Quakerism & Capitalism — Transition: War and the Social Order

May 30, 2011 § 3 Comments

The second period of major transition in Quaker culture and economics began (as I have not-too-arbitrarily pegged it) in 1895 with the Manchester Conference and it ended with the first Friends World Conference in London in 1920. A number of significant events, both within the Quaker communities and in the world around them during this period, deserve fuller treatment than I have so far given them in my introduction. Here I want to focus on British Quakers’ awakening to the systemic evils of capitalism as it was brought to a climax by the Great War.

I do not say ‘evils’ lightly, for, as we shall see, that is the conclusion many British Friends came to. This story starts in 1915, when London Yearly Meeting convened a committee on War and the Social Order charged with examining the causes of the war and proposing actions the Yearly Meeting could take to try to prevent such a war from happening again.

The very act of convening such a committee was a mark of how Quakerism was modernizing and liberalizing in this period. Committees had been organized around a concern before this but, for two hundred fifty years, Friends had used the traditional faith and practice of Quaker ministry to pursue “concerns”: A Friend felt led, brought the “concern” to their meeting, traveled or served under the auspices of a minute, then laid down the work when they felt released from their call. In the early twentieth century, if I have my history right (it’s hard to research this kind of thing without combing through quarterly and yearly meeting minutes in detail, which I have not yet done), Quaker meetings increasingly turned to committees to act on behalf of the body in the way that the War and Social Order committee did, until we now take this mode of organizing corporate testimonial life for granted, and have almost totally lost the original mode of traditional Quaker ministry.

In 1916, the Yearly Meeting convened a Conference on War and the Social Order at Devonshire House that produced a remarkable document titled “Seven Points of the Message to all Friends”, asking all Friends to affirm its principles. The Seven Points were all positive in tone and offered no direct condemnation of capitalism per se. But it was strongly worded and, most importantly, it did directly address the economic system as a system. Notably, point number six read:

That our membership one of another involves the use of all our gifts, powers, and resources for the good of all. No system which uses these for mere money-making or private gain, alienating them from their true end, can satisfy.”

The Seven Points also focused special attention on workers and labor relations.

At its 1917 sessions, the Yearly Meeting sent the draft to the quarterly meetings and the General Meeting of Scotland for review and a new draft was presented to the Yearly Meeting in 1918. This final version consolidated the original seven principles into six and added two more. The new document, titled Foundations of a True Social Order, was more concise and, in some ways though not all, it was more forceful than the Seven Points had been.

From several different angles, the Foundations defined the purpose of an economic system: that it should express the Brotherhood revealed by Jesus Christ that “knows no restriction of race, sex or social class”, that it should further the growth of full personhood beyond material ends, that it should be organized around mutual service, not private gain.

The Foundations also defined how an economic system (the “social order”) should operate: it should apply “the spiritual force of righteousness, loving-kindness and trust” to industrial relations, not the methods of outward domination and physical force. The document was strongly anti-materialist and called for regulation of land and capital on behalf of “the need and development of man (sic)”.  And it clearly recognized that serious problems plagued the current social order, that these problems were ultimately spiritual in nature, and that they demanded action.

The adoption of the Foundations of a True Social Order and the actions that followed its adoption signalled a fundamental and decisive shift in Quaker culture. At the end of the first transition period in the 1690s, with the Toleration Acts, Friends had agreed to give up their claim on the social order in return for religious toleration. Now, in reaction to the persecutions of Friends for conscientious objection to the first world war—a breach of that tacit ‘agreement’ by the state—and in reaction to the war’s manifest horrors, the deal was off. The double-culture period was over. Friends came out of this second transition period once again determined to change the world, ready to fully engage with the social order, led to a large degree by young Friends who had already paid a heavy price for their religious convictions—an been strengthened by the experience.

London Yearly Meeting approved the Foundations, but debate was very vigorous. Many Friends on the committee blamed capitalism directly for the war. Some pressed for a clear socialist recommendation and a few Friends actually formed communes when the meeting pulled back from so radical a move. On the other hand, many were anxious that it went too far and they succeeded in tempering the stronger language presented by some quarterly meetings.

Friends dealt with this internal conflict characteristically by convening another committee, the Committee on Industry and the Social Order. This extraordinary group produced a series of very searching pamphlets on the topics of economic and social policy and labor relations throughout the middle of the century. I’ve not been able to fully research this body of work and I’m not sure when the committee was finally laid down, if it was at all. The last clear reference I have found is from 1955.

Besides the new committee, the other major outcome of London Yearly Meeting’s exercise in 1918 was the first Friends World Conference in London in 1920, for which the eight “Foundations of a True Social Order” became a central theme.

On a parenthetical personal note, I would add that it was while reading the proceedings of the 1920 Friends World Conference and its discussion of the Foundations that I first felt led to study Quaker economic history further. I believe I was researching Right Sharing of World Resources for a project I had proposed for the Albert Cope Scholarship at Pendle Hill; Right Sharing was first brought to Friends by Young Adult Friends at the Friends World Conference at Guilford College in 1967. The 1920 Conference document was right next to the ones for 1967 on the shelf and I just picked picked it up out of curiosity. The debate about the limited liability corporation caught my eye first: Quakers trying to discern whether it was morally correct to use a technology whose very purpose was to divest owners and managers of culpability for a corporation’s actions. Then there was the presentation and debate about the Foundations and references to the 1918 sessions of London Yearly Meeting. I kept following this thread and eventually, the leading grew until I started writing Quakers and Capitalism in earnest.

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§ 3 Responses to Quakerism & Capitalism — Transition: War and the Social Order

  • […] and… May 31st, 2011 by Martin Kelley. // nRelate.domain = "www.quakerranter.org"; //Steven Davison: War and the Social Order /**/ Share this:EmailFacebookPosted in: misc. ← […]

  • A wonderful little essay! I thank you for calling my attention to those two documents, and pointing out the significance of the Committee. I have never really studied this period closely, and I learned some things from your essay that I am very glad to know.

    It’s a little disorienting to me, on the other hand, to be told that there were no major periods of transition in Quaker culture and economics during the period 1700-1880. I myself am inclined to think there were two such periods in that time.

    The first, in the 18th century, was the rise of a puritanical outward order in the Society, first in Ireland under the leadership of Joseph Pike, and later elsewhere. It involved the creation of a class of Friends called Overseers, which had not existed before, and it encompassed (among other things) the Quaker rejection of slavery.

    The second, beginning around 1800, was when prominent Friends with enthusiasms for movements outside the world of Friends, such as mainstream Protestant theology, Holiness theology, and rationalism and progressivism, rose to power and contended with one another. It created in England the evangelical orthodoxy that young Friends in the late 19th century rebelled against, and, here in the U.S., it fired a series of very painful schisms and the breaking of our fellowship into groups that lost the ability to relate to one another.

    • Thanks Marshall for your comment. With this book in the works, Quakers and Capitalism, I have been focusing on Quaker economic history—a history of Quaker contributions and engagement with capitalism as it emerged and evolved in close symbiotic relationship with Quakerism. It is in this somewhat narrow sense that I have defined two major and one minor period of transition in our history: periods in which forces outside the Society combined with forces within the community to radically alter our economic fortunes and our attitudes toward the social order.

      So the first transition, from roughly 1661 to 1695—the time of the persecutions—saw us shift dramatically from a radical and even apocalyptic assault on the social order in the Lamb’s War to what I call the double-culture period, in which we withdrew from engagement with the wider world—except in the spheres of industry, commerce and the practical arts and sciences. I agree that around 1800, there was a minor transition precipitated by the emergence of evangelicalism. I have several posts that discuss that, though I don’t think they’re very well organized. This movement did bring evangelical Friends into greater contact with the wider world and greater engagement with the social order, notably in the commitment to philanthropy in the 19th century. But these reform efforts were largely limited to London Yearly Meeting, as far as I can tell. Some evangelical Friends in the US became even less involved in economic and social reform. And even in England, Friends did not try to change the social order itself, as they had in the early days—and as they would after the second transition period.

      In this second transition (1895-1920), Friends began to focus on capitalism itself, as a system. And new forces came into play that would deconstruct the vast fortunes that Friends in Britain, anyway, had amassed as they developed the industrial modes of production.

      So the two broad markers I’ve used to define these two transition periods are

      reversal of economic fortune (from yeoman farmers and small tradesmen to upper class industrialists, and then to middle class folks often employed in the ‘secular church’ and academics—talking about Britain here, mostly) and

      cultural engagement with the social order as such (not just reforms of certain aspects, like care of the poor).

      I don’t really know much about how the codification and rigidification (is there such a word?) of the culture of eldership affected either of these two indicators. I’m especially interested in how this development affected the rejection of slavery. Slavery is an area I have so far overlooked, it’s true. So thanks for new direction.

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