Common section

Image Delaware Work Ways: Quaker Ideas of Cumber and Calling

If Quakers made play into work, they also made work into a form of worship. Their attitudes toward work in general, and also their accustomed work ways were as distinctive as their ideas on most other subjects. Here again, their customs were introduced to the Delaware Valley within the first generation of settlement. In conjunction with similar folkways among German pietists, these practices became the basis of a regional economy which differed from New England and the Chesapeake.

One important component of this regional culture was an attitude which strongly encouraged industry and condemned idleness. William Penn, visiting an Irish prison in 1669, found that the Quakers confined there were toiling away in their cells at work of their own devising—and the rhythm of their work was interrupted only for worship. “The jail,” he wrote, “by that means became a meeting-house and a work-house, for they would not be idle anywhere.”1

This ethic of industry was reinforced by the idea of serving God with one’s best talents. John Woolman wrote, “ … our duty and interest are inseparably united, and when we neglect or misuse our talents, we necessarily depart from the heavenly fellowship.” This idea had developed from Martin Luther’s concept of the calling (beruf), which had an important place in the cultural thinking of many Protestant denominations. It was exceptionally strong among the Quakers.2

Yet another important idea was “discipline,” a word which often appeared in Quaker writings. The diaries of Friends in England and America tended to take the form of spiritual exercises in which Quakers attempted to acquire absolute dominion over their acts. An example was a young English lad named John Kelsall, who at the age of fourteen had “a great conflict concerning sleeping and a drowzy spirit in meetings. I was sometimes sorely beset with it, and much adoe I had to get over it. … Sometimes I would take pins and prick myself, often rise up and sometimes go out of doors, yea I would set myself with all the strength I could get against it.”3

Also important was an attitude which encouraged extreme austerity. The Quakers, more than any major Protestant denomination, fostered a style of life which Max Weber called worldly asceticism—the idea of living in the world but not of it. Work itself became a sacrament, and idleness a deadly sin. Wealth was not to be consumed in opulent display, but rather to be saved, invested, turned to constructive purposes. Restraints were placed upon indulgence. The most extended form of this belief was to be found not among the Puritans with whom it is often associated, but among the Quakers.

But the Weber thesis is much too simple to capture the complexity of Quaker thinking about work. An important theme in Quaker journals, even of highly successful merchants and manufacturers, was that business should not be overvalued. This had been the warning of George Fox:

There is the danger and temptation to you of drawing your minds into your business, and clogging them with it, so that ye can hardly do anything to the service of God, but there will be crying, my business, my business! And your minds will go into the things and not over the things.4

Quaker diarists were constantly reminding themselves to “live more free from outward cumbers,” as John Woolman phrased it. The idea of “cumber” was an interesting one, which often recurred in Quaker thinking. Thomas Chalkley tried to strike the balance in a sentence. “We have liberty for God, and his dear Son, lawfully, and for accommodation’s sake, to work or seek for food or raiment; tho’ that ought to be a work of indifferency, compared to the first work of salvation.”5

These attitudes may on balance have provided a more solid ethical foundation for capitalist enterprise than the more monistic attitudes that Max Weber attributed to the Quakers.6

Further, Quakers also insisted that business ethics must be maintained at the highest level of honesty. Monthly meetings appointed committees to monitor the business ethics of members. In 1711, for example, the York quarterly meeting agreed:

It is desired by this meeting that each monthly meeting take care that two honest friends be appointed in every particular meeting to inspect friends’ faithfulness to truth in the several testimonies thereof, and especially touching friends dealings in commerce and trading, in order to prevent any from contracting and running into more or greater debts than they can make payment of in due time, or launch out into matters in the world beyond their abilities, nor be overmuch going with their desire for earthly things.7

Members of Quaker meetings on both sides of the Atlantic were disciplined for “dishonest dealing.” In Break meeting, a Friend named Luke Hanks was disowned for “breaking his word time after time in his trade.” Many of these proceedings dealt with members who failed for one reason or another to pay their debts. The Quakers had a horror of debt, which they felt to be a palpable evil in the world. Falling into debt beyond one’s ability was regarded as a moral failing of the first degree.8

At the same time, Quakers also condemned the spirit of avarice in creditors. William Penn gave much attention to this in his advice to his children—who stood specially in need of it. “Cov-etousness is the greatest of monsters,” wrote Penn. “A man … [who] lived up to his chin in [money] bags … is felo de se and deserves not a Christian burial.” It is interesting that Penn also condemned the miser as “a common nuisance, a weir across the stream that stops the current, an obstruction to be removed by a purge of the law.”9

In all of these ways, the ethics of the Quakers condemned unrestrained capitalist enterprise, and put narrow limits upon its operation. Nevertheless, Quaker beliefs provided a strong support for industrial and commercial activity. So also in more tangible ways did the structure of the Society of Friends. Quakers tended to help one another. They loaned money at lower rates of interest to believers than to nonbelievers, and sometimes charged no interest at all “to those who have no capital of themselves and may be inclined to begin something.”10 It is interesting that Quakers also developed systems of insurance against commercial risks, and played a major role in the development of the insurance industry. The oldest business corporation still existing in America was the Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire—founded in 1752, and incorporated in 1768.11

International ties throughout the Atlantic world also gave Quaker merchants many advantages in the eighteenth century. “By virtue of their commercial, religious, personal and family contacts,” historian Frederick Tolles writes, “the Philadelphia Quakers were in close touch with the entire north Atlantic world from Nova Scotia to Curacao and from Hamburg to Lisbon.”12

In all of these ways, the Quakers provided an ethical and cultural environment which strongly supported industrial and capitalist development. Frederick Tolles writes from long acquaintance with the records of Quaker capitalists, “One is probably justified suggesting that in the conduct of business, the Quaker merchants were extremely cautious and prudent, meticulously accurate in details, and insistent upon others being so. It is not difficult to understand how men who exhibited these traits in their commercial dealings (no matter how generous and sympathetic as individuals and friends) should have acquired a reputation for driving a hard bargain.”13

In England Quakers played a role far beyond their numbers in the industrial revolution. The great banking houses of England were those of Quakers. The largest private bank in Britain was developed by descendants of the great Quaker writer Robert Barclay. Lloyd’s Bank was also owned by Quakers, together with


Attitudes toward time, work, and land among English Quakers and German Pietists appeared in the buildings that still stand on many Pennsylvania farms. Settlers in other cultural regions threw together temporary wooden buildings with the utmost economy of time and materials. On Pennsylvania farms, even the smallest outbuildings were built for the ages, with heavy stone walls and strong slate roofs. These structures combined simplicity of design with a concern for permanence that was very rare in other cultures of Anglo-America. Quakers and Pietists took a long view of their temporal condition. They husbanded their land, which today after three centuries of cultivation is still the most fertile acreage in the eastern United States. Their solid stone houses, barns and even small outbuildings still stand as monuments to a world view that was an important part of their folkways.

many financial houses in the City of London. Industrial enterprise in the north of England was also often organized and run by Quakers.14

The same thing happened in the New World. Quakers founded the first bank in British America, and made Philadelphia the most important capital market in the New World until the emergence of New York in the early nineteenth century. From the beginning, the Delaware Valley also became a hive of industry—more so than New England. Even before the founding of Pennsylvania, the Quakers who settled in New Jersey created an extraordinarily complex industrial economy within a few years of their arrival. One observer reported in 1681, “ … they have also coopers, smiths, bricklayers, wheelwrights, plowrights and millwrights, ship carpenters and other trades, which work upon what the country produces for manufactories. … There are iron-houses, and a Furnace and Forging Mill already set up in East-Jersey, where they make iron.”15 Another wrote in 1698 that in the Quaker communities of Burlington and Salem, “cloth workers were making very good serges, druggets, crapes, camblets, plushes and other woolen cloths. Entire families [are] engaged in such manufactures, using wool and linen of their own raising.”16 Both the North Midlands of England and the middle colonies of Pennsylvania and New Jersey became the industrial heartlands of their nations.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!