Quakers and the Poor

By Thomas Clarkson (1806).

Management of the poor—Quakers never seen as beggars—George Fox began the provision for the Quaker-poor—Monthly meetings appoint overseers—Persons passed over are to apply for relief and the disorderly may receive it in certain cases—Manner of collecting for the poor—If burthensome in one monthly meeting, the burthen shared by the quarterly—Quakers gain settlements by monthly meetings, as the other poor of the kingdom, by parishes.  


There are few parts of the Quaker-constitution, that are more worthy of commendation, than that which relates to the poor. All the members of this society are considered as brethren, and as entitled to support from one another. If our streets and our roads are infested by miserable objects, imploring our pity, no Quaker will be found among them. A Quaker-beggar would be a phenomenon in the world.

It does not, however, follow from this account, that there are no poor Quakers, or that members of this society are not born in a dependent state. The truth is, that there are poor as well as rich, but the wants of the former are so well provided for, that they are not publicly seen, like the wants of others.

George Fox, as he was the founder of the religion of the Quakers, I mean of a system of renovated Christianity, so he was the author of the beautiful system by which they make a provision for their poor. As a Christian, he considered the poor of every description, as members of the same family, but particularly those, who were of the household of faith. Consistently with this opinion, he advised the establishment of general meetings in his own time, a special part of whose business it was to take due care of the poor. These meetings excited at first the vigilance and anger of the magistrates; but when they came to see the regulations made by the Quakers, in order that none of their poor might become burthensome to their parishes, they went away—whatever they might think of some of their new tenets of religion—in admiration of their benevolence.

The Quakers of the present day consider their poor in the same light as their venerable elder, namely, as members of the same family, whose wants it is their duty to relieve; and they provide for them nearly in the same manner. They entrust this important concern to the monthly meetings, which are the executive branches of the Quaker constitution.  The monthly meetings generally appoint four overseers, two men and two women, over each particular meeting within their own jurisdiction, if their number will admit of it. It is the duty of these, to visit such of the poor as are in membership, of the men to visit the men, but of the women sometimes to visit both. The reason, why this double burthen is laid upon the women-overseers, is, that women know more of domestic concerns, more of the wants of families, more of the manner of providing for them, and are better advisers, and better nurses in sickness, than the men. Whatever these overseers find wanting in the course of their visits, whether money, clothes, medicine, or medical advice and attention, they order them, and the treasurer of the monthly meetings settles the different accounts. I may observe here, that it is not easy for overseers to neglect their duty; for an inquiry is made three times in the year, of the monthly meetings by the quarterly, whether the necessities of the poor are properly inspected and relieved. I may observe also that the poor, who may stand in need of relief, are always relieved privately, I mean, at their respective homes.

It is however possible, that there may be persons, who, from a variety of unlocked for causes, may be brought into distress, and whose case, never having been suspected, may be passed over. But persons, in this situation, are desired to apply, for assistance. It is also a rule in the society, that even persons whose conduct is disorderly, are to be relieved, if such conduct has not been objected to by their own monthly meeting. “The want of due care, says the book of Extracts, in watching diligently over the flock, and in dealing in due time with such as walk disorderly, hath, brought great difficulties on some meetings; for we think it both unreasonable and dishonorable, when persons apply to monthly meetings for relief in cases of necessity, then to object to them such offences as the meeting, through neglect of its own duty, hath suffered long to pass by, unreproved and unnoticed.”

The poor are supported by charitable collections from the body at large; or, in other words, every monthly meeting supports its own poor. The collections for them are usually made once a month, but in some places once a quarter, and in others at no stated times but when the treasurer declares them necessary, and the monthly meeting approves. Members are expected to contribute in proportion to their circumstances; but persons in a low situation, and servants, are generally excused upon these occasions.

It happens in the districts of some monthly meetings, that there are found only few persons of property, but a numerous poor, so that the former are unable to do justice in their provision for the latter. The society have therefore resolved, when the poor are too numerous to be supported by their own monthly meetings, that the collection for them shall be made up out of the quarterly meeting, to which the said monthly meeting belongs. This is the same thing as if any particular parish were unable to pay the rates for the poor, and as if all the other parishes in the county were made to contribute towards the same.

On this subject I may observe, that the Quaker-poor are attached to their monthly meetings, as the common poor of the kingdom are attached to their parishes, and that they gain settlements in these nearly in the same manner.



Education of the children of the poor particularly insisted upon and provided for by the Quakers—The bays usually pat out to apprenticeship—The girls to service—The latter not sufficiently numerous for the Quaker-families, who want them—The rich have not their proper proportion of these in their service— Reasons of it—Character of the Quaker poor.  

As the Quakers are particularly attentive to the wants of the poor, so they are no less attentive to the education of their offspring. These are all of them to receive their education at the public expense. The same overseers, as in the former case, are to take care of it, and the same funds to support it. An inquiry is therefore made three times in the year into this subject. “The children of the poor, says the book of Extracts, are to have due help of education, instruction, and necessary learning. The families also of the poor are to be provided with Bibles, and books of the society, at the expense of the monthly meetings. And as spine members may be straitened in their circumstances, and may refuse, out of delicacy, to apply for aid towards the education of their children, it is earnestly recommended to friends in every monthly meeting, to look out for persons who may be thus straitened, and to take care that their children shall receive instruction: and it is recommended to the parents of such, not to refuse this salutary aid, but to receive it with a willing mind, and with thankfulness to the great author of all good.”

When the boys have received their necessary learning, they are usually put out as apprentices to husbandry or trade. Domestic service is generally considered by their parents as unmanly, and as a nursery for idleness. Boys too, who can read and write, ought to expect, with the accustomed diligence and sobriety of Quakers, to arrive at a better situation in life. The girls, however, are destined in general for service: for it must be obvious, whatever their education may be, that the same number of employments is not open to women as to men. Of those again, which are open, some are objectionable. A Quaker-girl, for example, could not consistently be put an apprentice to a Milliner.  Neither if a cotton-manufactory were in the neighborhood, could her parents send her to such a nursery of debauchery and vice. From these and other considerations, and because domestic employments belong to women, their parents generally think it advisable to bring them up to service, and to place them in the families of friends.

It is a remarkable circumstance, when we consider it to be recommended that Quaker-masters of families should take Quaker-servants, that persons of the latter description are not to be found sufficiently numerous for those who want them. This is probably a proof of the thriving situation of this society. It is remarkable again, that the rich have by no means their proportion of such servants. Those of the wealthy, who are exemplary, get them if they can. Others decline their services. Of these, some do it from good motives; for, knowing that it would be difficult to make up their complement of servants from the society, they do not wish to break in upon the customs and morals of those belonging to it, by mixing them with others. The rest, who mix more with the world, are, as I have been informed, fearful of having them, lest they should be overseers of their words and manners. For it is in the essence of the Quaker-discipline, as I observed upon that subject, that every member should watch over another for his good. There are no exceptions as to persons. The servant has as much right to watch over his master with respect to his religions conduct and conversation, as the master over his servant; and he has also a right, if his master violates the discipline, to speak to him, in a respectful manner, for so doing. Nor would a Quaker-servant, if he were well grounded in the principles of the society, and felt it to be his duty, want the courage to speak his mind upon such occasions. There have been instances, where this has happened, and where the master, in the true spirit of his religion, has not felt himself insulted by such interference, but has looked upon his servant afterwards as more worthy of his confidence and esteem. Such a right, however, of remonstrance, is, I presume, but rarely exercised.

I cannot conclude this subject without saying a few words on the character of the Quaker-poor.

In the first place I may observe, that one of the great traits in their character is independence of mind. When you converse with them, you find them attentive, civil, and obliging, but you see no marks of servility about them, and you hear no flattery from their lips. It is not the custom in this society, even for the poorest member to bow or pull off his hat, or to observe any outward obeisance to another, who may happen to be rich. Such customs are forbidden to all on religious principle. In consequence, therefore, of the omission of such ceremonious practices, his mind has never been made to bend on the approach of superior rank.  Nor has he seen, in his own society, any thing that could lessen his own importance or dignity as a man. He is admitted into the meetings of discipline equally with the rich. He has a voice equally with them in all matters that are agitated there. From these causes a manliness of mind is produced, which is not seen among any other of the poor in the inland in which we live.

It may also be mentioned as a second trait, that they possess extraordinary knowledge. Every Quaker-boy or girl, who comes into the world, must, however poor, if the discipline of the society be kept up, receive an education. All, therefore, who are born in the society, must be able to read and write. Thus the keys of knowledge are put into their hands. Hence we find them attaining a superior literal and historical knowledge of the scriptures, a superior knowledge of human nature, and a knowledge that sets them above many of the superstitions of those in their own rank in life.

Another trait conspicuous in the character of the Quaker-poor, is the morality of their lives.

This circumstance may easily be accounted for. For, in the first place, they are hindered in common with other Quakers, by means of their discipline, from doing many things, that are morally injurious to themselves. The poor of the world are addicted to profane swearing. But no person can bring the name of the creator of the Universe into frequent and ordinary use, without losing a sense of the veneration that is due to him. The poor of the world, again, frequently spend their time in public houses. They fight and quarrel with one another. They run after horse-racings, bull-baitings, cock-fightings, and the still more unnatural battles between man and man. But, by encouraging such habits, they cannot but obstruct in time, the natural risings of benevolence both towards their fellow-creatures and to those of the animal creation.  Nor can they do otherwise than lose a sense of the dignity of their own minds, and weaken the moral principle. But the Quaker-poor, who are principled against such customs, can of course suffer no moral injury on these accounts. To which it may be added, that their superior knowledge both leads and attaches them to a superior conduct. It is a false, as well as a barbarous maxim, and a maxim very injurious both to the interests of the rich and poor, as well as of the states to which they belong, that knowledge is unpropitious to virtue.


This is taken from A Portraiture of Quakerism, Volume II.





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