Quakers and money

May 28, 2016 § 15 Comments

Just a little more than a hundred years ago, Quaker meetings were full of business people, and for a long time, Friends were one of the wealthiest communities in England. Many of us did pretty well here in the colonies, too. We really understood money then—we knew how to make it, we knew how to use it, and we were not ashamed of it, at least not in a way that made us weird about it, like we are now.

Today, at least in the liberal Quaker meetings I’m familiar with in the US, we are almost notoriously dysfunctional when it comes to money. Meetings often have a “faith-based” rather than reality-based attitude toward their budgets. Meeting finances are often anything but transparent. Meetings are often reticent to ask for money, or even to talk about it. Quaker institutions and Quaker meetings at all levels of organization are struggling for their lives financially. And Friends who own their own businesses or who work in or for corporations often find themselves being harassed, even though they often are very generous with their talents and treasure—liberal Quakers often have a prejudice against business people. Why? Why this 180-degree shift in culture?

One of the primary reasons I started writing my history of Quakers and Capitalism was to find an answer to this question. A few days ago, I returned to this question and a host of possible answers came to mind. They are just conjecture, but I am ready to share them and see what my readers think. Here are some possible reasons for why a movement of often-wealthy (sometimes exceedingly wealthy) business people became a movement of people who are uneasy with money and the people who make it:

  • Liberal economics replaces evangelical economics. Around the turn of the 20th century, David Lloyd George and the new Liberal Party in Great Britain openly credited the Quaker Seebohm Rowntree, brother of the key liberal Friend John Wilhelm Rowntree, with the foundational insight that poverty and other social ills were structural, not character-based, as the dominant political economics of the 19th century had claimed. Until about the middle of the twentieth century, political economics had two schools, both born around 1800—a liberal school born from the pens of Adam Smith and David Ricardo (who married a Quaker), and an evangelical school born from the pens of Thomas Malthus and Thomas Chalmers, both evangelical ministers. Evangelical economics dominated public policy throughout the 19th century, at least in Britain. That ended with Seebohm Rowntree. Rowntree’s book Poverty: A Town Life proved scientifically (using the first widely discussed statistical sociological survey in history) that poor people were not poor because of their character—drinking, gambling, sex (too many children), and other forms of wantonness—but rather, they mostly did have jobs and worked hard; they just weren’t being paid enough. This book—this idea—that poverty was structural gave birth to the Liberal Party in Great Britain and to the British welfare state. Liberal Quakerism, in the UK, at least, was joined at the hip with the belief that capitalism needed curbs on its behavior and the only gorilla in the room that was big enough to enforce those curbs and pick up the slack was the government.
  • The Great Depression. The Great Depression dealt a body-blow to evangelical political economic theory. “Evangelical” economics would not get back up on its feet until Ronald Reagan resurrected it. Herbert Hoover was an evangelical Friend and he brought an evangelical Quaker worldview to his thinking about the Great Depression—self-reliance, appeals to private people and organizations for philanthropy and to companies for ethical response to the crisis, and a reluctance to get the government involved. It was an abject failure. The New Deal was the liberal economic school at work and the welfare state came to America. Roosevelt even employed the concept and the very formula that Rowntree had developed for the “poverty line”—a measure of the cost of basic human needs as the basic metric for social welfare.
  • The death of the “Protestant ethic”. Most people think that Max Weber had Puritans in mind when he wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and this is partially true; but he talks about Quakers quite a bit, too, and we actually fit the mold better than the Puritans did. We weren’t Calvinist, so we didn’t see material success as a signifier of our election, but that is just a footnote in the story. The core of the Protestant ethic story is seeing one’s work in the world as a religious vocation, a calling (we would say leading) from God. This makes doing good imperative and doing well okay. This was the “spirit of capitalism”, and it drove Quaker business for two hundred years., until limited liability laws passed in both England and America in the 1890s led to the issue of public shares and the gradual dissolution of the great dynastic Quaker family businesses. By at least the end of the first world war, the spirit of capitalism was Mammon, not the Protestant ethic. Maybe before then. A lot of Quakers thought so already when London Yearly Meeting charged its Committee on War and the Social Order to investigate the Great War’s causes, in 1915. The report that the Committee returned in 1918 confirmed their suspicions—capitalism was partly to blame for the Great War and thus so were capitalists.
  • The theology of experience replaces the theology of atonement—and unleashes individualism. When Rufus Jones recast Quakerism as a mystical religion around the turn of the 20th century, and the liberal movement in Quakerism embraced the new “scientific” tools for Bible study at the same time, religious experience became the goal of (liberal) Quakerism and religious authority began to shift away from the Bible. Both threads had always been there; the past atonement of Christ on the cross was virtually irrelevant to early Friends, though they would never had said so—they were experiencing the living Christ directly and right now; salvation was happening within them in “real time”, making the event on the cross a kind of prefiguring, rather than the defining event in salvation history. And the Bible was a necessary source of relgious authority, but secondary to the experience of the Light. Throughout the 19th century, evangelicalism had driven this thread of direct experience partly underground, except to some extent in American Hicksite and Wilburite circles, but liberal Quakerism revived it. However, the emphasis on personal experience also undermined the authority of the meeting and gradually empowered the individual liberal Friend to do as he or she pleases. This feeling of entitlement is now one of the gods of liberal Quakerism.
  • The Vietnam War and the Sixties. Beginning in the 1960s, a wave of convincement brought a generation of people into the movement who were either social activists or ‘60s mystics, or both. I am part of that generation. We distrusted authority. Many of us had either fled or abandoned our original religious roots as either oppressive or spiritually empty, or both; we were post-Christian. A lot of us had also abandoned self discipline for a while; that had been fun for us, in ways even valuable, but it left us a bit self-indulgent. Many of us had picked up an anti-money prejudice in the 60s that we seem to have retained to some degree, even though most of us ended up in the middle class. After all, a lot of us had degrees and we were the last generation to benefit from higher education en masse without going broke in the process. We remember $0.29 gasoline and $150 apartment rents—the good life was sort of handed to us. Finally, we had built our spiritual lives around whatever we had picked up on our journeys, and, when we became convinced as Quakers, we grafted that onto a Quaker framework that was already becoming increasingly pliable, increasingly defined by values rather than content. And we didn’t really value money, even though we enjoyed it.
  • (Radically) declining wealth base. There are three paths to wealth: creating a successful business, landing one of those rare very high-paying jobs, and inheritance. The first and last have been the foundation of Quaker wealth for centuries. But nowadays, many, many Friends are somewhere in the middle class, with decent but not high-paying paying jobs, if they are lucky, with pensions and enough saved to maybe keep them in comfort as they live into their 80s and 90s, if they are really lucky. Maybe there will be a little left over for the kids when we die. However, for twenty years or more, our middle class status has been steadily eroding, as college, health care, and nursing home costs have skyrocketed. There just isn’t the wealth base left to maintain our meetings the way our forebears did, and we are less likely to leave big bequests. As an example: the Friends who supplied two-thirds of the capital funds that renovated New York Yearly Meeting’s youth retreat center a few years ago died—in just three or four years’ time! Two-thirds of a significant wealth base in the yearly meeting died in a handful of years! The wealth base that made the budgets of yesteryear possible is dying off.
  • Mixed marriages. I suspect that, over the past century, more and more convinced Friends have joined the movement without their spouses. When you have to divide your charitable contributions in half, or at least negotiate with a partner about it, chances are good that your meeting will get less than it would have if you had joined as a couple or if you were single.
  • Meaningless membership. I would add the fact that there’s really no reason to even make the minimal commitment to a meeting of becoming a member. What do you get out of it? The privilege of serving on Ministry and Worship Committee? We no longer treat membership as a covenant in which the member and the meeting have clear, mutual responsibilities for support. Oh, the member has responsibilities, financial support among them. But what skin does the meeting have in this game? All we seem to feel we need to provide is a space in which to hold meeting for worship every Sunday morning and a sense of community. We often don’t offer religious education to even our children, let alone the adults. We don’t offer programs or other support for the individual spiritual life, beyond meeting for worship. We often are rather less than effective at pastoral care, even worse at material care. Why join? And, if you’re only a partially-committed attender, why not give as a partially-committed attender?
  • Consumer culture religion. In a mass consumer economy, we pay for the things we want, and we seek the lowest price. This cultural ethos has invaded religious life, just as it has penetrated every other aspect of modern life. Most Friends come to meeting for something; they are less likely to consider what they come to meeting with. What do they come for? At the least, I think they come for an hour of peace and psychological refreshment and a sense of community. We often give them that. But what is it worth? Can it be had at a bargain? Could they get it elsewhere more cheaply? Probably not. But if they could, they just might leave. At least we have a corner on the collective silent worship market.

Well, these ideas just came flying out of my head as I wrote. What are my readers’ experiences? Why do we harass our business people? Why do we give so little? Why have Quaker meetings and institutions been cutting back on their budgets and yet still feel like they’re headed for the shoals? Why are we weird about money, when we used to be so good with it? Have I missed anything? Have I gone too far?

I would love to hear from you.

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