Today the Religious Society of Friends, popularly known as the Quakers, is a small group best known for its advocacy of non-violence. Not to be confused with the Amish, the Mennonites or any of the other “peace churches,” the Quakers are largely invisible in the modern world. The drab clothing and the use of “thee” and “thou” in speech persisted in some Quaker communities and families well into the 1900s. But that world is no more.
Today there are Quakers scattered throughout American life. Yet, most Americans are unaware of them. Quakers tend to be over-represented in the fields of education, medicine and social work. But the Quaker propensity toward modesty means “the Friends” often blend in with the rest of your friends.
It wasn’t always so. The Quakers, founded by George Fox in the mid-1600s, were once a noted — and often reviled — sect of Christianity. Persecuted by the British crown, its members imprisoned and tortured, the Quakers endured unimaginable hardship. Thousands moved to the North American colonies, only to be executed by other groups which had fled religious persecution.
Eventually, the hate subsided, and the Quakers began a centuries-long period in which many members of the Religious Society of Friends became extraordinarily, surprisingly and enduringly prosperous.
Something about the religious practices of the Quakers made them very, very good with money.
Here are three lessons from those practices that can benefit anyone.
1. Embrace business, but not success
Barclays Bank, Bethlehem Steel, Cadbury chocolates, Clarks shoes, Lloyds bank and Sony Electronics — all of these noteworthy companies and thousands more were founded by Quakers. In fact, the history of Friends is one filled with entrepreneurial activity. Why? Because of persecution.
Particularly in England where the Quakers began, persecutors intent on crushing on what they viewed as heresy tended to seize the assets of Quakers. A Quaker farmer often found himself without his land. A Quaker craftsman would find his tools confiscated.
But the Quakers learned quickly that commerce left fewer opportunities for harassment. By keeping inventory low and turnover high, they were able to endure confiscations and start again.
More importantly, the Quakers shunned the cutthroat and often dubious practices of their competitors. Quakers believed in treating their workers fairly — a remarkably rare practice at the time. And Quakers are credited with inventing the idea of price transparency. No one needed to negotiate when buying from Quakers, who believed in adding a modest profit to the cost of an item and charging the same price to everyone. Soon the Quakers became preferred merchants across England and the colonies. And by the time the persecutions subsided, the Quakers had become established members of the wealthy class.
But as good as the Quakers became at business, individual members faced considerable social and religious pressure to not become too enamored of success. The wealthiest Quakers often declined new business that might take away from time better spent on religious activity.
Or, as Bartlett Gurney, an 18th century member of one of the founding families of Barclays put it: “A little business with a little profit and an entire regularity, is happiness sterling to the true merchant; while a large business, expecting large profits, but in confusion and disorder, may be flattering but creates much anxiety and little comfort.”
2. Live a plain & simple life
A Quaker meetinghouse is one of the starkest, simplest and most beautiful structures you’ll ever encounter. Lacking the stained glass and soaring ceilings of other denominations, a Quaker meetinghouse features natural materials painted in dull colors. There is no altar, no crosses, neither incense, candles or robes. A meetinghouse is closer to a Zen temple than to a traditional Western church or synagogue.
That unadorned sensibility is at the core of Quaker belief.
The broad-rimmed hats may have faded into history, but even modern Quakers tend to avoid ostentation and fashion. Quakers seek a simple life because they believe an excess of possessions (or worse, an excessive interest in possessions) inhibits the awareness of God’s presence.
As Robert Lawrence Smith, the former headmaster of Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., wrote in “A Quaker Book of Wisdom,” Quaker simplicity “has little to do with how many things you own and everything to do with not letting your possessions own you.”
Or, as Catherine Whitmire said in the introduction to her book, “Plain Living”: “Living simply entails clearing our lives and our houses of spiritual and material clutter so as to create more space for faithful living.”
Certainly practitioners of the Minimalist movement (the American version of which is heavily influenced by Quakerism) would agree that such sentiments are at the core of financial well-being.
3. Don’t go it alone
Quakers put considerable effort into crafting lives that foster their religious beliefs. Some of the practices they use to shape their lives — “waiting in silence for the Lord” and believing that “way will open” — can appear mysterious and inaccessible to non-Quakers.
But one Quaker practice has found its way into the broader world where it’s become a popular method of discerning whether or not some major decision is right for you.
Should you marry this person? Is this the right career choice for you? Quakers believe those sorts of questions are best answered when trusted members of a community participate in the process.
Parker Palmer, arguably the best-known of modern Quaker writers, has taken to promoting the Quaker concept of a “clearness committee” to help people answer the big questions in their lives.
“Behind the Clearness Committee is a simple but crucial conviction,” according to Parker, “Each of us has an inner teacher, a voice of truth, that offers the guidance and power we need to deal with our problems. But that inner voice is often garbled by various kinds of inward and outward interference.”
A Clearness Committee isn’t made up of experts and doesn’t provide answers. Rather, it is a collection of “seasoned” people who ask probing questions. Think of it as a board of directors for your life … but with more spirituality and considerably less ego.
If there’s a major decision looming in your finances or career, applying the Quakers’ group discernment method could prove helpful.
Want more personal finance insights from off your beaten path? You can learn about the Swedish art of “lagom” — and how it can help your money here.