Nineteenth Century Quakerism
The outlook of members of the Society of Friends was not widely different from that of other good Christian people. The Evangelical Movement had its effect within the Society. Quakerism however had something which tended to modify the current views, even though the position was not stated definitely. The resemblances and the differences are exemplified in the many activities of William Allen on behalf of the poor and degraded. His sympathy and interest, as well as that of many Friends, was turned to education as a remedy for many evils, Joseph Lancaster, himself admitted into membership in 1801, introduced the method of instruction by means of pupil teachers, and passed on his own enthusiasm to a group of philanthropists who founded the British and Foreign Schools Society. A kindred organisation, The National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the principles of the Established Church, was founded at almost the same time by those who believed that simple Bible teaching was insufficient and even dangerous. The objects of this latter Society are set out very clearly in words which correspond closely to the description of the Evangelical outlook given above: “the sole object in view being to communicate to the poor generally, by means of a summary mode of education lately brought into practice, such knowledge and habits as are sufficient to guide them through life, in their proper station, especially to teach the doctrines of religion according to the principles of the Established Church, and to train them to the performance of their religious duties by early discipline.” I can find nothing so limited in outlook regarding the British Schools. The Bible was the only book to be used for all purposes, but there seems to have been some recognition of the claims of the individual. The statement which suggests the narrowest outlook is from William Allen as follows:
Here (in Joseph Lancaster’s school) I beheld a thousand children collected from the street where they were learning nothing but mischief, one bad boy corrupting another, all reduced to the most perfect order, and training to habits of subordination and usefulness, and learning the great truths of the Gospel from the Bible. The feelings of the spectator while contemplating the results which might take place in this country and the world in general by the extension of the system thus brought into practice by this meritorious young man were overpowering and found vent in tears of joy.
Another quotation from William Allen shows how little he looked to economic changes to remove existing and recognised evils.
All these objects (Poor LawReform, etc.), however, are in my mind only secondary to the great cause of the general education of the poor. If the population generally could be rendered virtuous, a large portion of the present misery would disappear. Wise measures must be taken for ameliorating the condition of mankind, and I look upon the universal diffusion of knowledge, the general spread of the Holy Scriptures, and the exertions of wise and good men in different directions, to promote the happiness of their fellow creatures, as the first grand step towards the abolition of war.
Another of the problems that Friends had to face a hundred years ago was that of association in social and philanthropic work with those who were not inspired with the same religious motives. William Allen’s co-operation with Robert Owen in carrying on the mills at New Lanark and in introducing amenities into the lives of the workers, including schools for the children, was troubled by many misgivings on his part, both as to the nature of some of the activities, and as to the possibility of any good work being done by an unbeliever. To the modern reader the story seems needlessly tragic. Here was Robert Owen, inspired by a wonderful spirit of humanity, with ideas far in advance of his time, hampered at every step by the hesitations of an honest and liberal-minded Christian, who could not recognise the tree from its fruit—forgot that the test of discipleship was love of the brethren.
I am indebted to a Friend for the sight of some extracts from the Place MSS. at the British Museum. Francis Place worked with the promoters of the British Schools, and formed an extremely poor opinion of both the capacities and the principles of Friends. His personal outlook probably ill-fitted him to judge the Quaker temperament, but his criticism suggests the limitations of many good Friends.” I cannot say,” he says, “I found more than one man, and that man Wm. Allen, for whom I could entertain any very considerable share of respect. I know that several others have kind feelings to a certain extent ; I know than many of them profess domestic virtues, but I know no one who has knowledge enough of books, of things and of mankind, to form in him an expanded or profound understanding, while by far the greater part of those I saw enough of to decide, as I believe with something approaching to accuracy, were remarkably ill-informed, and possessed of very narrow understandings.” “A considerable share of vulgar charity and some remarkable displays of benevolence have obtained for them a character as a body far above their merits.”
All through the Nineteenth Century, social service in more and more varied forms occupied the sympathies and leisure of Friends. More than many of their contemporaries they had incentives to this outlet for their energies. They were still mainly of the middle class, people who had command of some time and some property. Their training kept them apart from many worldly occupations, and endowed them with business-like aptitudes. Their recognition of equality within their own Community, and their belief in the religious endowment of every human personality, encouraged a wider recognition of the claims of humanity as such.
Two activities stand out pre-eminently as having a claim on Friends, Education and Temperance. Wherever there was any considerable group of Friends, some would be found managing a British School, and some would be actively engaged in Temperance propaganda in some form. Both of these activities, and they are but illustrations, are concerned with the existing social order : the desire of the philanthropist was to help the working people to live more contented and more wholesome lives within the conditions belonging to their class, to teach them thrift, to assist them in sudden and difficult emergencies, to provide interests and occupations for their leisure.
A passage from a pamphlet, Quakerism and Capitalism, by J. T. Walton Newbold, enlarges this idea, and may be quoted in part:
Another concern which took hold of Friends in the early nineteenth century was the cause of Temperance. Nothing is more remarkable than to find Friends the great brewers of the later eighteenth century, and then to witness their change of attitude. It is, at first, so strange a phenomenon, this sudden passion for Temperance which awoke in the capitalist class in the early nineteenth century. It is, indeed, very difficult for a man, with the proletarian view point, to sit and listen dispassionately to some prosperous plutocrat expatiating on the saving grace of Temperance and the sinfulness of Drink. Yet the Temperance Movement was a natural development engendered by reflection on the ghastly conditions of life which prevailed in the manufacturing centres immediately after the Industrial Revolution, when whole populations gathered and bred as a consequence of the urgent demand for ‘hands’ which machine production made. Old social customs and forms dissolved with the change in the methods and organisation of production, towns grew out of villages, and agricultural families left the homes of generations to settle around the new mills, mines and works, where relays of wage workers were used up in the ruthless profit-making process. No provision, no systematised provision, was made for housing, for recreation, even for animal conveniences, such as sanitation. The workers were torn from the soil and herded in mushroom aggregations of brick boxes called ‘homes.’ There was no education provide , and the people, naturally, relieved their worn-out frames and jaded nerves with bestial enjoyment of liquor drunk to excess. Philanthropists saw the phenomenon of drunkenness and saw the evil of drink. Masters saw the effects of alcohol on the steadiness of the worker, on his productive capacity, on his reliability. They saw his wages disappear without rebuilding his strength and renovating his body and his wits.
They saw also their fellow-capitalists fall behind when they neglected the saving grace of thrift, a virtue of pre-eminent importance in that formative period of capitalist industry, when every fraction of ready money counted so much in taking advantage of the momentary opportunities of a competitive struggle. They did not realise, and could not be expected to realise, that the introduction of the more costly machine and the complex of machines which constituted the mills of the new factory system made it impossible for more than a favoured few to attain to independence, to competence or mastery. They still retained the economic theories, the business generalisations, the attitude of mind appropriate to a vanishing condition of tool production, of small undertakings, of personal relationships, and of easy transition from craftsmanship to mastery.
They believed in the law of struggle, of private enterprise, of individual initiative, worth, and the all importance of personal sobriety, integrity and self-help. These were all of them important factors when the tool, the tool system, contributed but a fraction to the process of production, and the individual man contributed much. Great volumes of capital were only beginning to be the determining or, at any rate, the obvious determining factors in the rivalry between man and man, master and master, firm and firm. Temperance Reform is an ideal essentially of the thrifty, painstaking industrialist, and just as essentially attracts and holds the working man who would be, but has no hope of becoming, a master, and of the small shopkeeper and small master who aspire to become capitalists. Temperance Reform has, however, no power to emancipate a propertyless class from economic dependence. It may enable a few to climb out of their class, but it cannot save the class as a whole. It will result in higher wages for some, but if it results in an all round increase in productive capacity it can only enrich the capitalist class, because what determines wages is the cost of subsistence of the workers.
Hardly an echo of all this varied interest was heard in the Friends’ Meetings for Discipline until the present century. A noteworthy exception was the consideration given to the question of “Poverty” in the Yearly Meeting of 1889, on a Minute sent up from Yorkshire. This Minute speaks of consideration given to the question “how far our duty as members of a Christian Church is concerned in relation to the deep poverty and degradation in which large masses of our countrymen exist,” and alludes to “the pauperism so largely prevalent, the insanitary condition of dwellings, the over crowding so constantly prevailing, the frightful extent of infant mortality, and the evils of excessive competition in some branches of industry.” Emphasis is laid on the need for licensing reform and on the value of the service of Friends on Municipal and County Councils and other public bodies. The Minute of the Yearly Meeting, in summing up the discussion, “commends the subject to the thought, prayers and earnest effort of our members everywhere.” The General Epistle of that year mentions, among the matters which had claimed attention, “the wide-spread suffering of the poor and degraded in many of our large centres of population; the miseries resulting from the drinking customs of the day.”
Triennial Reports from the Quarterly Meetings referred occasionally to the work carried on by members individually; Lancashire and Cheshire Quarterly Meeting in 1900 makes an interesting reference to the introduction of the Elberfeld System of Relief in Liverpool; and Westmorland speaks of efforts for the temporal well- being of the poor and neglected. Quaker societies were formed to forward certain ideals, and these organisations were allowed to hold their Annual Meetings at the time of Yearly Meeting, and to report to Yearly Meeting. In 1909, a Committee on Social Questions, set up by the Yearly Meeting itself, reported the result of an enquiry made of the Clerks of Preparative Meetings as to various kinds of social work carried on by the Meetings themselves and by individual Friends in those Meetings. The replies were partial, and full statistics were not obtained, but the report furnishes very interesting reading. It seems that 522 places on Public Bodies were occupied by Friends; over a hundred Meetings had members serving in the cause of public education as managers of schools, members of Education Committees, etc. Temperance work was nearly universal, and the report comments: “It is evident that Friends have this matter much at heart and possess, in these various organisations, an instrument capable of affecting considerable numbers of the population. It may be doubted whether this instrument is as effectively used as it might be, owing probably to lack of study and grasp of the wider aspects of the problem, but this does not mean that excellent work is not being done.”
The Report endeavours, at the end, to sum up the extent and value of the work done. “It tells a story of much quiet, unobtrusive work, well worth doing, and probably generally well done; but it also suggests, although it does not say it in so many words, that there is far less than there might be of what should be termed skilled social service, dependent on study and training. Goodwill rather than expert knowledge is probably the largest factor in that which is being done. There seems to be too little sense that Quakerism has a message of social responsibility. A steady effort should be made to make what used to be called ‘outside’ work also ‘inside’ work.”
Of late years some time has frequently been given in the Yearly Meeting itself to the consideration of aspects of social work. It seems a very late recognition of that side of the spirit of Quakerism. In considering the state of the Society year by year, attention was concentrated on its internal rather than its external manifestations, and warnings were not infrequent against over much activity.
The revision of the Quaker Book of Discipline as it related to Christian Practice, completed in 1911, gave an opportunity of introducing sections dealing with the Stewardship of Wealth, Public Offices and Social Service. It was found that there were no suitable passages among the published documents of the Society, except those of quite recent date, and practically all the paragraphs in these sections are dated 1910 or 1911. A memorandum on the Stewardship of Wealth had been adopted in 1910.
Just at the moment when the philanthropic movement had exhausted itself, when the mind of the Society was coming to realise that Social Service as ordinarily understood, even in its most developed form, was not enough for a religious body, and might be harmful as well as inadequate—just then the Society of Friends first put on its books its convictions on these questions. Instead of stimulating its members to new efforts, to fresh enterprises, it does little more than sum up the experience of the past.
The defect of being behind instead of leading the advance can be more easily recognised when it is not one’s own Church that is in question. Not long ago the Interdenominational Conference of Social Service Unions issued a Programme of Christian Social Reconstruction, dealing with the Right to Life, Employment, Education, Marriage. It is all very good and sound; there is little to object to in its statements, but a reader with the new vision feels at once that there is something wrong. A Church has no place for a minimum, it ought to set out an ideal, it ought to be in advance of the ordinary worker and point his goal. This programme is the culmination of the Philanthropy of the past, it does not open out the new social outlook.
The attitude of the Yearly Meeting of recent years towards Social Questions may be shortly summarised.
Since 1906, when the Yearly Meeting decided to devote at least two Sessions in 1907 to consider “the most effectual way of stimulating a sense of the responsibility of the Society and of its members in regard to Social Problems and Social Service,” the sense of concern has grown and deepened. It was, however, limited in its outlook and more limited in the number of Friends who really held it, and this is still true. A Committee was appointed in 1907 as a result of the consideration given at that time. The next year in their report they say:
We desire to emphasise the importance of drawing the attention of the whole Society to those Social responsibilities and services, which we feel rest upon Friends as the direct outcome and issue of our distinguishing views of truth. The application of the broad principles of Brotherhood and Spiritual Liberty, which these tenets involve, to the social inequality and injustice which surrounds us, seems to us to be our immediate duty.
Each year since then the Yearly Meeting has definitely recognised this side of Quaker activity. In 1910 the Committee in its final report realises “that social service is likely to be increasingly a matter of Government action and therefore of politics, inasmuch as we are living in a time when private liberality and initiative are expanding into public responsibility under a more enlightened public conscience.” In 1911 the Advices were revised and the new Query added, and in the autumn the last edition of the Book of Christian Practice was adopted. In 1911 and 1912 the question of Christianity and Business was considered very seriously. The evils of competition were dwelt on, and the Minute speaks of the need to “remove or remedy the faults of the industrial system.” Following this the need of a “Living Wage” was recognised as “of momentous responsibility to our national life.”
The urgency of a reconsideration of fundamentals as a result of the war led to the setting up of the War and Social Order Committee, and lastly to the holding of the Conference on the Society of Friends and the Social Order in the autumn of 1916. It is the Social Order which is now in question, and the Yearly Meeting has at last recognised a new social outlook which may lead to great enterprises in time to come.