Quaker economic history—the history of Quaker fortunes, of Quaker contributions to capitalist culture, and of Quaker consciousness regarding the social and economic order—is rife with paradoxes.
First, much of this history is virtually unknown among Friends. To my knowledge no one has ever written an economic history of Friends, despite its obvious and enormous importance to both the Quaker movement and modern world history, though there have been some treatments of specific people and topics. This in spite of the fact that Friends are obsessed with their own history.
Second, Friends have ridden a social status roller coaster, starting off as yeoman farmers and small town trades people, then becoming business entrepreneurs and one of the wealthiest communities in the English speaking world, and now Friends are mostly middle class. What has driven these extraordinary swings in Quaker fortunes?
Third, Friends are nowadays a bit nervous about both money and business, even though, for more than two hundred years, Friends were better with money and business than just about anybody. Meetings are often reticent about asking for financial support. Both monthly meetings and yearly meetings often find drafting and approving budgets difficult and the resulting budgets often do not fully reflect the communities’ financial realities. Employees of Quaker institutions sometimes find their experience does not match their expectations of a religious body dedicated to equality, integrity, and good treatment of others. Moreover, some Friends these days are sometimes actually hostile to the business people and the corporate executives in their midst.
Where did the wisdom and experience that Friends once had about money, business, and management go? Why this profound shift in attitude toward business and people in business?
Finally, while Quakers from their earliest days have had a disproportionate influence on capitalist culture, especially in the beginning in Great Britain, Friends are only now beginning to develop a coherent, comprehensive testimony on economics. I don’t mean a testimony on money and its stewardship in their personal lives, but on capitalism as a system. Why, when Friends have been in the forefront of so many other reform efforts, have they been so tardy in articulating a clear vision of a just and equitable economic system?
This essay paints in broad strokes a brief economic history of Friends in an attempt to stimulate interest in these areas. It is exploratory, just brushing the surface of issues for other historians and economists to address more fully. It is more a presentation of evidence in support of a set of observations than a comprehensive ordering of historical facts.
And it’s somewhat schematic. For the history of Quaker fortunes, of Quaker contributions to capitalist culture, and of Quaker consciousness regarding economics and the social order has passed through four phases. These have been punctuated by transition periods in which external forces driving changes in the economic life of Friends collided with corresponding internal forces driving change inside Quaker culture.
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