Friday, 31 January 2020

The Peculiar History Of The Sect Known As The Quakers (Bristol radical Pamphleteers) Pamphlet – 2011-by Jim McNeill

"..yet my mind was not at rest, because nothing was acted, and thoughts run in me that words and writings were all nothing, and must die, for action is the life of all, and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing,"

Gerrard Winstanley

Where is the good old cause now?...and what is become of it? In whose hands does it lie?

Edward Burrough, To the Whole English Army(1659)

Friends, Meddle Not with the Powers of the Earth,

George Fox

Despite being only sixteen pages long, The Peculiar History Of The Sect Known as the Quakers poses a number of questions, who were the Quakers? Why were they persecuted? Why did they stop being radical? How did some of Bristol's Quakers become so rich?

Jim McNeill's excellent pamphlet give partial answers to the above questions and encourages the reader to read around the subject. Even a cursory look at the early history of the Quakers tell us that they were a mass of contradictions. During the English Revolution, the Quakers were closely aligned with other radical groups such as the Levellers and Diggers.

As Alan Cole explains "for nearly thirty years after the defeat of the Levellers at Burford, no political party emerged which could claim the effective support of the English radicals. Throughout this period the main centres of resistance were the Puritan sects and the history of the radical movement of the time, therefore, is closely bound up with the history of religious dissent. It is this fact which lends peculiar interest to the history of the early Quakers. For the rise of the Quakers spans the period from the breach between Cromwell and the radical movement to the emergence of the new Country Party at the end of the 1670's; and conversely, the decline of Quakerism in England may be traced back to the final defeat of the popular movement and the political compromise of 1688. Moreover, the first Quakers had had close connections with the earlier radical movement. Like the Levellers, most of them came from the class of petty traders and handicraftsmen, although it is worth noting that the movement made more headway among the peasantry than the Levellers had done. Over half the early Quaker leaders were directly connected with the land, and throughout the century the movement remained strong in the rural districts of the north and west"[1].

McNeil is one of only a handful of left-wing historians who have examined the Quakers in the context of their role in the English revolution. Christopher Hill’s output on the Quakers was reduced amounted to a lecture at Friends House in London in 1993 and his book The World Turned Upside Down he devoted one chapter which included the Ranters alongside the Quakers. This is not down to a lack of resources. Hill’s limited work on the Quakers contained very little original research.

In many ways, the Quakers are the forgotten radicals of the English revolution. As Jean Hatton[2] points out in her excellent biography, the Quaker leader George Fox is hardly known outside the Quaker movement. If ever a person needed rescuing from the condescension of history, Fox is it.

Mcneill poses an interesting question in his pamphlet? How did an early movement that expressed egalitarian strivings of the more poorer sections of society end up playing such a crucial role in the early development of capitalism? As McNeill points, it was Quakers that founded most of the big banks that now operate like a colossus over the world.

One answer not really explored by McNeill lies in the class nature of the Quakers. While containing some plebian elements, this was essentially a movement in modern terms of what would be the lower middle class. If truth be told, it was mainly the plebian elements that gave the movement its radical edge.

As McNeill points out the early Quaker movement exploded during the English revolution alongside side other radical groups, Seekers, Ranters, Antinomians, Seventh Day Baptists, Soul sleepers, Adamites, Diggers, Levellers, Anabaptists, Mennonites, Behmenists, Muggletonians to name but a few.

In Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down[3] he explains the reasoning behind this explosion of radicalism and a world that was turned upside down, Hill writes: “From, say, 1645 to 1653, there was a great overturning, questioning, revaluing, of everything in England. Old institutions, old beliefs, old values came in question. Men moved easily from one critical group to another, and a Quaker of the early 1650s had far more in common with a Leveller, a Digger, or a Ranter than with a modern member of the Society of Friends”.

It is interesting that Hill's in the book puts the Quakers with the Ranters in his only stand-alone chapter in the book. As Hill points out that Ranters were often confused with Ranters. George Fox leader of the Quakers would spend a large amount of his time trying to distance his movement away from the Ranters.

In 1652 Quakerism was at the height of its power, but from then onwards its radicalism started to wane very badly. As Hill explains the ebbing of the Quaker movement "In time of defeat when the wave of revolution was ebbing, the inner voice became quietist, pacifist. This voice only was recognized by others as God's. God was no longer served by the extravagant gesture, whether Nayler's entry into Bristol or the blasphemy of the Ranters. Once the group decided this way, all the pressures were in the direction of accepting modes of expression not too shocking to the society in which men had to live and earn their living. The radicals were so effectively silenced that we do not know whether many held out in isolation with Milton. We do not even know about Winstanley. But what looked in the Ranter heyday as though it might become a counter-culture became a corner of the bourgeois culture whose occupants asked only to be left alone."

It is no coincidence that its move away from its early radicalism coincided with the rise of capitalism which it played an extremely important part. During the early part of the 18th century and 9th century, Quakers went on to be an indispensable tool in the development of capitalism. They were especially important in the field of technological innovations.  Industrial capitalism would rely heavily on Quaker's inventions. 

As Steven Davison points out "They build many of the key industries, establish many of the most important companies, build its financial infrastructure, develop new modes of organization, and pioneer humane treatment of workers. At the same time that they are engaging the world of business, industry and commerce with incredible energy and invention, they are withdrawing from engagement with the world in virtually every other area of life. Friends maintain this double culture for two hundred years. In England, they become fabulously wealthy; in America, they do pretty well[4].







[1] The Quakers and the English Revolution: Alan Cole -Past & Present, No. 10 (Nov. 1956), pp. 39-54
[2] George Fox: A Biography of the Founder of the Quakers Paperback – 1 Sep 2007-by Jean Hatton
[3] The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (Penguin History) Paperback – 12 Dec 1991
[4] Quakers & Capitalism: A Brief Recap- https://throughtheflamingsword.wordpress.com/2011/09/09/quakers-capitalism-a-brief-recap/