What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Financial Care
April 1, 2014 § 5 Comments
The Quaker movement was born in a time of tremendous economic upheaval and hardship and one of the main reasons that meetings and membership rolls were formally established in the first place was to deal with the financial crises we faced. I have discussed this at length in early posts on Quakerism and Capitalism.
At the very beginning in the late 1640s and the 1650s, most Children of Truth were yeoman farmers or tradespeople in small towns and villages. Within a generation, most Friends had abandoned their land or been driven off and had entered commerce, as part of the great transition from a mostly agrarian economy toward capitalism. By 1700, this transition was virtually complete among Friends and already British commercial capitalism was beginning to evolve into an economy that combined trade with manufacture and industry, an evolution driven in considerable part by Quaker energy, innovation, and investment.
In the meantime, beginning in the early 1660s and lasting officially until the mid-1690s, the state, the church, and local authorities conducted a campaign of economic persecution against Quakers that took an enormous financial toll on the movement.
Quaker meetings were established in this period in great part to organize and manage the funds for sufferings that ministered to the financial hardships of their members. At the time, this was one of the more important answers to the question, What is the Religious Society of Friends for? : financial care of its members.
The same was true for the earliest followers of Jesus. I have never seen evidence that early Friends deliberately based their faith and practices of financial care on the model found in Christian scripture, but I suspect that the reason is that I just am not well enough read yet. For the model is quite visible in its basic thrust. It’s a little less obvious how completely ministering to financial hardship permeates the teachings of Jesus, or how central it was to his prophetic mission.
In the fourth chapter of Luke, after having been baptized and tempted in the wilderness, Jesus returns to his home town of Nazareth and is invited to read from the prophets in the synagogue. He reads Isaiah 61:1-2:
- The spirit of Yahweh God is upon me,
because Yahweh has anointed me (“Christed” me, “messiahed” me);
he has sent me to bring good news (evangelion) to the poor/oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted (those who have lost their family farm to bankruptcy),
to proclaim liberty to the captives (possibly debt slaves),
and release to the prisoners (ditto);
to proclaim the year that Yahweh favors (the jubilee year).
After reading these words, Jesus declared that in his listener’s hearing, this prophecy was being fulfilled.
In this passage, Jesus declares himself the messiah and defines his role as the Christ as ministering to the sufferings of the poor, mainly by declaring a Jubilee. The Jubilee, from Leviticus 25, did four things:
- It cancelled all debts.
- It set free all debt slaves, people who were working off their debts as indentured servants.
- It returned all families to their ancestral farms, families that had lost their inheritances to foreclosure.
- It required a sabbath fallow, that all fields remain fallow for the year.
Once you learn to recognize the covenantal language for debt, poverty, the Jubilee release, inheritance, and other related “legal” “economic” terminology, you see it everywhere you look in the teachings and actions of Jesus: most of the most famous sayings, half of the parables, most of his curing miracles, many of his other miracles, and much what he actually did in the narratives relate his teachings about the poor and demonstrate his plan for relieving their burdens of debt. Read in this light, the (Synoptic) gospels and Acts lay out a faith and practice of financial care for the poor that was the obligation of the local congregation.
Thus both the primitive Christian church that early Friends sought to restore, and the measures that Friends themselves undertook served to make sure that no one in the community suffered from poverty.
Financial care today
I think most of our meetings do have a concern for the financial welfare of their members, but we do not hold this as one of our core missions, as Jesus’ followers and our own Quaker forebears did. Why?
For one thing, as I write in Quakerism and Capitalism, and as Doug Gwyn describes so well in The Covenant Crucified, Friends in England soon became fabulously wealthy in spite of the intense persecutions, and they abandoned the original covenant they had built on the foundations of their radical eschatological expectations. We became one of the wealthiest communities in Great Britain. This didn’t begin to change in Britain until the 20th century.
Quakers in America were always more diverse in all ways, including economically. Many Friends in the New World continued to be farmers, for instance. But the new nation so often delivered on its promise of opportunity in those days that poverty among American Friends was also rather rare, as far as I know.
In our own time, many of us are middle class, and we don’t really know poverty or even see much of it in our day-to-day lives.
Nevertheless, many of our meetings probably have members who live close to the edge. Some may be underwater in their mortgages or carrying a lot of credit card debt. Our culture encourages us to hide these things from others, so we often do not know how our fellow Quakers are doing financially. So here are my questions:
If someone in our meeting were suffering under a crushing burden of debt, would we know? And if we did know, what would we do about it? Is ministering to each other’s financial distress still a core mission of the Quaker meeting, as it was for early Friends and for the early followers of Jesus? Should it be?