Wealth and Poverty: Quaker perspectives Janet Scott Key Words: Christianity; Honest dealing; Simplicity; Equality; Peace; Banking; Chocolate Manufacturers; Money; John Woolman.
Quakers tend to have an ambivalent attitude to wealth perhaps because, as
Philadelphia Friends say of themselves, 'Quakers came to do good, and
stayed to do well!' For a church which began in the puritan period of
English history, the Religious Society of Friends has a remarkable
connection to the growth and development of capitalism. To discover what
Quakers believe one has to explore not statements but actions. The basic
Quaker approaches are linked to what we call the testimonies, ways of life
which bear witness to the nature of the kingdom of God. These include such
values as love and justice; but the distinctively Quaker testimonies can be
summed up as truth, simplicity, equality and peace. Each of these
contributes to perspectives on wealth and poverty.
From their start in the 17th century, Quakers had an ethos of dealing honestly.
Shop-keepers and traders charged fixed and fair prices and as a result their custom grew
because they could be trusted to keep to their word and their bargain. At
the same time, the testimony to simplicity, in clothes, furnishings and
leisure pursuits, meant that little money was wasted on frivolity or show.
Thus some Quakers began to accumulate wealth. Within the Society there was
a system by which Friends helped each other, though this was linked to a
work ethic. For example, young people with no family to help them would be
found apprenticeships or training so that they could support themselves.
From the 17th to the mid-19th century Quakers, like other dissenters, were
excluded from taking part in political life and from the English (though
not the Scottish) universities. They developed their own schools for both
boys and girls to train children to be useful. Much energy went into
developing new fields of endeavour especially in science and technology.
Quakers are amongst those who were pioneers of the industrial revolution;
an example is the Darby family at Ironbridge in Shropshire.
Another field in which Quakers took a lead was banking. This was probably
because Friends could be trusted, and also because through the system of meetings
(and the principle of marrying within the Society so that there were large
inter-related families) Quakers had contacts throughout the country. Thus,
in the earliest stages, a traveller fearful of robbery on the road could
leave some money with a Lloyd or a Barclay in one town and take a note to a
contact in another town who would pay the money back. During the 19th
century some businesses grew large. The most well-known cases are those of
the chocolate manufacturers. Grocers like the Cadburys or the Rowntrees
began to import chocolate as a healthy drink, nourishing for the poor and a
substitute for drinking alcohol. This trade grew and led to the building of
factories. Quakers as employers tended to a benevolent paternalism; thus in
Birmingham for example the Cadburys built Bournville village, decent
housing for workers with no public house but with gardens and sports
grounds. These companies have now changed ownership and have little if any
Quaker connection. Already in the early 20th century much of the money made
from this sort of enterprise was channelled into trusts to support
charitable work. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, for example, has also
often financed research and investigations into the causes of poverty and
We can see then that one strand in Quaker attitudes has been
formed by the accumulation of capital. However, this has not normally been
the purpose of the enterprise which has been to do honest work which meets
human needs. How money is used is important, and a key characteristic has
generally been generosity. The money from rich Quakers has supported the
building of meeting houses, the travels of Friends 'in the ministry',
relief work and peace work of different sorts. We might note that in the
18th and 19th centuries family money often enabled Quaker women to develop
their own fields of interest. An example is Elizabeth Fry, who with
sufficient wealth to pay servants to look after her house and children was
able to work on the reform of prisons.
There have however been other strands in Quaker thinking and practice. For
Quakers what is of first importance is to follow the leadings of the Holy Spirit.
So what is admired and encouraged is a life dedicated to God's purposes whether it
leads to wealth or poverty. An example is the 18th century American Quaker, John
Woolman, whose example shows how this might work in practice. Woolman's
main source of income was as a shopkeeper. He was also a Quaker minister
and travelled much amongst Friends. He decided to limit the amount of
business that he would do in his shop to what was necessary to raise enough
income for his responsibilities to his family. Although he could have
increased his business, he kept it to this level where he had sufficiency
but not superfluity, so that he had time for more important work. He
refused to take part in any business that he regarded as wrong. Much of
this sprang from his conscience when he was asked to write a bill of sale
for a slave. He realised that to buy and sell human beings was wrong, and
not only did he refuse in future to take part in it but he also worked at
persuading others to give up slavery. He would not wear clothes dyed with
indigo because the dye was produced by slave labour; and he would not
accept hospitality at homes where there were slaves. When he travelled to
Britain he travelled steerage on the boat though he could afford better,
because he wanted to share the lot of the poorest. In Britain, he walked
rather than travel by stagecoach because he could not condone the
conditions of work for the postboys. In particular, he saw that possessions
were at the root of war. He tried not to own anything which might contain
within it the seeds of war, either in how it was produced, or how it was
used or what feelings it might arouse.
This principle has become of great importance to Quakers in recent years. As we
have become aware of the need to achieve a sustainable world economy, the testimony to simplicity has again come into its own. Quakers try in a world driven by consumerism to be
satisfied with enough. There is a poster which can be seen outside
meeting-houses saying, The world has enough for everyone's need but not for
everyone's greed. We would want to see a fairer sharing of the world's
resources. This is not only because of justice but because the demand for
resources, whether it be for land, water, oil, food or employment, is a
cause for war and unrest.
If we are to make a peaceful world we must solve these problems, and it can only be done by valuing the things of the spirit more highly than material things. Removing the causes of war is not only a matter for governments and large organisations, but also for each individual in the choices that they make. For some Quakers this may mean refusing to pay the proportion of taxes that pays for war, and this may lead to imprisonment or distraint of goods.
Thus Quaker practice varies. At times it will be prudent and careful, at other times generous and charitable. What is clear is that money and its use is a part of the spiritual life. What is done with money expresses the deepest values of the heart.