Quakers & Capitalism — Transition into Modern Liberalism

May 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

In this series on Quakers & Capitalism, I have divided Quaker economic history into three major periods separated by times of transition that lasted roughly a generation, during which external forces have combined with internal trends within Quakerism to completely transform the community’s culture and its economic life. During the first transition, from roughly 1661 to 1695, the persecutions combined with the establishment of gospel order to turn the movement away from its radical apocalyptic engagement with the social, political and religious institutions of the day into a culture that was paradoxically dualistic: quietist and peculiar, insular and withdrawn from virtually every area of social converse—but one: Quakers were intensely engaged in the worlds of industry, commerce and the practical arts and sciences. They entered this transition as mostly independent farmers and small trades people. They emerged as a people almost wholly engaged in commerce, poised to literally change the world, after all, by ushering in an all-new system for creating wealth—industrial capitalism. Not quite single-handedly, but not far from it, either.

The double-culture period lasted two hundred years, though 19th century evangelicalism weakened the intense dualism that had marked the 18th century, drawing Friends out of their isolation to a degree and helping to inspire paternalistic philanthropic attempts to ameliorate the suffering of the poor.

The first transition period had rather clearly defined boundaries, marked by the passage of new legislation designed to crush the dissenting sects, beginning in 1661, and by their repeal, concluding fairly decisively in 1695, and by George Fox’s efforts to establish gospel order among Friends upon his release from prison in 1661 and by his death in 1691. The second transition period is a little less clearly defined. I have chosen 1895 as the starting point and 1920 as the end.

Externally, 1895 saw the passage in Great Britain of the final legislation legalizing the limited liability corporation. This new technology would completely transform, not just capitalism, but Quakerism, as well.

Other forces emerged about the same time that created a fertile environment for dramatic change within the Society:

  • the origins of the what would soon become the Labour Party in Great Britain;
  • the rise in America of Progressivism as an alternative response to industrialization besides the conservatism and socialism and anarchism of the day;
  • the rise in America of Pentecostalism, often dated to 1901, and of the Social Gospel movement, which had a relationship with the Progressive Party much like today’s Christian right does with the Republican party; and
  • the articulation for the first time of Catholic social teaching, beginning with Pope Leo III’s encyclical, Rerum Novarum, in 1891.

All of these movements were to a degree responses to the downside of industrial capitalism, whose awesome wealth-generating capacity had outgrown society’s ability to control its excesses and its ability to protect its victims.

Then came the Great War, a cataclysm that, in Europe, anyway, would reroute virtually all social energies, decimate an entire generation of men, and transform the zeitgeist of the West.

The war also brought to a climax a new zeitgeist in Quakerism that had begun in 1895 in Britain, with the Manchester Conference, and in 1887 in America, with the Richmond Conference. The conferences marked a turning point in the course of evangelicalism among Friends and, for many Friends, a decisive move toward liberalism. Friends General Conference formed in 1900, Three Years Meeting (later Friends United Meeting) formed in 1902. In 1893, Rufus Jones became the editor of Friends’ Review (later, The American Friend), and began a lifelong effort to reunite divided Friends and modernize Quakerism. In 1897, Jones met John Wilhelm Rowntree, a kindred spirit who had played a major role in the Manchester Conference and the summer school movement that came out of it. A generation of young very gifted Friends began leading Quakers into the modern era and toward a level engagement with the world around them that had not existed since the 1650s.

Then, again for the first time in 250 years, Friends faced persecution for their faith, for conscientious objection to the war. After more than a decade of liberalization and increasing involvement with social problems and institutions, this experience finally closed the door on Quaker withdrawal from the world. The American Friends Service Committee was born in 1917.  In 1918, London Yearly Meeting heard and discussed the report of its Committee on War and the Social Order, charged with analyzing the causes of the war and proposing responses. The resulting Eight Principles of a Just Social Order became a major theme of the first Friends World Conference, held in London in 1920.

In the meantime, Quaker economics also entered a new era. In a future post, we’ll start examining this major transition in our economic history with a look at Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree and his landmark book, Poverty: A Study in Town Life.


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