- For the list, see List of Quaker businesses.
“It is nearly impossible to overestimate the influence of the Religious Society of Friends in the industrial revolution.”*
Prologue: Persecutions of the Religious Society of FriendsEdit
The early Friends of the Truth were evangelical activists. George Fox, a preeminent Quaker minister at the time, would stand on Anglican church pews during religious services and denounce perceived corrupt practices within the Anglican Church such as handing out priesthoods to well-connected but lazy men. Friends would not fight the King’s wars against France. For reasons of religious principle Friends would not take oaths in courtrooms, nor would they take off their hats to English judges. The earliest Friends carried a somewhat do-your-own-thing attitude, and this early attitude could be easily confused by the general public with the many sorts of anarchists, rebels and libertines that thrived in seventeenth century England.
Fox and other Friends were often beaten by enraged churchgoers for their unwanted lectures. The British government jailed 8,000 Friends in the period around 1650, many more Friends had their farmland seized by judges, and no Friend could attend colleges for the next century. While Quakerism started in rural areas, many Friends were soon dispossessed of their land and driven into cities. In cities, one of the few easily available jobs was the buying and selling of goods. One of the earliest Quaker trades was in wool, buying it from farmers, transporting the wool to cities, and selling to urban dwellers.
Roots of Quaker influence and strengthEdit
At the very earliest times, each Friend made his or her own decision with God’s assistance. This resulted in a few notable disasters such as James Naylor’s parade with two naked women shouting his praises, which tarred the entire Society of Friends, and which probably landed a few extra Friends in jail as a consequence. After a few such disasters, early Friends grew to make many group decisions collectively.
Collective decision-making takes time, but it generally results in wise and valuable decisions. Friends refined the collective decision-making process to an art. Consensus process has its own Quaker vocabulary.
Early Friends believed in a level of honesty that included complete forthstraightness, no tricks, no cozening anyone, ever. This policy of absolute honesty served them well in business.
It was considered unethical to monopolize goods, buying them up at any market in the hopes of selling them later at a high price.
The word “enterprise” refers to the Quaker merchants’ discipline of entering a specific price at a market and sticking by that price. Quakers did not haggle. Customers knew what the price of an item was, and what the price would be.
The Quaker religion puts a great emphasis on group meditation without the use of an intermediary such as a priest, and this served them well. Early Friends started from zero, and needed a great deal of thinking and research to work well. They first needed to set themselves a collective unity of purpose. They needed better ways of dealing with their business partners, with competitors, with customers. They needed product innovation. Meditation and clear minds probably helped.
Business as a Spiritual DisciplineEdit
The earliest Friends founded businesses in part because their communities needed jobs. People were hungry, both within Friends Meetings and without. These earliest Friends didn’t earn money for the personal love of money. They earned a necessary profit in order to grow their businesses and to survive lean years. Nor could Friends spend money on luxuries for themselves. As a result, many businessmen died rich. Others gave lavishly to charity.
Friends were particularly eager to set other Friends up in businesses, or to apprentice other Friends. At times a Friends meeting would loan a Friend in good standing the money needed to set up a business, and would guarantee all debts made by that Friend. If the Friend went bankrupt the meeting would pay off the debts.
The Extent of Quaker InfluenceEdit
Through underbidding, the earliest Friends eventually dominated the wool trade. Then Friends started manufacturing and selling items of cloth. They grew to dominate the textile business. Friend Samuel Slater was encouraged by Friend Moses Brown to carry textile weaving technology to America, where Moses Brown set up a factory to take advantage of it. This was the start of the American industrial revolution.
The itinerant selling of pots and pans similarly led to iron manufacturing, and eventually to iron and coal mining. Friends invented new processes for smelting high-carbon steel. The railroad was invented to carry finished iron goods from a Quaker factory to a nearby city. The world’s first steel bridge was created for this railroad.
Because of their complete honesty, Friends became local bankers. Friends ran most of London’s great banks and many banks in the American colonies. They also created much of the insurance business, which allowed other businesses to minimize risks and to grow more efficiently. Lloyd’s of London was a Quaker business.
Friends who dealt internationally with other Friends could be sure of a corruption-free and dependable market in internationally traded goods. Friends dominated the international trade of tea, of cocoa, of coffee. Friends then dominated the English coffeehouses and the chocolate market. Cadbury was a Quaker chocolate business.
Friends were practical believers in the equality of all mankind, and practiced such in their own business meetings. Their neighbors took note. Democracy struggled into being from decade to decade in the 17th and 18th centuries in Britain and America. A statue of Quaker William Penn (of Pennsylvania fame) was erected in London in honor of a landmark court case which limited a judge’s power.
Friends especially donated their wealth to the establishment of Quaker schools. Such schools were precursors of free public education. Many such Friends schools have survived to this day.
Finally, because of their belief in research and development for the good of mankind, individual Friends made a great number of scientific and medical discoveries of the period, despite their having been excluded from English colleges.
Britain’s economy, and later the American economy, exploded. In addition, Britain and America gained a tremendous competitive advantage in international trade, and both became dominant naval powers with empires stretching around the world.
Friends had such a good name that a number of other, non-Quaker merchants started calling their businesses “Quaker” as a competitive advantage. We have remnants of this trend in the names “Quaker Oats”, “Quaker Fabrics” and “Quaker State Motor Oil”.
Friends at first were involved in all aspects of the international slave trade: both in shipping slaves and in running plantations. However, a religious movement within the Society of Friends led to an intensive evaluation of slavery. By the time of the American Revolution, slavery was forbidden for members of Friends meetings. Individual Friends who still owned slaves were read out of meeting.
While the earliest Friends by and large had strict and austere moral habits, their children and grandchildren often inherited money but not certain scruples. Some became corrupted by pleasures. Many compromised or gave up their Quaker heritage in order to fit in with British nobility.
Others became corrupted by great amounts of money. Charles Dickens portrayed a Quaker businessman, Ebenezer Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol", as devoid of heart. Quakers of that time believed that Christmas was every day, not just a renamed pagan winter solstice celebration labeled without reason as Jesus's birthday, but these later Quaker businessmen also were largely rich skinflints who wanted to dispense with Christmas for financial reasons. Karl Marx also lampooned the lack of heart and loss of ideals in these particular capitalists.
In the end, most of the Quaker enterprises became normal corporations, and succeeded or failed as normal corporations do.
The Friends became exclusive. 18th and 19th century Friends would read people out of meeting for small pleasures, such as owning a piano, for wearing a moustache or for marrying a non-Friend. Worse, Friends had religious squabbles among themselves. These vinegar-tainted fights drove more and more Friends away. Friends who married other Friends from the wrong factions were read out of meeting. The population of unprogrammed Friends bottomed out around the turn of the 20th century. The population has rebounded a bit in the 20th century.
We are left today with a base of inventions, democratic principles, laws and accounting principles upon which our economy rests. The 17th century Friends are gone, leaving little but their writings. Many Friends refused to leave even a gravestone to mark their passing.
However, in parts of the world there is massive hunger, and many people have no jobs, so the memory of how one industrial revolution was created is a needed thing.