The Quakers represented, in 1850, no more than one half a percent of the population. Thus it is even more extraordinary just how many of our household names had Quaker origins – not least in financial services – Barclays, Lloyds, Friends Provident, Cadbury, Rowntree, Clarks (as in shoes), Huntley and Palmer (biscuits).
This Quaker ingenuity may be lost on an American audience, where representatives of the denomination’s most conspicuous public face, the American Friends Service Committee, define capitalism as a form of “structural violence” and victory as “getting a government to do something it hasn’t done before.” Even the two U.S. presidents who were Quakers – Republicans Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon – pursued policies not entirely amenable to the free market. Rev. Dr. Turnbull describes how the Quakers’ Christian faith and unique circumstances combined to produce a successful and entrepreneurial culture:
The Quakers – among others – had by 1800 faced around 150 years of oppression, crucially including exclusion from the Universities. Hence many Quakers turned their minds to business. This persecution made them close-knit communities and it was within this setting that apprenticeships were developed, trust and confidence built as the major families all knew each other, with dishonesty and especially bankruptcy viewed in highly negative terms due to the impact on Quaker reputation. A strong culture which enhanced positive behaviour of honesty and integrity (quality products at fixed prices) and discouraged negative behaviour. …
Their moral codes included injunctions against overtrading, honesty, payment of debts, caution over indebtedness, transparent and accurate accounts and understanding of the business. These principles derive from the Quaker ‘Advices’ and ‘Queries’ on trade issued between 1675 and 1793. Many Quakers became wealthy, but often had to endure the long and patient wait of the entrepreneur for success.
Since these firms often risked family assets and employed family members or close acquaintances, they produced an ethical business culture built upon principles that Rev. Dr. Turnbull commends to modern-day owners and managers alike.
You can read his full article, “What is the purpose of a company?” here. For more information on how the Quaker view of economics changed so radically, see “The political ideology of unprogrammed Quakers” (Religion & Liberty, Vol. 13, no. 1, by Jack P. Powelson).
(Photo credit: Mike Mozart. CC BY 2.0.)