Friday, 1 July 2016

Quaker tradition and inequality

It is not clear to me that Quakers have a traditional objection to social or economic inequality. The principle of eldership and church discipline, which as I have said in my blog about Farnsworth dates from 1666, is not consistent with a strict equality. In addition, consider the words of Isaac Pennington (QF&P 23.74) "This is the true ground of love and unity, not that [...] a man walks and does just as I do, but because I feel the same spirit and life in him, and that he walks in his rank, in his own order, in his proper way." Pennington's talk of ranks and orders is feudal not socialist.  Too much can be read into the refusal of hat honour, which is best known through Thomas Ellwood's acts of adolescent rebelliousness recounted in Quaker Faith & Practice (19.16, 19.40).  If we look at Fox's 59 Particulars, which I have blogged about separately, we find Fox objecting to fines for the refusal to doff the hat in court rather than insisting, as Ellwood seems to have done, on giving offence for its own sake.  Fox's objection to hat honour seems more to do with his objections to corrupt law courts and to the vice of extravagant dress than to an insistence that everyone should be equal in all social and economic respects.  Objections to vice and corruption are commonplaces of religious discourse and, in the case of the early Quakers, reflect the influence on them of contemporary Puritanism, however much the Quakers may have differed with the Puritans in political and theological matters. In his Journal Fox recounts how he took action in the courst against employers who were 'oppressing' their servants in their wages.  Again, his concern seems more with legal justice and equality before the law than with strict financial equality.  His favourite target, apart from 'physicians' (whom these days we would call scientists) and paid clergy are lawyers, who are 'out of equity, out of the true justice and out of the law of God'.  Equality before God and equality before the law are for Fox related notions.  He extolls help for the poor but out of traditional ideas of charity and philanthropy rather than justice, which he conceives in legal rather than socio-economic terms.

Like their Puritan contemporaries, Quakers had no objection to the possession of wealth per se as long as riches were used ethically. The testimony of simplicity is not a vow of poverty.  Margaret Fell, Robert Barclay and William Penn were all well to do.  The genius of Fox and Fell lay not just in their spiritual energy but in their practical work, in their protecting and promoting Quakerism by acquiring land, building meeting houses and setting up administrative structures. They and the other early Quakers were religious and social entrepreneurs, not proto-socialists.  I have blogged elsewhere about how the work of the great Marxist historian Christopher Hill has tended to lead to an over-emphasis on the political radicalism of the early Quakers.  In religious terms they were in a long line of reformers, who sought to revert the church to the simplicity and communitarianism of the early Christians.  Despite Fox's provocative behaviour, the Quakers' exalted religious language was metaphorical and spiritual rather than a call to political revolution.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Mark, for this good post. The eQs sought equality in God rather than in the world, though to strive for it in the world was certainly a measure of their orthopraxis of the Kingdom of God, their central focus. This orthopraxis, the Lamb's War, did have political ramifications such as their support of many provisions of the Good Old Cause.

    I agree with your analysis here of Hill who viewed the eQs as proto-Marxists along with the likes of G. Winstanley. For Hill they were not pacifists. Of course, he is right in this respect because 'pacifist/ism' is a much later developmemt; rather, they were nonviolent in accordance with the Kingdom. Yes, there were a small no. of eQs in the militias etc., but their influence has been greatly exaggerated by Cole, Hill and Reay in perticular. David Boulton (and to a lesser extent L. Ingle and R. Moore) is of the same mind. Fox and the leading Friends were content to leave it to the Light in the consciences of these people to lead them to the same s/Spirit that informed the 1661 declaration to Charles II. My chapter 12 in "The Early Quakers and the 'Kingdom of God'" outlines this process in detail.