Quaker View of Gambling


Poker GameBy Thomas Clarkson (1806)

[This is taken from Thomas Clarkson’s A Portraiture of Quakerism.]


Section 1.

Games of chance — Quakers forbid cards, dice, and other similar amusements — also, concerns in lotteries — and certain transactions in the stocks — they forbid also all wagers, and speculations by a moneyed stake — the peculiar wisdom of the latter prohibition, as collected from the history of the origin of some of the amusements of the times.

When we consider the depravity of heart, and the misery and ruin, that are frequently connected with gaming, it would be strange indeed, if the Quakers, as highly professing Christians, had not endeavored to extirpate it from their own body.

No people, in fact, have taken more or more effectual measures for its suppression. They have proscribed the use of all games of chance, and of all games of skill, that are connected with chance in any manner. Hence cardsdicehorse-racingcock-fighting, and all the amusements, which come under this definition, are forbidden.

But as there are certain transactions, independently of these amusements, which are equally connected with hazard, and which individuals might convert into the means of moral depravity and temporal ruin, they have forbidden these also, by including them under the appellation of gaming.

Of this description are concerns in the lottery, from which all Quakers are advised to refrain. These include the purchase of tickets, and all insurance upon the same.

In transactions of this kind there is always a moneyed stake, and the issue is dependent upon chance. There is of course the same fascinating stimulus as in cards, or dice, arising from the hope of gain. The mind also must be equally agitated between hope and fear; and the same state of desperation may be produced, with other fatal consequences, in the event of loss.

Buying and selling in the public stocks of the kingdom is, under particular circumstances, discouraged also. Where any of the members of the society buy into the stocks, under the idea, that they are likely to obtain better security, or more permanent advantages, such a transfer of their property is allowable. But if any were to make a practice of buying or selling, week after week, upon speculation only, such a practice would come under the denomination of gaming. In this case, like the preceding, it is evident, that money would be the object in view; that the issue would be hazardous; and, if the stake or deposit were of great importance, the tranquility of the mind might be equally disturbed, and many temporal sufferings might follow.

The Quakers have thought it right, upon the same principle, to forbid the custom of laying wagers upon any occasion whatever, or of reaping advantage from any doubtful event, by a previous agreement upon a moneyed stake. This prohibition, however, is not on record, like the former, but is observed as a traditional law. No Quaker-parent would suffer his child, nor Quaker-schoolmaster the children entrusted to his care, nor any member another, to be concerned in amusements of this kind, without a suitable reproof.

By means of these prohibitions, which are enforced, in a great measure, by the discipline, the Quakers have put a stop to gaming more effectually than others, but particularly by means of the latter. For history has shown us, that we cannot always place a reliance on a mere prohibition of any particular amusement or employment, as a cure for gaming, because any pastime or employment, however innocent in itself, may be made an instrument for its designs. There are few customs, however harmless, which avarice cannot convert into the means of rapine on the one hand, and of distress on the other.

Many of the games, which are now in use with such pernicious effects to individuals, were not formerly the instruments of private ruin.  Horse-racing was originally instituted with a view of promoting a better breed of horses for the services of man. Upon this principle it was continued. It afforded no private emolument to any individual. The by-standers were only spectators. They were not interested in the victory. The victor himself was remunerated not with money, but with crowns and garlands, the testimonies of public applause. But the spirit of gaming got hold of the custom, and turned it into a private diversion, which was to afford the opportunity of a private prize.

Cock-fighting, as we learn from Ælian, was instituted by the Athenians, immediately after their victory over the Persians, to perpetuate the memory of the event, and to stimulate the courage of the youth of Greece in the defense of their own freedom; and it was continued upon the same principle, or as a public institution for a public good. But the spirit of avarice seized it, as it has done the custom of horse-racing, and continued it for a private gain.

Cards, that is, European cards, were, as all are agreed, of an harmless origin. Charles the sixth, of France, was particularly afflicted with hypochondriac maladies. While in this disordered state, one of his subjects invented them, to give variety of amusement to his mind. From the court they passed into private families. And here the same avaricious spirit fastened upon them, and, with its cruel talons, clawed them, as it were, to its own purposes, not caring how much these little instruments of cheerfulness in human disease were converted into instruments for the extension of human pain.

In the same manner as the spirit of gaming has seized upon these different institutions and amusements of antiquity, and turned them from their original to new and destructive uses, so there is no certainty, that it will not seize upon others, which may have been innocently resorted to, and prostitute them equally with the former. The mere prohibition of particular amusements, even if it could be enforced, would be no cure for the evil. The brain of man is fertile enough, as fast as one custom is prohibited, to fix upon another. And if all the games, now in use, were forbidden, it would be still fertile enough to invent others for the same purposes. The bird that flies in the air, and the snail, that crawls upon the ground, have not escaped the notice of the gamester, but have been made, each of them, subservient to his pursuits. The wisdom, therefore, of the Quakers, in making it to be considered as a law of the society, that no member is to lay wagers, or reap advantage from any doubtful event, by a previous agreement upon a moneyed stake, is particularly conspicuous. For, whenever it can be enforced, it must be an effectual cure for gaming. For we have no idea, how a man can gratify his desire of gain by means of any of the amusements of chance, if he can make no moneyed arrangements about their issue.


Section 2.

The first argument for the prohibition of cards, and of similar amusements, by the Quakers, is—that they are below the dignity of the intellect of man, and of his moral and Christian character—sentiments of Addison on this subject.


The reasons, which the Quakers give for the prohibition of cards, and of amusements of a similar nature, to the members of their own society, are generally such as are given by other Christians, though they make use of one, which is peculiar to themselves.

It has been often observed, that the word amusement is proper to characterize the employments of children, but that the word utility is the only one proper to characterize the employment of men.

The first argument of the Quakers, on this subject, is of a complexion, similar to that of the observation just mentioned. For when they consider man, as a reasonable being, they are of opinion, that his occupations should be rational. And when they consider him as making a profession of the Christian religion, they expect that his conduct should be manly, serious, and dignified. But all such amusements, as those in question, if resorted to for the filling up of his vacant hours, they conceive to be unworthy of his intellect, and to be below the dignity of his Christian character.

They believe also, when they consider man as a moral being, that it is his duty, as it is unquestionably his interest, to aim at the improvement of his moral character. Now one of the foundations, on which this improvement must be raised, is knowledge. But knowledge is only slowly acquired. And human life, or the time for the acquisition of it, is but short. It does not appear, therefore, in the judgment of the Quakers, that a person can have much time for amusements of this sort, if he be bent upon obtaining that object, which will be most conducive to his true happiness, or to the end of his existence here.

Upon this first argument of the Quakers I shall only observe, lest it should be thought singular, that sentiments of a similar import are to be found in authors, of a different religious denomination, and of acknowledged judgment and merit. Addison, in one of his excellent chapters on the proper employment of life, has the following observation: “The next method, says he, that I would propose to fill up our time should be innocent and useful diversions. I must confess I think it is below reasonable creatures, to be altogether conversant in such diversions, as are merely innocent, and have nothing else to recommend them, but that there is no hurt in them. Whether any kind of gaming has even thus much to say for itself I shall not determine: but I think it is very wonderful to see persons of the best sense passing a dozen hours together in shuffling and dividing a pack of cards, with no other conversation, but what is made up of a few game-phrases, and no other ideas, but those of red or black spots ranged together in different figures. Would not a man laugh to hear any one of this species complaining that life is short?”


Section 3.

Cards on account of the manner in which they are generally used, produce an excitement of the passions—historical anecdotes of this excitement—this excitement another cause of their prohibition by the Quakers, because it unfits the mind, according to their notions, for the reception of religious impressions.


The Quakers are not so superstitious as to imagine that there can be any evil in cards, considered abstractedly as cards, or in some of the other amusements, that have been mentioned. The red or the black images on their surfaces can neither pollute the fingers, nor the minds, of those who handle them. They may be moved about, and dealt in various ways, and no objectionable consequences may follow. They nay be used, and this innocently, to construct the similitude of things. They may be arranged, so as to exhibit devices, which may be productive of harmless mirth. The evil, connected with them, will depend solely upon the manner of their use. If they are used for a trial of skill, and for this purpose only, they will be less dangerous, than where they are used for a similar trial, with a moneyed stake. In the former case, however, they may be made to ruffle the temper, for, in the very midst of victory, the combatant may experience defeat. In the latter case, the loss of victory will be accompanied by a pecuniary loss, and two causes, instead of one, of the excitement of the passions, will operate at once upon the mind.

It seldom happens, and it is much to be lamented, either that children, or that more mature persons, are satisfied with amusements of this kind, so as to use them simply as trials of skill. A moneyed stake is usually proposed, as the object to be obtained. This general attachment of a moneyed victory to cards is productive frequently of evil. It generates often improper feelings. It gives birth to uneasiness and impatience, while the contest is in doubt, and not infrequently to anger and resentment, when it is over.

But the passions, which are thus excited among youth, are excited also, but worked up to greater mischief, where grown up persons follow these amusements imprudently, than where children are concerned. For though avarice, and impatience, and anger, are called forth among children, they subside sooner. A boy, though he loses his all when he loses his stake, suffers nothing from the idea of having impaired the means of his future comfort, and independence. His next week’s allowance, or the next little gift, will set him right again. But when a grown up person, who is settled in the world, is led on by these fascinating amusements, so as to lose that which would be of importance to his present comfort, but more particularly to the happiness of his future life, the case is materially altered. The same passions, which harass the one, will harass the other, but the effects will be widely different. I have been told that persons have been so agitated before the playing of the card, that was to decide their destiny, that large drops of sweat have fallen from their faces, though they were under no bodily exertions. Now, what must have been the state of their minds, when the card in question proved decisive of their loss? Reason must unquestionably have fled. And it must have been succeeded instantly either by fury or despair. It would not have been at all wonderful, if persons in such a state were to have lost their senses, or, if unable to contain themselves, they were immediately to have vented their enraged feelings either upon themselves, or upon others, who were the authors, or the spectators, of their loss.

It is not necessary to have recourse to the theory of the human mind, to anticipate the consequences, that would be likely to result to grown up persons from such an extreme excitement of the passions. History has given a melancholy picture of these, as they have been observable among different nations of the world.

The ancient Germans, according to Tacitus, played to such desperation, that, when they had lost every thing else, they staked their personal liberty, and, in the event of bad fortune, became the slaves of the winners.

Disraeli, in his curiosities of literature, has given us the following account. “Dice, says he, and that little pugnacious animal, the cock, are the chief instruments employed by the numerous nations of the east, to agitate their minds, and ruin their fortunes, to which the Chinese, who are desperate gamesters, add the use of cards. When all other property is played away, the Asiatic gambler does not scruple to stake his wife, or his child, on the cast of a dye, or on the strength and courage of a martial bird. If still unsuccessful, the last venture is himself.”

“In the island of Ceylon, cock-fighting is carried to a great height.  The Sumatrans are addicted to the use of dice. A strong spirit of play characterizes the Malayan. After having resigned every thing to the good fortune of the winner, he is reduced to a horrid state of desperation.  He then loosens a certain lock of hair, which indicates war and destruction to all he meets. He intoxicates himself with opium, and working himself to a fit of frenzy, he bites and kills every one, who comes in his way. But as soon as ever this lock is seen flowing, it is lawful to fire at the person, and to destroy him as soon as possible.”

“To discharge their gambling debts, the Siamese sell their possessions, their families, and at length themselves. The Chinese play night and day, till they have lost all they are worth, and then they usually go and hang themselves. In the newly discovered islands of the Pacific Ocean, they venture even their hatchets, which they hold as invaluable acquisitions, on running matches. We saw a man, says Cooke, in his last voyage, beating his breast and tearing his hair in the violence of rage, for having lost three hatchets at one of these races, and which he had purchased with nearly half of his property.”

But it is not necessary to go beyond our own country for a confirmation of these evils. Civilized as we are beyond all the people who have been mentioned, and living where the Christian religion is professed, we have the misfortune to see our own countrymen engaged in similar pursuits, and equally to the disturbance of the tranquility of their minds, and equally to their own ruin. They cannot, it is true, stake their personal liberty, because they can neither sell themselves, nor be held as slaves. But we see them staking their comfort, and all their prospects in life. We see them driven into a multitude of crimes. We see them suffering in a variety of ways. How often has dueling, with all its horrible effects, been the legitimate offspring of gaming! How many suicides have proceeded from the same source! How many persons in consequence of a violation of the laws, occasioned solely by gaming, have come to ignominious and untimely ends!

Thus it appears that gaming, wherever it has been practiced to excess, whether by cards, or by dice, or by other instruments, or whether among nations civilized or barbarous, or whether in ancient or modern times, has been accompanied with the most violent excitement of the passions, so as to have driven its votaries to desperation, and to have ruined their morality and their happiness.

It is upon the excitement of the passions, which must have risen to a furious height, before such desperate actions as those, which have been specified, could have commenced, that the Quakers have founded their second argument for the prohibition of games of chance, or of any amusements or transactions, connected with a moneyed stake. It is one of their principal tenets, as will be diffusively shown in a future volume, that the supreme Creator of the universe affords a certain portion of his own spirit, or a certain emanation of the pure principle, to all his rational creatures, for the regulation of their spiritual concerns. They believe, therefore, that stillness and quietness, both of spirit and of body, are necessary for them, as far as these can be obtained. For how can a man, whose earthly passions are uppermost, be in a fit state to receive, or a man of noisy and turbulent habits be in a fit state to attend to, the spiritual admonitions of this pure influence? Hence one of the first points in the education of the Quakers is to attend to the subjugation of the will; to take care that every perverse passion be checked; and that the creature be rendered calm and passive. Hence Quaker children are rebuked for all expressions of anger, as tending to raise those feelings, which ought to be suppressed. A raising even of their voices beyond due bounds is discouraged, as leading to the disturbance of their minds. They are taught to rise in the morning in quietness, to go about their ordinary occupations with quietness, and to retire in quietness to their beds. Educated in this manner, we seldom see a noisy or an irascible Quaker. This kind of education is universal among the Quakers. It is adopted at home. It is adopted in their schools. The great and practical philanthropist, John Howard, when he was at Ackworth, which is the great public school of the Quakers, was so struck with the quiet deportment of the children there, that he mentioned it with approbation in his work on Lazarettos, and gave to the public some of its rules, as models for imitation in other seminaries.

But if the Quakers believe that this pure principle, when attended to, is an infallible guide to them in their religious or spiritual concerns; if they believe that its influences are best discovered in the quietness and silence of their senses; if, moreover, they educate with a view of producing such a calm and tranquil state; it must be obvious, that they can never allow either to their children, or to those of maturer years, the use of any of the games of chance, because these, on account of their peculiar nature, are so productive of sudden fluctuations of hope, and fear, and joy, and disappointment, that they are calculated, more than any other, to promote a turbulence of the human passions.


Section 4.

Another cause of their prohibition is, that, if indulged in, they may produce habits of gaming—these habits after the moral character-they occasion men to become avaricious—dishonest—cruel—and disturbers of the order of nature—observations by Hartley from his essay on man.

Another reason, why the Quakers do not allow their members the use of cards, and of similar amusements, is, that, if indulged in, they may produce habits of gaming, which, if once formed, generally ruin the moral character.

It is in the nature of cards, that chance should have the greatest share in the production of victory, and there is, as I have observed before, usually a moneyed stake. But where chance is concerned, neither victory nor defeat can be equally distributed among the combatants. If a person wins, he feels himself urged to proceed. The amusement also points out to him the possibility of a sudden acquisition of fortune without the application of industry. If he loses, he does not despair. He still perseveres in the contest, for the amusement points out to him the possibility of repairing his loss. In short, there is no end of hope upon these occasions. It is always hovering about during the contest.  Cards, therefore, and amusements of the same nature, by holding up prospects of pecuniary acquisitions on the one hand, and of repairing losses, that may arise on any occasion, on the other, have a direct tendency to produce habits of gaming.

Now the Quakers consider these habits as, of all others, the most pernicious; for they usually change the disposition of a man, and ruin his moral character.

From generous-hearted they make him avaricious. The covetousness too, which they introduce as it were into his nature, is of a kind, that is more than ordinarily injurious. It brings disease upon the body, as it brings corruption upon the mind. Habitual gamesters regard neither their own health, nor their own personal convenience, but will sit up night after night, though under bodily indisposition, at play, if they can only grasp the object of their pursuit.

From a just and equitable they often render him a dishonest person.  Professed gamesters, it is well known, lie in wait for the young, the ignorant, and the unwary: and they do not hesitate to adopt fraudulent practices to secure them as their prey. Intoxication has been also frequently resorted to for the same purpose.

From humane and merciful they change him into hard hearted and barbarous. Habitual gamesters have compassion foe neither men nor brutes. The former they can ruin and leave destitute, without the sympathy of a tear. The latter they can oppress to death, calculating the various powers of their declining strength, and their capability of enduring pain.

They convert him from an orderly to a disorderly being, and to a disturber of the order of the universe. Professed gamesters sacrifice every thing, without distinction, to their wants, not caring if the order of nature, or if the very ends of creation, be reversed. They turn day into night, and night into day. They force animated nature into situations for which it was never destined. They lay their hands upon things innocent and useful, and make them noxious. They by hold of things barbarous, and render them still more barbarous by their pollutions.

Hartley, in his essay upon man, has the following observation upon gaming.

“The practice of playing at games of chance and skill is one of the principal amusements of life. And it may be thought hard to condemn it as absolutely unlawful, since there are particular cases of persons, infirm in body and mind, where it seems requisite to draw them out of themselves by a variety of ideas and ends in view, which gently engage the attention.—But the reason takes place in very few instances.—The general motives to play are avarice, joined with a fraudulent intention explicit or implicit, ostentation of skill, and spleen, through the want of some serious, useful occupation. And as this practice arises from such corrupt sources, so it has a tendency to increase them; and indeed may be considered as an express method of begetting and inculcating self-interest, ill will, envy, and the like. For by gaming a man learns to pursue his own interest solely and explicitly, and to rejoice at the loss of others, as his own gain, grieve at their gain, as his own loss, thus entirely reversing the order established by providence for social creatures.”