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.