Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Quaker Intellectuals

When I taught a stewardship theme in FDS last week, I used the example of the Cadbury family for stewardship of wealth and power. Uncomfortable with 19th-century Birmingham living standards for their chocolate factory workers, the Cadburys moved an entire factory and all its workers to a new "village" they created, complete with schools, green parks, and excellent housing, far away from city pollution. They paid high wages and treated employees well. People expected Cadbury to fail because they were wasting money. But Cadbury proved them wrong -- their chocolate became the most popular in England.

This is just one example of the legacy of 18th- and 19th-century Quakers, who were pioneers in changing the way business was done. What we don't seem to remember is that before the 1900s, Quakers were not intellectuals. Universities were closed to anyone who was not a member of that university's church denomination. Thus, Quakers, as non-church people, were not allowed to go to university. They had to become businesspeople, shopkeepers, farmers, bankers, or manufacturers.

Of course, in the process, they brought Quaker values into those industries. Quakers "invented" trust in business, overcoming the belief that only through cheating could a business make money. They created banks that didn't swindle, price tags that prevented the lying that goes on in haggling, and workers' rights. Quaker banks became the most prosperous in all of England, and so did most Quaker businesses. The word "Quaker" soon came to be synonymous with honesty, which is why many nonquaker businesses started using the word in their business names (e.g., Quaker Oats). As Quakers became wealthy, they started using their wealth to promote social change, to change industry, to infect commerce with Quaker ideas.

How many Quakers today go into business or banking? How many into industry? How many work in prisons (not as chaplains) or the military, for that matter?

Once Quakers were permitted to go to university, that's what we did. We are now clustered in intellectual and social-work jobs. Sure, there's still Quaker work to do in these areas. But we've abandoned all the other work sectors.

What would a Meeting think of a banker who joins the meeting? Or a factory owner? Or a businessperson? Would we not subconsciously think poorly of them for their career choice? Would we think very quietly that they really aren't suitable for Quakerism? Where do we get these ideas?

Imagine if Quakers were running the banking system in North America. What changes might we expect to see? Or if we were running all the energy businesses -- would we still be pretending that peak oil and global warming weren't happening? Would we not have more influence than we have where we are?

I wonder if the bald truth is that being a Quaker is business, commerce, and industry (and prisons or military) means some hard work. It requires thinking, working, trying new things, taking risks, speaking out. Intellectual jobs are much safer. We get to be Quaker without putting ourselves at any risk. But in so doing, we've lost our influence. When we want to bring up social, environmental, and commercial change, we have to yell from the sidelines.

I wonder if this is why Quakers have lost so much of their influence in the world.


At 11:35 AM, Anonymous Aj said...

It seemed like the Quakers who were so influential were rooted in their identity. From there, they could move out together: respond to the needs of their society. Today I hear of a lot of Quaker gatherings that are not united in who they are: but they are rooted in what they do in a bad way (we only do these sets of things - this is what it means to be a Quaker). Until our identity is grounded, I don't know if meaningful actions/influence will be present.

At 12:35 PM, Blogger Nancy A said...

Aj - the 'what we do vs what we are' distinction is important. I need to think on it a little more. Maybe 'why we do what we do' is another way to phrase it.

I had a meeting with the Outreach Committee yesterday. One aging Friend on the committee said he thought a lot of our suggestions for outreach were pointless because they weren't going to reach university students. I answered that we weren't trying to reach university students: we were trying to reach ordinary people and families. He was horrified.


As a retired professor, he had some idea that quakerism was only for intellectuals.

Earlier this year, another retired professor Friend had protested loudly in MM when we decided to move the meeting off-campus, and I notice that he no longer comes to meeting. Another retired prof said she thought it was a terrible shame that we were leaving campus, since it was the "ideal place" to hold a Quaker meeting.

Ideal? No children's facilities? People sitting on the floor because there aren't enough chairs? Not enough oxygen? Computer clutter everywhere? How on earth could this be ideal?

There is something terribly, terribly wrong with this sort of thinking. Perhaps a lot needs to be forgiven for old age and too many years in the academic ivory tower. But this strikes me as just plain snobbery.

These aging Friends have also said how mystified they are that university students weren't just flocking out to our meeting. After all, Quakers did all the things students are so fond of, like social action and environmental action. I once pointed out that students can already do all those things on campus, what with all the social action and environmental action groups. So why would they come out to Quakers to do the same thing?

Why, indeed?

Quakerism can't be Sunday Morning Tea for Social Activitists and Intellectuals Who Are Mildly Spiritual. There is nothing sustaining there. There is no why, there's just what.

And I suspect, as Aj suggests, there is no who either.

At 12:33 PM, Blogger liberata said...

Hi Nancy,

Apparently not all Quakers have retreated to ivory towers. The July issue of Friends Journal is dedicated to the topic of Quakers and money and even features an article entitled "Why Young Friends Should Consider a Career in Business," by Paul Neumann and Lee Thomas.

The chair of the property committee at our meeting is one of the dearest men I've ever met and a really inspiring Friend. He was a printer/silkscreener, recently lost his business, and is now selling some sort of special light bulbs. He says he thinks that selling light is a particularly appropriate job for a Quaker! For him, I'd say it's brilliant :-)

In the ... Light.

At 3:13 PM, Blogger RichardM said...

Quakers today are mostly professional people rather than in business. But I have know or have known Quaker dairy farmers, accountants, postal workers, conveyer belt installers etc. I agree that we should be reaching out to people of all walks of life.

Indeed isn't the problem that we don't do much reaching out at all?

At 2:28 PM, Anonymous Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Well, Friends, I am mindful of William Penn's description of the early Friends -- that "They were changed men themselves before they went about to change others. Their hearts were rent as well as their garments, and they knew the power and work of God upon them. And this was seen by the great alteration it made, and their stricter course of life, and more godly conversation, that immediately followed upon it.

"They went not forth, nor preached in their own time or will, but in the will of God: and spoke not their own studied matter, but as they were opened and moved of his spirit, with which they were well acquainted in their own conversion...."

At 4:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It was'nt the Quakers who propered and caused change, it was the Holy Spirit. The early Quakers allowed themselves to be used as vessels for Jesus Christs Spirit.



At 9:39 AM, Anonymous Joanna Hoyt said...

I suppose part of the question is whether the economy we live in is a good but fallen system that could be renewed and transformed by conscientious people working in it, or whether the system itself is destructive. I have trouble reconciling interest, the debt economy, economics based on growth and the profit motive with what I know of God and of humans; so I'd like to see Friends joining together to form a viable alternative system for providing basic human needs.
I suppose arguing about the relative merits of working inside and outside the system isn't helpful; but the willingness to look clearly at the questions,a nd our choices, is. And then turining that over to the Light working around us and within us..

Joanna Hoyt

At 11:06 PM, Blogger Timothy Travis said...

Our economic system will not accept Quakers who attempt to use corporate resources as a means of imposing Quaker values on stockholders (mostly insurance companies) who are, according to the rules of the game, out to see their return maximized.

Perhaps the reason that business and investment/banking types appear to be missing from the Quaker movement (and I do not know that they won't be found, at all. I'm in no position to know) is that the values of those attracted to such occupations--or the values that are formed in people by participating in those occupations--are not consistent with Quaker testimonies, are not consistent with the fruits of the spirit--the outcome of heeding, abiding in and obeying the Spirit. These are, in fact, the values necessary to survive in today's business/banking (capitalist) system--are those that will be crucified by any who heed, abide and obey.

To quote Tony Campolo, saying that it is nearly impossible for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom is not my line.

John Woolman--work to get enough and then let others have the rest of the work so they can get enough, too (ie, redistribute the work, not the wealth)--would not last on any sales force in America, or on any medical staff or in any law firm--even if he wanted to or went there to "influence" the system. And it's hard for me to imagine that Friends can actually think that he would influence the system to accommodate--let alone imitate--him and the life he was led to lead.

When Quakerism faced off with capitalism (or was it the other way around?) Quakerism "lost." (read Doug Gwyn--Covenant Crucified).

That should come as no surprise. The "painted whore"--the church that is allied with and excuses (and even blesses) the corruption of worldly culture ("Babylon") will be stronger than the church (the woman of 1260 days) in the wilderness. At least, that's where the story begins.

When Jesus knocks on the boardroom door in the United States anyone who invites him in to sup will not be eating there very long.

At 12:49 PM, Blogger Grant said...


Does anyone know who started Nestle? Was is the Quackers?


At 1:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cadbury and Rountree were the two Quaker chocolate giants. Nestle was not Quaker. A good thing, too, considering all the controversy they've gotten into!

At 6:08 AM, Blogger Climate Guardian said...

As a farmer and businessman I feel that the Quaker holistic approach to life needs to be rekindled. As with all Friends, their work has become more specialized and thus devoid themselves from the real world where nothing is really in little boxes and separate, it is a real mishmash of individualists, ideas, concerns, problems, lifestyles and much more.
Indeed it is so complex that the so called experts have got us all into this global mess in the first place, so we need to call on all in the professions, scientists and economists, sociologists, work together and cross fertilise the results to see the interaction take place as in the real world.
now with the likes Barrack Obama that the real world is being put into place by a relative amateur or bodger as I call it in the true sense, in that he has learnt the holistic life skills by necessity throughout his life and turning these to his advantage without taking benefits for himself, and with the self-belief that people are all equal, and the world is not just for the greedy and powerful.
He seems to be able to put those greedy and powerful people in their place by just being honest and open in what he says and practices which are all Quaker virtues, but are we really honest with ourselves?
As i am now retired I am searching myself for a way mankind can help itself out of the present mire, and with the likes of the president of the US, we surly should support and encourage this change of policy to the hilt.

Where is the Quaker support for Nuclear Disarmament?



I have always felt that the Quakers should be proud and speak out for support more than doing the right thing against injustice, yes both are needed, we all need to feel we are bringing society closer together in a real human way, if we are to go in the right direction.
I will cease my ramblings and leave you with just one thought.


David Dunn


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