Quaker Trade

By Thomas Clarkson (1806)


Trade—Trade seldom considered as a question of morals—But Quakers view it in this light—Prohibit the slave-trade—Privateering --Manufactories of weapons of war—Also trade where the revenue is defrauded—Hazardous enterprises—Fictitious paper—Insist upon punctuality to words and engagements—Advise an annual inspection of their own affairs—Regulations in case of bankruptcy.  

I stated in the last chapter, that some of the Quakers, though these were few in number, were manufacturers and mechanics; that others followed the sea; that, others were to be found in the medical profession, and in the law; and that others were occupied in the concerns of a rural life. I believe with these few exceptions, that the rest of the society may be considered as engaged in trade.

Trade is a subject, which seldom comes under the discussion of mankind as a moral question. If men who follow it, are honest and punctual in their dealings, little is thought of the nature of their occupations, or of the influence of these upon their minds. It will hardly, however, be denied by moralists, that the buying and selling of commodities for profit, is surrounded with temptation, and is injurious to pure, benevolent, or disinterested feelings; or that where the mind is constantly intent upon the gaining of wealth, by traffic, it is dangerously employed. Much less will it be denied, that trade is an evil, if any of the branches of it through which men acquire their wealth, are productive of mischief either to themselves or others. If they are destructive to the health of the inferior agents, or to the morality of any of the persons concerned in them, they can never be sanctioned by Christianity.

The Quakers have thought it their duty, as a religious body, to make several regulations on this subject.

In the first place they have made it a rule, that no person, acknowledged to be in profession with them, shall have any concern in the slave-trade.

The Quakers began to consider this subject, as a Christian body, so early as in the beginning of the last century. In the year 1727, they passed a public censure upon this trade. In the year 1758, and afterwards in the year 1761, they warned and exhorted all in profession with them “to keep their hands clear of this unrighteous gain of oppression.” In the yearly meeting of 1763, they renewed their exhortation in the following words: “We renew our exhortation, that Friends every where be especially careful to keep their hands clear of giving encouragement in any shape to the slave-trade; it being evidently destructive of the natural rights of mankind, who are all ransomed by one Savior, and visited by one divine light in order to salvation; a traffic calculated to enrich and aggrandize some upon the miseries of others; in its nature abhorrent to every just and tender sentiment, and contrary to the whole tenor of the Gospel.”

In the same manner, from the year 1763, they have publicly manifested a tender concern for the happiness of the injured Africans, and they have not only been vigilant to see that none of their own members were concerned in this impious traffic, but they have lent their assistance with other Christians in promoting its discontinuance.

They have forbidden also the trade of privateering in war. The Quakers consider the capture of private vessels by private persons, as a robbery committed on the property of others, which no human authority can make reconcilable to the consciences of honest individuals. And upon this motive they forbid it, as well as upon that of their known profession against war.

They forbid also the trade of the manufacturing of gun-powder, and of arms or weapons of war, such as swords, guns, pistols, bayonets, and the like, that they may stand clear of the charge of having made any instrument, the avowed use of which is the destruction of human life.

They have forbidden also all trade, that has for its object the defrauding of the king either of his customs or his excise. They are not only not to smuggle themselves, but they are not to deal in such goods as they know, or such as they even suspect, to be smuggled; nor to buy any article of this description, even for their private use. This prohibition is enjoined, because all Christians ought “to render to Caesar the things that are Caesars,” in all cases where their consciences do not suffer by doing it: because those, who are accessory to smuggling, give encouragement to perjury and bloodshed, these being frequently the attendants of such unlawful practices; and because they do considerable injury to the honest trader.

They discourage also concerns in “hazardous enterprises,” in the way of trade. Such enterprises are apt to disturb the tranquility of the mind, and to unfit if for religious exercise. They may involve also the parties concerned, and their families, in ruin. They may deprive them again of the means of paying their just debts, and thus render them injurious to their creditors. Members, therefore, are advised to be rather content with callings which may produce small but certain profits, than to hazard the tranquility of their minds, and the property of themselves and others.

In the exercise of those callings which are deemed lawful by the society, two things are insisted upon: first, that their members “never raise and circulate any fictitious kind of paper credit, with endorsements and acceptances, to give it an appearance of value without an intrinsic reality:” secondly, that they should be particularly attentive to their words, and to the punctual performance of their engagements, and on no account delay their payments beyond the time they have promised. The society have very much at heart the enforcement of the latter injunction, not only because all Christians are under an obligation to do these things, but because they wish to see the high reputation of their ancestors, in these respects, preserved among those of their own day. The early Quakers were noted for a scrupulous attention to their duty, as Christians, in their commercial concerns.  One of the great clamors against them, in the infancy of their institution, was, that they would get all the trade. It was nothing but their great honor in their dealings, arising from religious principle, that gave birth to this uproar, or secured them a more than ordinary portion of the custom of the world in the line of their respective trades.

Among other regulations made by the Quakers on the subject of trade, it is advised publicly to the members of the society, to inspect the state of their affairs once a year. And lest this advice should be disregarded, the monthly meetings are directed to make annual appointments of suitable Friends to communicate it to the members individually. But independently of this public recommendation, they are earnestly advised by their book of extracts, to examine their situations frequently. This is done with a view, that they may see how they stand with respect to themselves and the world at large; that they may not launch out into commercial concerns beyond their strength, nor live beyond their income, nor go on longer in their business than they can pay their debts.

If a Quaker, after this inspection of his affairs, should find himself unable to pay his just debts, he is immediately to disclose his affairs to some judicious members of the society, or to his principal creditors, and to take their advice how he is to act; but to be particularly careful not to pay one creditor in preference to another.

When a person of the society becomes a bankrupt, a committee is appointed by his own monthly meeting, to confer with him on his affairs.  If the bankruptcy should appear, by their report, to have been the result of misconduct, he is disowned. He may, however, on a full repentance, (for it is a maxim with the society, that “true repentance washes put all stains,”) and by a full payment of every man his own, be admitted into membership again; or if he has begun to pay his creditors, and has made arrangements satisfactory to the society for paying them, he may be received as a member, even before the whole of the debt is settled.

If it should appear, on the other hand, that the bankruptcy was the unavoidable result of misfortune, and not of imprudence, he is allowed to continue in the society.

But in either of these cases, that is, where a man is disowned and restored, or where he has not been disowned at all, he is never considered as a member, entitled to every privilege of the society, till he has paid the whole of the debts. And the Quakers are so strict upon this point, that if a person has paid ten shillings in the pound, and his creditors have accepted the composition, and the law has given him his discharge, it is insisted upon that he pays the remaining ten as soon as he is able. No distance of time will be any excuse to the society for his refusal to comply with this honorable law. Nor will he be considered as a full member, as I observed before, till he has paid the uttermost farthing; for no collection for the poor, nor any legacy for the poor, or for other services of the society, will be received from his purse, while any thing remains of the former debt. This rule of refusing charitable contributions on such occasions, is founded on the principle that money, taken from a man in such a situation, is taken from his lawful creditors; and that such a man can have nothing to give, while he owes any thing to another.

It may be observed of this rule or custom, that as it is founded in moral principle, so it tends to promote a moral end. When persons of this description see their own donations dispensed with, but those of the rest of the meeting taken, they are reminded of their own situation, and of the desirableness of making the full satisfaction required. The custom, therefore, operates as a constant memento, that their debts are still hanging over them, and prompts to new industry and anxious exertion for their discharge. There are many instances of Quakers, who have paid their composition as others do, but who, after a lapse of many years, have surprised their former creditors by bringing them the remaining amount of their former debts. Hence the Quakers are often enabled to say, what few others can say on the same subject, that they are not ultimately hurtful to mankind, either by their errors, or by their misfortunes.



But though the Quakers have made these regulations, the world find fault with many of their trades or callings—Several of these specified—Standard proposed by which to examine them—Some of these censurable by this standard—and given up by many Quakers on this account, though individuals may still follow them.  

But though the Quakers have made these beautiful regulations concerning trade, it is manifest that the world are not wholly satisfied with their conduct on this subject. People charge them with the exercise of improper callings, or of occupations inconsistent with the principles they profess.

It is well known that the Quakers consider themselves as a highly professing people; that they declaim against the follies and vanities of the world; and that they bear their testimony against civil customs and institutions, even to personal suffering. Hence, professing more than others, more is expected from them. George Fox endeavored to inculcate this idea into his new society. In his letter to the yearly meeting in 1679, he expresses himself as follows: “The world also does expect more from Friends than from other people, because they profess more.  Therefore you should be more just than others in your words and dealings, and more righteous, holy, and pure, in your lives and conversations; so that your lives and conversations may preach. For the world’s tongues and mouths have preached long enough; but their lives and conversations have denied what their tongues have professed and declared.” I may observe, therefore, that the circumstance of a more than ordinary profession of consistency, and not any supposed immorality on the part of the Quakers, has brought them, in the instances alluded to, under the censure of the world. Other people, found in the same trades or occupations, are seldom noticed as doing wrong. But when men are set as lights upon a hill, blemishes will be discovered in them, which will be overlooked among those who walk in the vale below.

The trades or occupations which are usually condemned as improper for Quakers to follow, are numerous. I shall not therefore specify them all.  Those, however, which I purpose to select for mention, I shall accompany with all the distinctions which equity demands on the occasion.

The trade of a distiller, or of a spirit-merchant, is considered as objectionable if in the hands of a Quaker.

That of a cotton manufacturer, who employs a number of poor children in the usual way, or in a way which is destructive to their morals and to their health, is considered as equally deserving of censured.

There is a calling which is seldom followed by itself: I mean the furnishing of funerals, or the serving of the pall. This is generally in the hands of Cabinet-makers, or of Upholsterers, or of woolen-drapers.  Now if any Quaker should be found in any of these occupations, and if he should unite with these that of serving the pall, he would be considered by such an union, as following an objectionable trade. For the Quakers having discarded all the pomp, and parade, and dress, connected with funerals, from their own practice, and this upon moral principles, it is insisted upon, that they ought not to be accessory to the promotion of such ceremonials among others.

The trade of a printer, or bookseller, when exercised by a Quaker, has not escaped the animadversions of the world. A distinction, however, must be made here. They who condemn this calling, can never do it justly, but in supposed cases. They must suppose, for example, that the persons in question follow these callings generally, or that they do not make an exception with respect to the printing or selling of such books as may convey poison to the morals of those who read them.

A Quaker-tailor is considered as a character, which cannot consistently exist. But a similar distinction must be made here as in a former case.  The world cannot mean that if a Quaker confines himself to the making of clothes for his own society, he is reproachable for so doing; but only if he makes clothes for every one without distinction, following, as he is ordered, all the varying fashions of the world.

A Quaker-hatter is looked upon in the same light as a Quaker-tailor. But here a distinction suggests itself again. If he make only plain and useful hats for the community and for other Quakers, it cannot be understood that he is acting inconsistently with his religious profession. The charge can only lie against him, where he furnishes the hat with the gold and the silver-lace, or the lady’s riding-hat with its ornaments, or the military hat with its lace, cockade, and plumes. In this case he will be considered as censurable by many, because he will be looked upon as a dealer in the superfluities condemned by his own religion.

The last occupation I shall notice is that of a silversmith. And here the censure will depend upon a contingency also. If a Quaker confines himself to the selling of plain silver articles for use, little objection can be raised against his employ. But if, in addition to this, he sells gold headed canes, trinkets, rings, ear-rings, bracelets, jewels, and other ornaments of the person, he will be considered as chargeable with the same inconsistency as the follower of the former trade.

In examining these and other occupations of the Quakers, with a view of seeing how far the objections which have been advanced against them are valid, I own I have a difficult task to perform. For what standard shall I fix upon, or what limits shall I draw upon this occasion? The objections are founded in part upon the principle, that Quakers ought not to sell those things, of which their own practice shows that they disapprove. But shall I admit this principle without any limitation or reserve? Shall I say without any reserve, that a Quaker-woman, who discards the use of a simple ribbon from her dress, shall not sell it to another female, who has been constantly in the habit of using it, and this without any detriment to her mind? Shall I say again, without any reserve, that a Quaker-man who discards the use of black cloth, shall not sell a yard of it to another? And, if I should say so, where am I to stop? Shall I not be obliged to go over all the colors in his shop, and object to all but the brown and the drab? Shall I say again, without any reserve, that a Quaker cannot sell any thing which is innocent in itself, without inquiring of the buyer its application or its use? And if I should say so, might I not as well say, that no Quaker can be in trade? I fear that to say this, would be to get into a labyrinth, out of which there would be no clew to guide us.

Difficult, however, as the task may seem, I think I may lay down three positions, which will probably not be denied, and which, if admitted, will assist us in the determination of the question before us. The first of these is, that no Quaker can be concerned in the sale of a thing, which is evil in itself. Secondly, that he cannot encourage the sale of an article, which he knows to be essentially, or very generally, that is, in seven cases out of ten, productive of evil. And, thirdly, that he cannot sell things which he has discarded from his own use, if he has discarded them on a belief that they are specifically forbidden by Christianity, or that they are morally injurious to the human mind.

If these positions be acknowledged, they will give ample latitude for the condemnation of many branches of trade.

A Quaker-bookseller, according to these positions, cannot sell a profane or improper book.

A Quaker spirit-merchant cannot sell his liquor but to those whom he believes will use it in moderation, or medicinally, or on proper occasions.

A Quaker, who is a manufacturer of cotton, cannot exercise his occupation but upon an amended plan.

A Quaker-silversmith cannot deal in any splendid ornaments of the person.

The latter cannot do this for the following reasons. The Quakers reject all such ornaments, because they believe them to be specifically condemned by Christianity. The words of the apostles Paul and Peter, have been quoted both by Fox, Penn, Barclay, and others, upon this subject. But surely, if the Christian religion positively condemns the use of them in one, it condemns the use of them in another. And how can any one, professing this religion, sell that, the use of which he believes it to have forbidden? The Quakers also have rejected all ornaments of the person, as we find by their own writers, on account of their immoral tendency; or because they are supposed to be instrumental in puffing up the creature, or in the generation of vanity and pride.  But if they have rejected the use of them upon this principle, they are bound, as Christians, to refuse to sell them to others. Christian love, and the Christian obligation to do as we would wish to be done by, positively enjoin this conduct. For no man, consistently with this divine law and obligation, can sow the seeds of moral disease in his neighbor's mind.

And here I may observe, that though there are trades, which may be innocent in themselves, yet Quakers may make them objectionable by the manner in which they may conduct themselves in disposing of the articles which belong to them. They can never pass them off, as other people do, by the declaration that they are the fashionable articles of the day.  Such words ought never to come out of Quakers’ mouths; not so much because their own lives are a living protest against the fashions of the world, as because they cannot knowingly be instrumental in doing a moral injury to others. For it is undoubtedly the belief of the Quakers, as I had occasion to observe in a former volume, that the following of such fashions, begets a worldly spirit, and that in proportion as men indulge this spirit, they are found to follow the loose and changeable morality of the world, instead of the strict and steady morality of the gospel.

That some such positions as these may be fixed upon for the farther regulation of commercial concerns among the Quakers, is evident, when we consider the example of many estimable persons in this society.

The Quakers, in the early times of their institution, were very circumspect about the nature of their occupations, and particularly as to dealing in superfluities and ornaments of the person. Gilbert Latey was one of those who bore his public testimony against them. Though he was only a tailor, he was known and highly respected by king James the Second. He would not allow his servants to put any corruptive finery upon the clothes which he had been ordered to make for others. From Gilbert Latey I may pass to John Woolman. In examining the Journal of the latter I find him speaking thus: “It had been my general practice to buy and sell things really useful. Things that served chiefly to please the vain mind in people, I was not easy to trade in; seldom did it; and whenever I did, I found it weaken me as a Christian.” And from John Woolman I might mention the names of many, and, if delicacy did not forbid me, those of Quakers now living, who relinquished or regulated their callings, on an idea, that they could not consistently follow them at all, or that they could not follow them according to the usual manner of the world. I knew the relation of a Quaker-distiller, who left off his business upon principle. I was intimate with a Quaker-bookseller. He did not give up his occupation, for this was unnecessary; but he was scrupulous about the selling of an improper book. Another friend of mine, in the society, succeeded but a few years ago to a draper’s shop.  The furnishing of funerals had been a profitable part of the employ. But he refused to be concerned in this branch of it, wholly owing to his scruples about it. Another had been established as a silversmith for many years, and had traded in the ornamental part of the business, but he left it wholly, though advantageously situated, for the same reason, and betook himself to another trade. I know other Quakers, who have held other occupations, not usually objectionable by the world, who have become uneasy about them, and have relinquished them in their turn.  These noble instances of the dereliction of gain, where it has interfered with principle, I feel it only justice to mention in this place. It is an homage due to Quakerism; for genuine Quakerism will always produce such instances. No true Quaker will remain in any occupation, which he believes it improper to pursue. And I hope, if there are Quakers, who mix the sale of objectionable with that of the other articles of their trade, it is because they have entered into this mixed business, without their usual portion of thought, or that the occupation itself has never come as an improper occupation before their minds.

Upon the whole, it must be stated that it is wholly owing to the more than ordinary professions of the Quakers, as a religious body, that the charges in question have been exhibited against such individuals among them, as have been found in particular trades. If other people had been found in the same callings, the same blemishes would not have been so apparent. And if others had been found in the same, callings, and it had been observed of these, that they had made all the beautiful regulations which I have shown the Quakers to have done on the subject of trade, these blemishes would have been removed from the usual range of the human vision. They would have been like the spots in the sun’s disk, which are hid from the observation of the human eye, because they are lost in the superior beauty of its blaze. But when the Quakers have been looked at solely as Quakers, or as men of high religious profession, these blemishes have become conspicuous. The moon, when it eclipses the sun, appears as a blemish in the body of that luminary. So a public departure from publicly professed principles will always be noticed, because it will be an excrescence or blemish, too large and protuberant, to be overlooked in the moral character.




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