The recent financial crisis has certainly thrown a spanner in the works, and left us with many challenges to deal with.
When I was asked to write this article, I immediately thought of the early Quakers, who certainly had an eye for business – many of them were very successful, and they have left the legacy in that there are still many of their businesses remaining today.
So why were they so successful? And what can we learn from them?
Quakers believe that the spiritual life should be “at one” with their everyday life, including their business activities, applying their spiritual principles and disciplines in all their dealings. Early Friends were therefore determined to maintain their principles throughout all of their business activities. This gave them a stability, and sound basis for all their practices that was unusual at that time.
For example, letters written by George Fox encourage the idea that traders should be scrupulous and truthful. And an advice of 1675 encourages the prompt payment of bills, and the avoidance of stretching ones capacity into debt. It was also advised that those Friends who were new to business should gain advice and help from the more experienced Friends.
In this way, it was the practice that the conduct of business was the concern of the whole of the Society, not just of the individual, and there was support, within the Meeting Houses, for all those who needed it. In order for this to be enabled, Elders and Overseers were appointed, to ensure that no Friend who needed help was overlooked, and to ensure that all their dealings were kept in order.
For example, William Stout of Lancaster noted in his diary that, as advised by Friends, he had kept a careful summary of his accounts for the year and ensured that all his debts and dues were paid, which he duly reported to the Meeting House that he attended.
This meant that all Quaker ventures into industry were not only carefully thought out, but that the individuals were sound in their dealings, and had the backing of many other concerned Friends.
The strict adherence to their scruples subsequently encouraged confidence in those who traded with them. At that time, when there was a general lack of morals, and lack of stability, within the business world, the Quaker movement offered a stability and honesty that was very attractive – and it was the confidence that this engendered that persuaded the public that theirs were the banks and businesses to invest in – this, naturally, led to their success.
Successful businesses, such as Cadbury’s (who are famous for Bournville village as well as their wonderful chocolate) Fry’s and Rowntrees – and Huntley Palmer biscuit factory all had Quaker beginnings –as did Barclay’s, Lloyd’s, and Friends Provident.
In Bournville Village, George Cadbury had wanted to provide high quality affordable housing that was accessible to the whole community, and not just the Cadbury’s own workers. In addition, he made space for both land and buildings for community purposes, addressing their physical, spiritual and educational needs – which included playing fields and parks as well as schools and places of worship. In this way he ensured prosperity for the whole community.
Bournville Village Trust continues to this day, and is “one of the largest and most respected housing trusts in this country”. It now looks after around 8,000 rented properties in Birmingham, Shropshire and the Midlands.
And from the current Quaker Faith and Practice, compiled in 1994, advices no 37 asks us: Are you honest in all you say and do? Do you maintain strict integrity in business transactions and in your dealings with individuals and organisations? Do you use money and information entrusted to you with discretion and responsibility?
Quakers in Science and Industry Arthur Raistrick
Cadbury site: http://www.cadbury.co.uk
Bournville Village Trust: http://www.bvt.org.uk/
Quaker Faith and Practice (available on line at http://www.quaker.org.uk)