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Early Quakers in business: looking back with Karen Tibbals


Karen Tibbals has what Quakers call a leading: Bring together Friends who have hearts and minds for business. Together with Chiyo Moriuchi, Lisa Smith, and all the volunteers they could muster, Karen is convening the first U.S. forum for Quakers and Business. The Quakers and Business Forum will gather from Friday, 27 June–Sunday, 29 June at California University of Pennsylvania in California, Pennsylvania, and registration just opened last week.

Tibbals is a marketing research professional from the pharmaceutical industry, and she just completed her thesis for a Masters in Religion as a student at Earlham School of Religion. The focus of her research has been the history and theology of Quakers in business.

Tibbals uncovered significant details that are not widely known among Friends or beyond, and she has shared some of her findings in previous workshops at FGC’s Gathering and ESR’s Leadership Conference. This year she plans to lead a new workshop at the Gathering, entitlded Early Quakers in Business

This workshop will focus on the changes that Friends made to their business practices in the first 100 years of Quaker existence and the beliefs that were behind those practices. Those changes can be summarized as one price, honest weights and measures, and a very elaborate and involved set of practices concerning debt and how to avoid defaulting on their debts.

That all Friends that have callings and trades, do labour in the thing that is good, in faithfulness and uprightness, and keep to their yea and nay in all their communications: and that all who are indebted to the world, endeavour to discharge the same, that nothing they may owe to any man but love one to another.
The Epistle from the Elders at Balby, 1656

But Tibbals’s thesis goes into much more detail about the beliefs behind their businesses, how they justified their success and how it changed in the early 20th century. The early Society of Friends was a prototype for what Max Weber’s called the Protestant work ethic: Quakers believed in having both an earthly and a spiritual calling, and considered success in business a blessing from God for industriousness. Friends were permitted to become wealthy provided that [1] their riches were earned from disciplined honest work (as opposed to, say, gambling), [2] they lived simply (Weber’s “asceticism”), and [3] they gave their surplus to the poor.

That third point was overlooked by Weber: Quakers used the money they earned to provide for the poor, both within the Quaker world and without. Success in business wasn't just for the success itself: it was for the good they could do in the world.

Interestingly, in Bourgeois Dignity, Deirdre McCloskey points out the contrast between Quaker theology and Weber’s Protestant ethic as “a psychological change emerging from the [Calvinist] doctrine of predestination”:

…such a connection between Calvinist orthodoxy and business psychology has been repeatedly demolished since Weber wrote (I repeat: he himself dropped the hypothesis after 1905). Quakers entertained no such anxiety-provoking doctrine, but were famously successful in business, at any rate after the orthodox Calvinists stopped hanging them on Boston Common [McCloskey 145]

In any case, Tibbals notes that this business-positive belief system changed in the early 20th century, when socialist reformers within London Yearly Meeting called for implementation of socialist principles. This culminated in the adoption of the eight “Foundations of a True Social Order [PDF]” in 1918 by London Yearly Meeting. (Cf. “Quakers and Capitalism—Transition” by Steven Davison)

I look forward to delving into Karen’s thesis in more detail. Her efforts to recount the ethic of early Quakers in business, to bring that ethic into the conversation with contemporary Friends, and to realize that ethic in businesses that serve humanity, harmonize with my central interests for this blog. It is a blessing to find others who share this passion, and I expect to learn a lot from her.

Karen's effort to launch the Quakers and Business Forum is also very exciting to me. While I appreciate both the intellectual discipline and moral accoutability invited by her historical analysis, this forum represents a concrete effort to revive the heritage of business as a spiritual calling among Friends, for the good we can do in the world.