way is cold, sterile, violent, impersonal, and dictatorial. The Progressive way attempts to use the industrial innovation of economies of scale to isolate in order to dominate. It wants to break down family, communities of faith, and all local relationship in order to turn dependency to the central authority. And because this philosophy has become so pervasive, we see it in every area of life. Big Govt-Big Business is the most common way we see it but also Big-Acadamia, Big-Labor, Big Media, and of course Big-Church which is the most egregious of all because of its using the name of Jesus while fundamentally ignoring the Way. The Big Church uses economies of scale and all the rest of the progressive portfolio to dominate and bully. In fact, I believe that this is where all the other Bigs got the idea from in the first place. Like I said all of this is tied to idolatry. The hierarchy of the institutional church is so antithetical to everything Jesus taught and practiced that I would call it anti-Christ. I do not use this term in the way it is commonly thought of as an apocalyptic vision of a world-dominating personality. I just mean that Big Church is opposed to the Way in the most fundamental sense.

    When the content of the Way is perverted to be applied in conjunction with economies of scales, it breaks down in a fundamental way, because you lose the process or method of the Way. The appearance of the intention to help people is their in both, but the method of the Way is the genius of it not just the content. The free-agent Gospel Virus is contagious. But so is the violent method of the progressive way. The progressive way participates in the cycle of violence even if seemingly well intentioned. Jesus taught active non-violent resistance to violent human action. To insure an “good” community, the progressive uses the violence he pretends to be against. You can’t force a change in the human heart. You must relate, love, earn the respect of a friend, and influence a personal revolution within the heart of an individual. This can’t be phoned in from afar. This can’t be a personal responsibility shirked off to a gov’t. Change in the human heart is always unique and particular. The outreach to the hurting and the proselytizing of the one who hurts both take personal, local, intimate, relational contextual contact. All efforts in the opposite direction (via centralization) work toward reinforcing the cycle of violence and misuse of tools (tools like accumulated wealth) because its much easier to collude with one gov’t rather than 50 or 100,000. Corporations don’t have the police and military to beat everyone up with; they need a strong central gov’t. They can only grow as large as the gov’t they operate in. One world gov’t is the progressive dream. This is evil idolatry to believe any human or group of humans can “run” the planet.

    A peaceful loving planet only comes from the exact opposite. It comes from a voluntary revolution in the hearts of each individual to Jesus of the Way. To believe that a human hierarchy can do this by force is idolatry of either humanity generally or of specific group within society.

    Sorry got carried away here. This is probably too long.

  • Russ Nelson says:

    What do you mean by “poverty and other negative consequences of capitalist expansion”? Poverty is the natural condition of mankind. If capitalism helps people to recognize that, and yet fails to lift everyone out of poverty at the same rate, that hardly seems to be caused by capitalism.

    • You’re right. I shouldn’t be blaming capitalism for “poverty.” People were poor for thousands of years before capitalism came along and there will be poverty after it’s evolved into the next major system for meeting human needs and generating wealth comes along. In fact, capitalism had done more than any other human system in history to raise unprecedented numbers out of poverty. We’ll have to see whether it can keep it up after it has exhausted the earth in its carcinomic expansion.

      At the same time, it does structurally marginalize some people, pushing them towards poverty. Anybody who works outside the market economy is in trouble unless other sectors of society step in to cover the gaps. I am thinking of anyone who can’t work at a job, like at-home parents, the disabled, the elderly, and those whose lack of education makes them unemployable. And artists, who depend largely on what’s left of our gift-exchange economy. Indigenous people trying to hold onto their traditional lifestyles. Small farmers and free peasants. And, of course, the unemployed, which the system assumes will always include some small percentage of people.

      The competition on which capitalism is based also tends to push people towards poverty, especially in the way it forces workers to compete with each other for work, salaries, benefits, etc. Witness the assault on public workers in Wisconsin and Ohio, who are being pitted against private sector workers in a campaign of labor resentiment. And in the way it pits workers against owners—since labor is a cost, the market requires that owners hold down wages as much as possible. Classic Marxist stuff, I know, but true. And in the way it pits overdeveloped economies against developing economies. Etc.

    • forrest curo says:

      There is no “natural” condition of mankind.

      But our present condition seems unusually perverse: Most people’s opportunities to work and take care of themselves being constrained by a massively-elaborated lottery rigged to favor those who have already won far more than is good for them… so that whatever poverty might truly be “natural” is immensely amplified by the concentration of what resources might otherwise mitigate that.

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