Jeremy Marshall: “Quaker capitalism – Lessons for today” by Richard Turnbull

Today the role of the Christian church in business seems to be mainly, in England anyway, as a vocal critic of the capitalist system. Business and wealth creation– let alone the dreaded banking industry –  is viewed with suspicion in many Christian circles. The role of addressing the ills of society seems, as far as I can understand the Church of England’s views, to be the responsibility of the state, not business and certainly not Christians in business.  Sadly, we have lost our Christian history. For there was a time when a rather small and one might say unusual group of Christians had a profound impact on England’s’ business, banking and society. These were the Quakers, the subject of this new book. Quaker business had an impact out of all proportion to the size of its community which was but a few thousand. For out of the Quakers came  banks – Barclays, Lloyds, food – Cadbury, Rowntree’s, Fry’s, insurance – Friends Life manufacturing – huge numbers of iron businesses following Abraham Derby, shoes – Clarks and many more in chemicals, pharmaceuticals and other sectors. Not only were these businesses successful they treated their employees and customers with an unusual degree of care and concern: in fact one might say they were successful precisely because they applied Christian values in this way.

This short and insightful book is by Richard Turnbull, previously Principal of Wycliffe Hall and now Director of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics (CEME). CEME has been set up by Brian Griffiths and others to try and apply Christian principles to business and wealth creation. Turnbull not only covers the history detailed above but more importantly draws some thought provoking lessons for today. Firstly, the Quakers had a living Christian faith. Quakerism had both the “inner light” thinking of its founder George Fox but also, up until around 1850, a strongly biblical “evangelical” side, which may come as a surprise to those of us more familiar with modern Quaker thinking. This was personified by the Gurneys, one of the main families who founded Barclays and the biblical thinking from the evangelical wing provided an objective biblical framework for business –  a clear moral code. Secondly, they were highly successful family businesses working in a rich network of other family businesses. The sense of shared values and making money to use it for the good of society characterised their thinking and came directly from their family ownership. “The idea of (the) family encapsulates both purpose (for today) and stewardship (for tomorrow)” says Richard Turnbull. Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, they believed that business has a moral responsibility to create wealth, not for its own sake, let alone to be spent selfishly, but as stewards of God to use their wealth for the good of others. Hence the Quakers intense interest in education and model housing (Bournville being the most famous example).

The Quakers were not perfect, the book points out. Ironically much of their drive and network came because they were discriminated against and excluded from Oxbridge and the professions (some might think that not going to Oxbridge was precisely why they were successful in business!) As the evangelical fire waned during the C19th and as they became richer and more successful, some of the sense of stewardship was lost. Sadly, many of the most vociferous opponent of Lord Shaftsbury’s factory reforms – such as stopping small children as young as 6 or 7 going down mines –  were the Quakers. Their businesses became larger and the families often lost interest, selling out and losing their shared values. The introduction of limited liability in 1856, notes Turnbull, was a particular turning point. (The very idea of limited liability was originally regarded as “immoral” – as was advertising!) The whole movement began to weaken and many family businesses sold up, the most obvious example of course is the sad fate of Cadburys. But this interesting, concise and well researched book by a leading expert in applying Christian thinking to business points out that there are important lessons we can learn from the Quakers, whether Christians or not. Even for the person who would not call themselves a Christian, then the Quaker formula – which we might say is shared moral values + common purpose + discipline + building trust and treating customers and staff well + family businesses with owners who view their wealth as for the good of society = good business – will never go out of fashion.


“Quaker capitalism: Lessons for today” by Richard Turnbull was first published in 2014 by the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics (ISBN 1-910666-00-5).


Jeremy Marshall is the Director and Chief Executive of C. Hoare & Co private bank.