Questioning the Quaker Foundations of British Businesses

19th August 2023

One thing that fascinated me from the outset of my discovery of Quakerism was the Quakers’ history of success in commerce and industry of every kind. With my background in business to business communications and public relations I was intrigued to discover how they built their success on a great reputation for honest and reliable trade.

Looking for a Quaker-run group that chimed with my interests, I found and immediately joined the Quakers & Business Group. I was impressed to discover that they had funded some serious academic research into the early Quakers’ commercial success, and it was my pleasure to work with their PhD student, Andy Fincham, on communicating his findings via the magazine of the Society ‘The Friend’; the Quakers & Business blog and annual conference on The Future of Workplaces, 2022.

Andy’s project started with the established facts: famous and enduring world-class entities as Cadbury, Rowntree, Frys, Clarks Shoes, Lloyds and Barclays which were built upon Quaker foundations.

But what is the truth behind these companies which are now recognised as “household brands”? How is the working relationship with Quakerism different in society today? Can business forge friendships? Some answers can be found below. Have myths grown up over the years about Quakers and their business ability?

Inspired by Advices and Queries no 17 which asks “Think it possible that you may be mistaken” Andy embarked on a PhD at the University of Birmingham which is affiliated with the Woodbrooke Quaker Learning Centre near Bourneville.

Andy tackled a number of puzzling conundrums in his research, among them, how did a society with relatively few members manage to have such a disproportionate influence on British business?

Andy notes:

“Even at its peak (about the turn of the seventeenth century) it is likely there were fewer than fifty thousand Quakers in England and Wales, and yet they grew to prominence in most spheres of trade in which they engaged, and went on to use their influence to help make positive changes in the wider society – from major contributions in the anti-slavery and peace campaigns, to social justice across prisons, employment and access to education.”

First of all Andy questioned some of the interpretations of the Quaker story that emerged as British society went through the Victorian age. One commonly repeated myth is that Quakers’ high minded refusal to take oaths prevented the brightest from entering university and “the Professions”, so forcing them into commerce. Andy uncovered clear evidence to the contrary - they did in fact find ways to get around the oath-taking: they were over-represented in both the Livery companies of London and in the third ‘profession’ emerging at this time – medicine.”

A more cynical interpretation emerged in 19th century Europe where Max Weber - the acknowledged “father of sociology” concluded that Quaker beliefs made it essential to be richly endowed with worldly success in order to prove the superiority of their religion. Later, Karl Marx even suggested that Friends’ - Quakers are also called Friends - success resulted from a form of communism in which goods and services were held in common.

Was there any evidence for these assertions? Did Quakers deliberately embark on a deliberate strategy of being ‘rich and successful” to attract new adherents, or was their success the result of something deeper? Andy found that it was a complex story of cooperativism, mutual support for businesses and individuals within each meeting, but there was absolutely no evidence of common ownership. It is also true the material success of the Quakers drew attention and the attraction of Quakers for those who wished to live and work in a safer, more caring economy would have been strong. Here are a number of practical socio-economic schemes that Andy identified that were adopted to support members of the Society:

  • Cost of living and fuel poverty - From free coal and assistance with rents to providing clothing and even coffins.
  • Education - Practical training and education in specially set-up Quaker schools.
  • Employment - An apprentice matching scheme for Quaker companies and youths in need of occupation - supported by legacies from Friends; backed up with an employment opportunities register for qualified tradesmen.
  • Finance - Crowdfunding for start ups and investing in people - collections to set Friends up in business intended to reduce the burden of poor relief.
  • Credit - Quakers would supply their goods to other Quakers without immediate payment: this enabled new enterprises to stock up, and establish themselves before selling these goods and it was not uncommon for repayments to take several years.

In addition to these support mechanisms, we have the influence of the Quaker testimonies and teachings which were quite specific to areas of business - these included the avoidance of risk and litigation and proof of sustainability through adopting self-imposed rules and regulations:

Andy notes,

“Importantly, many early Advices promoted behaviour which supported commercial success. These include using Arbitration and Appeals to avoid law, avoiding smuggled goods, gaming, and luxury, while encouraging every form of thrift - from refusing payment to register births to eschewing mourning costume and even gravestones! Quaker Advices encouraged state tax avoidance - spirituous liquors, land ownership, carriages – while Friends disputed Ecclesiastical law, especially tithes – and kept their own registers of births, marriages and deaths to avoid the fees. Such Advices set the Quakers apart from their neighbours, but also kept expenses to a minimum. Above all, Advices stressed Friends must not risk their business in pursuit of worldly success: so interconnected were Quakers that one bankruptcy could bring down many. While both risk and debt were an accepted aspect of trade, these were only acceptable if any loss could be sustained.”

As society developed, the need for the restrictive and rigorous practices of early Quaker communities passed away. Accordingly you may find that modern Quaker professionals tend to work in sociological support roles such as probation, teaching, management development, mental health and wellbeing and social care: as the welfare state developed, latter-day Quakers have found careers that support and advance their concerns.

It is a pleasure then to connect with other Quakers who have made their careers in business, science technology and industry. Some members of Quakers and Business have sold their businesses to devote their time to philanthropic action in areas such as conflict resolution and the promotion of ethics in artificial intelligence, banking and finance. It has been inspiring to get to know these individuals, elevating my ambitions for my own work above that of simply making an impact for clients, towards making a social impact.

Being ahead of the times is the hallmark of Quakerism. Every step forward taken bravely by Quakers acting against the grain has been eventually followed by the same movement forward in society, from women’s equality in the 17th century to fossil fuel divestment in the 21st. Quaker action is rooted to the genesis of human progress in the business world.

Perhaps it is from examples like these in this article where we can see friendships develop in business through a different outlook? Working together is bringing back the free exchange of one skill for another without any money being exchanged, and cooperatives locally bring forward Quaker values in community and sustainability. How does this resonate with you?

Suzanne Watts - Hemel Hempstead Quaker Meeting



Why were early Quakers so successful in commerce? 16 May 2023: Quakers and Business blog by Andy Fincham