Book Review: The Quakers: Money and Morals by James Walvin

Reviewed by Peg and Nils Pearson

A well researched and fascinating history of Quakers from the founding up to 1914, James Walvin looks primarily at the financial and business successes of Quakers, how they achieved it and what it brought with it. The book examines the role and influence that groups of Quakers came to exercise in particular areas of economic and cultural life in England over two and a half centuries. Perhaps by reading this historical account we can come to better understand the place of money and wealth in our own lives today. How do we reconcile our principles or morals with the accumulation of large sums of money? As Britain became a nation of consumers, there were many commercial opportunities for those with the right skills, training and networks and few were better placed than certain Quakers. It is apparent from this history how Friends traveling on business stayed at Friends houses and so nurtured each other not only spiritually, but also through the development of a network that supported their burgeoning Quaker enterprises. Friends struggled with the acquisition of vast wealth through banking, chocolate and iron, problems of using and making a profit with materials dependent on slave labor, living simply despite wealth, poverty among workers, and bankruptcy. Success was due not only to hard work, honesty and frugality, but also through the support of a network of successful Friends who would investigate and offer help to those who were floundering due to lack of experience. The expectation was that Friends would live according to their beliefs, including a belief that you were honest in all things and treated all people as children of God. Discovering that workers were still in poverty despite being paid an “honest” wage caused Friends to look hard at how they rewarded work. Creating model villages with affordable and decent housing was one way to improve the workers lot.

Mentoring and networking were important aspects in Quaker success. For a period Friends who married out of the Society of Friends were not allowed to retain membership, and so the size of the society suffered, but it strengthened the alliances between families and created dynasties of Quakers that remained faithful even in selecting a mate.

One can also read this history looking for the parallels in the Society of Friends today. In the mid-nineteenth century the Quakers were predominately of the middle class. Meetings did have their share of humble Friends but the local and national organizations were oriented to the middle-class Friends. Quakers were part of the community whose prosperity and influence was a prominent feature of mid- to late-Victorian life. They were at once architects and beneficiaries of the trend and were involved in social and political affairs. This book might shed some light on how we come to be a predominately middle-class community in North America today. At one point, Walvin states “Poorer Quakers were too busy scratching a living to be active” (p. 145). The book seems a good jumping off place to think about wealth and the Society of Friends in our own times.

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