Quakers and Capitalism — a lost history

October 29, 2010 § 11 Comments

I have been writing a history of Quaker contributions to capitalist culture and of the ways that Quaker fortunes have, in turn, shaped Quaker culture, with a commentary on this history’s significance. Most of the history portion of the book is basically done, up into what I call the third transition period, between the great conferences at Richmond and Manchester and the end of the Great War. My interest is not in how Quakers deal with money, in their personal lives or even their professional and business lives, but rather with how we as a community have related to the capitalist economic system itself, as a system.

It is almost impossible to exaggerate how important Quakers were to the transition from mercantile capitalism to industrial capitalism and to the progress of the industrial revolution itself. It is also almost impossible to exaggerate how unknown most of this incredible history is to most Friends.

This has always been a mystery to me and is, in fact, what got me started on this project in the first place: what is it about Quaker culture that finds this radical historical amnesia useful, given how obsessed we are with our own history?

I’m always on the lookout for new sources in this project and recently came across a great book published in 1953 and edited by John Kavanaugh, then Public Relations Director of AFSC (the edition available on Amazon.com was published in 1970). The Quaker Approach to Contemporary Problems is a collection of essays by Quaker luminaries of the time, including Henry Cadbury, Howard Brinton, Elton Trueblood, and Clarence Pickett, and includes chapters on Peace and War, Education, Race Relations, Health and Healing, and so on. But it was the essay by Kenneth Boulding, the Quaker economist, on Economic Life that caught my eye. Here are his opening paragraphs:

The history of the application of the Quaker experience in the realm of economic life presents a curious paradox. On the one hand we do not find the apparently clear-cut “testimony” which is found in the peace testimony, where a relatively simple standard of conduct has come down almost unchanged through three centuries. It is difficult to find any simple standard of economic conduct or judgment which deserves the name “Quaker.” Quakers have been both capitalists and socialists, bankers and civil servants. Friends have, of course, maintained a testimony for the “minor virtues”—honesty, truthfulness, fulfillment of promises, thrift, hard work, punctuality, and so on in their economic activities as well as in other aspects of daily life. Such testimonies, important as they are, do not, however, constitute a specific attitude toward economic institutions or systems. On the great question of socialism versus capitalism, for instance, the Quaker trumpet seems to  speak with an uncertain sound.

In spite of—or perhaps even because of—this apparent weakness in the clarity of the theoretical position, the practical impact of the Society of Friends on the economic life of the world has been enormous, and quite out of proportion to the small number of Friends. Indeed, it can be argued that the greatest impact of the Society of Friends on the world has been precisely in this sphere of economic life where the theoretical contribution seems to have been small.

Boulding goes on to discuss how Friends have been “deeply implicated in the rise of the whole set of institutional and technical changes, which go under the name of ‘capitalism,’ in two of its essential aspects—the development of a wide ‘market economy,’ and in the initiation and propogation of technical change,” and to claim, as I do, that these contributions have been “a very direct consequence of [our] religious experience, and of the organization of [our] religious life.” He surveys the economic history of Friends up to his time and then turns to the future.

He also considers our shift—and his own shift—toward ever higher standards of consumption, after abandoning plain dress and speech. “In reacting against the censorious imposition of ancient and perhaps meaningless standards of consumption we have relaxed our mutual disciplining of each other to the point where there seems to be no machinery in the usual Meeting, even for the discussion of these problems.” He ends by saying that “separated from God, separated from the sensitizing of the spirit in worship and communion with the source of all love and truth, enterprise leads to damnation in pride, brotherhood leads to damnation in sentimentality. This remains the most important thing which the Society of Friends has to say, even in the field of economics.”

One of the things I want to do with this blog is to share this history of Quakers and capitalism and begin a conversation about our economic testimony and our amnesia: to try to understand why we no longer know who John Bellers was, or Seebohm Rowntree, or David Ricardo, and why these people matter; and to discern what a “clear-cut” economic testimony might be.

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