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?
“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.