Quakers and capitalism – enigma & amnesia

November 4, 2010 § 15 Comments

Who would you say is history’s second most famous Quaker? I am assuming that William Penn is the first most famous Quaker, and that Richard Nixon does not qualify as a Friend, despite his nominal membership.

In the United States, it might be Herbert Hoover. He’s certainly famous enough. Problem is, so few people know that he was a Friend. When I ask this question at the beginning of my presentations, many people propose John Woolman, George Fox, Lucretia Mott or Alice Paul.

The answer I propose is John Bellers. A prominent British Friend around the turn of the 18th century (1654 – 1725), Bellers was well known to his contemporaries. Yet you would join an overwhelming majority of modern American Friends if you have never heard of this man.

So why do I say he’s the second most well-known Quaker in world history? Because some of his essays were required reading in Soviet schools throughout the Soviet period in the former Soviet Union—tens of millions of Russians have known who he is. Because he impressed Karl Marx and Friederich Engels so much that Das Kapital mentions him by name.

Here is a man who enjoyed the fullest respect of his own generation, who possessed a deep, compassionate heart and a creative and far-ranging mind, who brought these faculties to bear on the problems of his own time in searching moral critique and bold proposals for pragmatic solutions to the problems he so clearly defined—in some cases for the first time. With equal measures of insight and foresight, Bellers wrote about economics and the plight of the worker, medical research and education, international politics and domestic social policy.

He was the first person in the English-speaking judicial tradition to call for the abolition of the death penalty. He added his voice to that of William Penn in calling for a unified government for Europe. And Bellers was the first to propose a national health service and a number of other reforms in health care:

  • standardized medical education, so that all doctors would be trained in the best treatment practices and the public would have some protection from quacks and charlatans;
  • medical conferences and journals to keep doctors abreast of new developments in medicine; and
  • testing and certification of medicines to guarantee their efficacy and protect patients and patient’s families.

But his most important contribution in his own eyes was his proposal for “colledges of industry”. These were working and educational communities of (ideally) 250 or so people, made up mostly of the working poor, built around profit-making businesses in a wide range of trades that also conducted industrial research. His model anticipated that a third of the time and profit from the college would be surplus and would be reinvested in the research and used for relief to the poor. He wrote several essays on this topic throughout his life, never giving up on it, writing to Parliament and to London Yearly Meeting (essentially a grant proposal). Parliament didn’t listen. London Yearly Meeting created a workhouse at Clerkenwell, but this frustrated him no end, because they had ignored the most important aspects of the idea: community, education, research, profitable contribution. Clerkenwell was a palliative, not a systemic solution.

So how has this important contributor to Quaker—and even Western—history fallen into such relative oblivion among his own people? Why did even his own contemporaries shy away from his genius? And what, if anything, does our amnesia say about Quaker culture and our testimonial  relationship to the concern that most exercised him: the social organization of capitalist enterprise? Why do I start my exploration of Quakers and capitalism with John Bellers?

For me, our Bellers amnesia is a useful indicator of a bigger puzzle. Bellers is not the only important political economist whom we’ve forgotten; I would add Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree (1871 – 1954) and, more importantly, David Ricardo (1773 – 1823). (Will we forget Kenneth Boulding, too?) Moreover, while Quakers from their earliest days have had a disproportionate influence on capitalist culture, especially in Great Britain, as we shall see, nevertheless, we are only now beginning to develop a coherent, comprehensive testimony on economics. To my knowledge, no one has tried to write a comprehensive economic history of Friends, despite its obvious and enormous importance, until this leaky vessel you are reading right now, though there have been some marvelous treatments of specific people and topics. Friends are weird about money, too, as anyone who’s served on a finance committee well knows. Why?

Why, when we have for so long been in the forefront of efforts to reform prisons, stop war, serve its victims, advance the rights of women, and end slavery, have we been so tardy in addressing the social failures of capitalism? For years, I have felt led to try to answer these questions and John Bellers was my first poster boy, if you will.

I would like to start a new conversation along these lines.

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