Quakers and Capitalism in the Nineteenth Century

Have Quakers always championed workers in their struggle with their capitalist bosses? Surprisingly, the answer is “no, they have not” as you will discover in this excerpt from The Philadelphia Quakers in the Industrial Age 1865 -1920 by Philip S. Benjamin:


This image depicts the destruction of Pullman cars in response to industrialist, George Pullman, laying off workers and slashing wages during an economic downturn.

Literary flights involving descriptions of arcadian beauty appealed to many Quakers who found the problem of urban life too depressing or too difficult of solution. But others demanded more realism on the subject. Haverford professor Rufus Jones tried to persuade Friends that a rural environment was no “Garden of Eden. But though he warned that rural religious life was “lower” than most people supposed, Jones had to admit that Quakerism was better adapted to rural communities than large urban centers. While the 1904 editors of The Friends’ Intelligencer viewed rural life and farming as ideals, they argued, like Jones, that Quakers had been satisfied to condemn the city instead of trying to save it. Because most people lived in the cities out of necessity, the editors believed it better to improve housing and sanitary conditions instead of trying to move people out to vacant land. Their demand for more serious study of urban economic and social conditions reflected the influence of the Progressive forces at work in the social settlements. [Editor’s note: Couldn’t the same be said today about the contemporary Quaker’s alacrity to criticize the business world but reluctance to engage in it. If you abandon a key post in society, then do you have the right to criticize the conduct of those who occupy it?]

We have already seen how the commercial temper of the modern city challenged the tenets of the Quaker business ethic. But the danger s Friends saw in industrial Philadelphia were not confined to the banks and brokerage houses of Center City. The great mass of the laboring classes which populated the rapidly growing area north of Spring Garden Street as well as the mean row house districts of South Philadelphia posed further worries for those who hankered after a smaller, more socially homogeneous city. The old deference of working men to their employers in a simpler era gave way to harsh confrontations between organized laborers and management. The critical spirit which Friends had developed toward postwar commercial leaders did not predispose them to take the side of the workingmen in clashes over wages and working conditions. They were truly devoted to the Gospel of Work, believing it to be the fountain of all human intelligence without which men would easily be demoralized. When the labor union leaders began to talk about an eight-hour day, Friends began to worry over the appearance of this demand of “an underlying assumption that labor is an undesirable thing.” Friends may have opposed economic expansion which was too rapid, but their commitment the concept of production itself was strong enough enough to prompt them to view any strike as an immoral interference with man’s basic economic function. They deplored work stoppages because they deprived laborers in related industries from gaining a livelihood. They fretted too over capital denied the opportunity to earn a profit in strike periods.

Friends’ love of pacific relations strengthened their antilabor predisposition. As workers rioted against railroad wage cuts by destroying property and battling with police, what sympathy there was for their cause in Quaker circles evaporated. Some in Philadelphia began to think of workers as an anarchic bomb bent on pillage and destructions; they even favored brute force and weaponry as the only way to check the violence. And their anger led some to urge the death penalty for convicted rioters. Yet Philadelphia in these years experienced only the mildest sorts of labor strife as “law and order” forces in the city government employed large numbers of police to confront strikers. More in line with pacific Quaker ideals was the suggestion that arbitration be used to settle labor disputes. Rufus Jones urged this solution during the railroad strike of 1894, although he viewed the workers’ tactics as “ill advised and radically wrong.” A decade and a half later, when a transit strike against the Philadelphia Transportation Company crippled the city, Jones served on a special panel of religious leaders which recommended settlement by arbitration. With such procedures older Orthodox Friends had no sympathy. The aging Joshua Baily believed that the P.T.C. could employ anyone it wished and discharge workers whenever it thought necessary. He declared that the employees of Joshua L. Baily & Company were not permitted to dictate how he ran his business; if they tried, he would quickly replace them.

While considerable agreement with such conservative views could be found in most Protestant churches in the late nineteenth century, a small minority of churchmen grew more sympathetic to labor in the wake of the force used against strikers. It prompted even some to question the capitalist system. Within Philadelphia Quakerism hardly anyone doubted the efficacy of that system until the twentieth century.         

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