Quakers & Capitalism—Friends and evangelical political economics
March 16, 2011 § 3 Comments
Joseph John Gurney and Thomas Chalmers
England has had three legal systems for taking care of the poor since Queen Elizabeth I reformed the punitive Tudor system, which was breaking down in the face of the decline of monasticism and the wider medieval social structure. Her reforms (1597 and 1601) created a national poor law system for England and Wales that used the parish as the administrative structure and supplied funds through a compulsory land tax levied at the parish level. It put people who couldn’t work into poorhouses, subsidized the labor of the able-bodied poor, put vagrants in a House of Correction, and arranged apprenticeships for pauper children. The British colonists brought this system with them to North America.
The assessment system itself began to break down in the face of industrialization, which drew large numbers of rural poor into the cities to work in the new factories, straining the urban parishes with heavy taxes and overwhelming responsibilities. By the time of the depression of 1825, which I mentioned in the previous post, the assessment system was ramping up to meet the growing demand and spreading on the heals of increased poverty to areas like Scotland, while its shortcomings were becoming more and more unacceptable. Thomas Malthus, the extremely influential evangelical minister and early political economist, had published his landmark work An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798 and had added five more editions by 1825. David Ricardo, the classical economist, published his hugely influential Principles of Political Economy and Taxation in 1817, having been inspired to enter the field after reading Malthus.
The debate about how to care for the poor and reduce or eliminate poverty was on. Pressure was mounting to act and the nation was becoming ready to embrace radical reform. Many looked to greater state intervention because local resources were so inadequate, and many agreed that a national system was required to help smooth out the vagaries of local organization. Evangelical political economists like Malthus resisted this trend, however, believing that aid to the poor only encouraged the very sins that had made them poor in the first place—laziness, vices like gambling and drink, and sex—having more kids than they could support. They also felt that mandatory taxes and a state-sponsored distribution system undermined the moral character and opportunities of the rich. They insisted that the spiritual needs of the giver—that is, themselves—were at least as important as those of the receivers—the poor. Each act of charity, to be a genuine act of conscience, had to be voluntary, spontaneous and discriminating. You had to be involved for benefit to accrue. The real obligation was to God, not to the poor. Institutionalizing charity denied the rich the blessing they might receive and denied the poor the opportunity for the kind of personal contact that could ignite a conversion.
Into this exciting environment came the Reverend Thomas Chalmers, a brilliant, charismatic, innovative and energetic man who’d become a zealous evangelical after a personal conversion experience. Of his character, the Wikipedia entry says this: “He was transparent in character, chivalrous, kindly, firm, eloquent and sagacious; his purity of motive and unselfishness commanded absolute confidence; he had originality and initiative in dealing with new and difficult circumstances, and great aptitude for business details.”
Like Malthus and his other evangelical peers, Chalmers believed that poverty resulted from flawed moral character and that private voluntary charity was the solution. Already famous in Great Britain for his theological writings, he solidified his reputation as a political economist by testing his ideas in the field in what amounted to an early 19th century faith-based initiative. When the Scotsman took over the very poor parish of St. John in Glasgow in 1819 after four years at another church, the British system of compulsory tax assessment for the poor was gaining ground in Scotland. Chalmers believed that this approach actually made things worse and proposed a voluntary approach involving radically reorganizing the parish and applying a rigorous program of family visitation, counseling and monitoring to enforce moral rectitude. In four years, he reduced annual pauper relief in the parish from ₤1,400 to ₤280. The astounding success of his program greatly impressed the rest of the political and political economic elites, especially when they looked at the numbers rather than the huge organizational effort involved. Chalmers himself burned out from the work load and, in 1823, having ‘made the numbers,’ left his extremely demanding life running this operation and accepted a chair in moral philosophy at St. Andrews. This was the seventh academic offer made to him in his eight years in Glasgow. His lectures and writings influenced political economic thinking and policy for the next 25 years and beyond.
Where do Friends fit in all this? So far, my researches have found little to indicate specifically what Quakers, and especially, evangelical Quakers, thought of evangelical political economy. It seems that Friends shared their moral-economic worldview to a large extent, but not its harshness of tone or cold-heartedness in practice. Wealthy Friends were morally paternalistic themselves and they shared with these evangelical thinkers a commitment to personal and spontaneous giving. And I know that Chalmers became friends with the Gurneys and other Quakers, whom he called “the most serviceable philanthropists we met with.” [The Age of Atonement: The Influence of Evangelicalism on Social and Economic Thought, 1785-1865, Boyd Hilton, p. 59. This book is the source for much of my thinking in this area and is a great resource.] Gurney and his sister Elizabeth Fry accompanied Chalmers when he testified before a Select Committee on the State of the Poor in Ireland in 1830, presumably because they shared his views. Evangelical Friends also shared these men’s extreme nervousness about their own spiritual health and the moral dangers of wealth. J.J. Gurney claimed that the most “salutary chastisements” he had received from God had “arisen out of being . . . a ‘monied man,’” [Hilton, p. 116 n.3, quoting Gurney’s journal] and, as I said in the previous post, he reported “feeling the Lord to be near to us” during the severe economic crisis of 1825, expressing the belief that market collapses could be times of visitation.
The clearest evidence that Chalmers and his ideological brethren spoke to the evangelical Quaker condition that I’ve found is a book published in 1853 by Joseph John Gurney titled Chalmeriana, or, Colloquies with Dr. Chalmers (available from Google Books). Gurney speaks very glowingly of Chalmers in this little book, praising his modesty and religious humility, the earnestness of his faith, his stellar character as a man, the effectiveness of his poverty program, and, especially, the intellectual power and moral force of his extraordinary mind. They clearly had a deep regard for each other.
I think it’s fair to say that at least they shared many of the essentials of evangelical faith and its general implications for economic practice. And I don’t think it goes too far to say that Gurney represents in large degree his evangelical Quaker peers in these matters.
One crucial area of difference does peek through, however. Chalmers is preoccupied with judgment and with justice as the primary attribute of God, and he was a self-avowed predeterminist. Gurney gives equal weight to God’s goodness. Chalmers looks at the cross and the Atonement and sees God’s judgment.. Gurney sees a divine gift of love. In one section of the book, the two men are discussing the work of several other writers on the moral attributes of God. Chalmers is warning against reducing God’s character to the single quality of benevolence when justice (that is, judgment) is (to Chalmers) obviously more important. Gurney, though, argues: “Surely, that [the atonement of Christ; emphasis is Gurney’s] is where justice and benevolence meet; where God has displayed at once his abhorrence of sin and his mercy to the sinner.” In the dialog Gurney records, Chalmers veers away from Gurney’s point without responding to it.
To generalize, though acutely conscious of sin and of the sinner’s desperate need for Atonement, evangelical Friends remained more optimistic, more open to God’s goodness. Precisely in the Atonement did they see God’s goodness most clearly demonstrated. This, I think, made evangelical Friends much less willing to leave people in their suffering as the necessary road to contrition and conversion, and made them much more willing to minister to sufferers in their need. The work of Elizabeth Fry, J. J. Gurney’s sister, is instructive here. Once awakened from her life as a rich, unreligious, even frivolous (in her own eyes) ingénue, she ends up in the Newgate prison wards trying to help real people. Her tools are the classic evangelical ones: literacy, moral exhortation and the Bible. But her hands are dirty and her heart is burning with care.
Non-evangelical Friends, on the other hand, in their quietist passivity, had not the motivation of the missionary to get them into the world with the same fervor. Their inwardness tended to keep them out of philanthropy and movements for social reform. At the other extreme, super-evangelicals, especially leaders in America of the pre-millennialist holiness movement that emerged in the 1870s and ‘80s from the evangelical awakening of mid-century, these Friends saw relief work as the devil’s work and abandoned the poor to the wrath of God’s judgment. According to Professor Hamm in The Transformation of American Quakerism, this point of view was quite influential among American evangelical leaders for quite some time, though Friends in the benches tended to be more moderate in their theology and compassionate in their views.
Evangelical political economics dominated discourse and policy in England into the middle of the 19th century. By then, several factors had began to erode its influence over policy, with the horrible Irish famine as a crucial turning point. We will turn to this history in the next post. But the moral philosophy of evangelical political economic thinking has never disappeared and has periodically regained the allegiance of some politicians in America, as we well know. In the hands of Herbert Hoover (a Quaker), Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, this moral economic philosophy has played a major role in American public policy.