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Scripture references are to the New International Version, UK edition (NIV-UK)
We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.
(1 John 4:19-21)
GEORGE FOX (1624-91) was born at Drayton in the Clay (now Fenny Drayton), Leicestershire. He was troubled by various temptations and the Christian message spoke to his condition with its news of redemption and release from a pained conscience. His religious convictions deepened, moving him to publicly bear witness to the truth. In his journal he describes his many travels from town to town, criss-crossing the British Isles. It was a journey punctuated with scenes of confrontation and episodes of deep spiritual insight.
When the Civil War broke out, Fox preached peace. With Charles the First unthroned and beheaded and the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches in disarray, Fox exhorted a faith-weary nation to strive for true heart religion. Undimmed by sectarian thought he is famous for referring to churches as steeple houses, further proclaiming that ‘the church is the people . . . and not the house’.
In his poem, Lycidas, John Milton, a contemporary of Fox, alludes to the fall of the Church of England from Christian ideals, disparaging the Anglican bishops as ‘blind mouths’. A bishop, or overseer, is one whose spiritual vision guards the flock. A pastor is one who feeds the flock. These blind mouths neither saw nor fed, but were ambitious for their reputation or for a benefice in a wealthy parish.
Fox, by a clear teaching of the Gospel, rebuked the hypocrisy of the clergy. It was a work of reformation and many separated from the Church of England. Taking no name for themselves, they were generally referred to as Nonconformists, a catch-all term for Protestants who dissented from the teachings of the Church of England. The Friends, as Fox called them, were popularly referred to as Quakers for their occasional fits of trembling during worship. A poor nickname, for the Quakers have become better known for their honesty and conscientiousness.
No longer tied to the stale creeds of Anglicanism, Quakers were at liberty to study the Bible for themselves. The new freedom brought with it a weight of responsibility. One could no longer count on membership of the Church of England, with its traditions and paternal guidance, as surety for heaven. With non-conformance came the realisation that salvation is personal (2 Corinthians 6:16,17). This heightened awareness inculcated a close examination of one’s motives. The Quaker stifled selfish desires and strived to justly give a full measure to his neighbour. This honest dealing and labouring over scruples set the Quakers apart from society. They were indeed a peculiar people, with a conscience regulated by the Bible, and a mind, heart and will regulated by conscience.
While the Quakers arranged their own meetings and services, the Church of England barred them from entering the colleges, universities, and government. The exclusion prevented any Quaker holding a position in the legal and medical professions. Set apart by their peculiar style of living, Quakers were forced to find an alternative.
In 1665, Parliament ratified the Five Mile Act, designed to protect the Church of England. Any man whose preaching or teaching threatened the government or the Church was forbidden to come within five miles of a town or corporate borough from which he had been banned.[fn1] Birmingham was then too small to be classified as either, and Nonconformists flocked to the area.[fn2] Some Quaker families made their living smelting iron, others worked as traders. Success soon followed, due partly to their diligent labour, partly to their candour. While many other traders set their prices high, anticipating haggling, Quakers sold at a fixed price. They thought it deceitful to declare a price higher than the goods were worth. Parents now sent their children to Quaker shops, trusting them with the simple exchange.
By the dawn of the nineteenth century, two historic developments were reshaping the political, social, and industrial landscape.
The widespread application of steam power brought the facility to manufacture on a grand scale. The craftsman whose art was made costly by its labour was obliged to compete with tireless machines. One man’s design could now be traced to a hard-wearing pattern and its likeness indelibly stamped on a thousand cheap imitations.
While the steam engine was transforming lives in working-class England, the cry of liberty and the guillotine were ending lives in France. Napoleon Bonaparte and his armies carved up the empires and alliances of Austria, Italy and Russia. He appointed governors over the conquered nations and introduced political reform. The newly-established French Civil Code levelled society.[fn3] Aristocracy and clergy alike were reduced to the same standing before the law as any ordinary citizen of the New Republic. The ideology behind Napoleon’s ambition sent a shock wave through the social strata of the Continent and Britain.
After Napoleon’s passing, the stirs of revolution aroused support among England’s tradesmen for the ideas of social reformers like Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto, first published in 1848, awakened the working classes to the utopian ideals of common ownership of property and the equal distribution of profit amongst those that laboured for it. All in a position of privilege were confronted with the Labour Question, the cause and alleviation of working class discontent.
Sir Francis Galton tested the theory that the poor were so by heredity. Possibly influenced by the work of his cousin, Charles Darwin, Galton proposed that the lower classes lacked the inherited qualities to advance out of poverty. It was an evolutionary spin on a commonly-held belief. Cecil Frances Alexander plainly states the idea in a verse of her hymn, ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ (a stanza omitted from modern hymnals):
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.
With a militant communist movement on one hand, and a stubborn ruling elite on the other, it took an earnest Quaker, Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree (1871-1954), to break the deadlock.
Benjamin was the third son of Joseph Rowntree, a devout Quaker and owner of a chocolate factory.[fn4] By his comprehensive analysis, Poverty, A Study of Town Life (1901),Benjamin proved, to the consternation of many, that poverty was not a genetic ailment, but a trap. People of talent fell into difficult times by accidents, illness, or the death of the breadwinner in the family. Once in debt and without sufficient wages to cover the cost of living, society enforced the poverty.
The Rowntrees, father and son, were spurred into action by the scenes of squalid home life among workers in York. Joseph Rowntree became convinced it was possible to build affordable and decent housing for families on a low wage. He planned an example of clean and healthy community life, sustained by modest rents. In 1902 he bought land and building began.
By 1904 the model village of New Earswick had 28 houses. Within another 15 years the village comprised 229 houses and a village hall. But New Earswick was no company town. The Rowntrees had in mind an independent community, managed by a trust, with a council made up of the village’s inhabitants. Residence was open to all, not only the employees at the factory.
Rowntree’s principles of equity were Biblically inspired. Jesus taught his disciples that ‘the worker deserves his wages’ (Luke 10: 7). The apostle James warns that the keeping back of wages from those who deserve it incurs God's disapproval (James 5: 4-6).
Other well-known philanthropists have been associated with the cocoa and chocolate industry. The Fry dynasty, another family with roots in the Quaker movement, were prominent in the manufacture of chocolate from the eighteenth century to the twentieth.[fn5] In the United States, Milton Snavely Hershey (1857-1945), a Mennonite, used proceeds from his business to establish the model factory town of Hershey, in rural Pennsylvania, complete with a public transport system and a school.
One of the most famous names is that of George Cadbury (1839-1922), who started the successful firm, Cadbury’s. A man of high ideals, George grew up in Edgbaston before it was swallowed by Birmingham suburbia. His father and mother were devout Quakers. Family life was guarded jealously by his parents, preventing the entrance of many modern distractions.
The Cadbury children found their entertainment in the surrounding countryside. Here, nature impressed her finest freedoms on the mind and heart of young George. It was a taste of God’s intended liberty for man, to learn of the Divine through His creative works. In adult life, when inaugurating his plans for housing workers from his factory, George Cadbury said ‘that no man should be condemned to live where a rose cannot grow’. His words manifest the Christian sentiment of true fraternity – to share the best one has. Cadbury’s Christian values made him a champion of social reform.
With a job in the city promising a wage double that of working the land, the factories pulled in workers from the rural areas. Landowners promptly cashed in on the booming housing market. Builders filled the open spaces that were once gardens or folds for livestock, with close squares of back-to-back terraced houses. In rooms not more than 11 feet by 11 feet, it was often four to a bed. Water for all the families in the square came from a single pump in the yard and the drain in the corner took everyone’s waste. Little thought was given beyond the immediate functions of a robust shelter. In hasty greed, drainage, light and living space were compromised to yield the most rent for the fewest bricks. A Royal Commission investigated the living conditions of Britain’s towns and revealed that in Birmingham a quarter of the population of 220,000 lived in filthy and undrained streets.
George Cadbury had seen and heard what it was like to live amid the squalor of the city. At 20, he began teaching in the Adult School Movement. This was an effort started by Quakers to transform the lives of working men and women by education. Through this work he became acquainted with the lives of men and women in Birmingham’s hovels. Appalled by what he saw, Cadbury declared:
How can he [the working man] cultivate ideals when his home is a slum and his only place of recreation is a public house?[fn6]
George determined to improve on the state of affairs. In 1878 he and his brother Richard announced their intention to build a modern factory out of town. They intended to create an example of what industrial life could be like under the influence of Christian principle. This was no mere act of charity but an enterprise to be run in the narrow terms of profit and loss. By funding a social and welfare programme from the business profits the Cadburys made a radical departure from Victorian norms.
The plans were received with no small amount of derision. To a class-bound society it appeared indulgent to invest money in a scheme whose principal aim was to foster the enjoyment by workers of their environment. Only a few could see the benefits that would come from the motivation of a workforce elevated out of drudgery.
But the philanthropy of the Cadburys did not stop at the factory gates. George Cadbury describes his vision for a model village in his letter to the surveyor A. P. Walker:
Please let me know whether you would be likely to be able to give up some years to carrying out a scheme I have in hand for laying out 120 acres in the neighbourhood of our works for cottages, each surrounded by their own garden, not more than six to the acre. I would not care for anyone to undertake it who did not enter into the spirit of the undertaking as a labour for the Lord.[fn7]
The new settlement was christened Bournville. By 1900 the estate comprised more than 300 cottages and houses, mostly semi-detached, set amidst leafy avenues. The project was a success. Out of sincere Christian conviction George Cadbury had proven that altruism could be compatible with business. The lives of several thousand workers at the chocolate factory were changed as they moved from the confines of the city to work in the sun and fresh air of the factory-garden.
His Christian faith quickened and strengthened George Cadbury in his selflessness. Such a character is not made in the schools of science where life is an experiment and belief is continually threatened by a future contrary discovery. Like the Good Samaritan braving the robber’s highway, it takes courage to think differently, to oppose conventional wisdom. Mankind’s instinct of self-preservation is strong. In a world of circumstance all too ready to deprive man of both health and riches, it takes a strong mind to hold back the selfishness and consider the good that may come from sacrifice.
One week in July, 1846, Theobald Mathew (1790-1856), a Franciscan priest, a leader in the Pioneer Total Abstinence Movement, rode from Cork to Dublin and surveyed fields full of healthy and blossoming potatoes. Ireland was the only country in Europe to depend on the potato as its main food crop. The potato took well to the native soil and was easy to cultivate. Prolific in its yield of nutritious tubers, it fed eight million Irish abundantly.
On his return the following week Mathew ‘beheld with sorrow one wide waste of putrefying vegetation’. It was the second plague of blight, a fungus which was to destroy the potato crop for three years running. An estimated 60 percent of Ireland’s food supply was rotting in the ground. The fields were black with dying plants from Bantry Bay in the South to Derry in the North. By 1847 millions were starving, spurring the largest emigration in Ireland’s history.
At a meeting of Quakers in London a concerned few raised the plight of the great Irish famine. Within a short time the Friends had raised a subscription for relief funds. A committee was organised and sent to Ireland to assess the extent of the suffering. Eyewitness reports which reached London were essential for the direction of food and aid to the areas most in need. The support network reached as far as Quaker groups in America. The American Quakers alone raised relief amounting to 10,000 tons of food and supplies which were then shipped to Irish ports.
The Malthus Doctrine
The concern of the Quakers for the famine-stricken Irish, followed by direct intervention and relief did not stir all of England to follow their example. Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834), a curate in the Church of England, had in 1798 published an essay, The Principle of Population. His ideas on political economy were advertised widely. According to this Malthusian principle, the Irish famine was a natural consequence of over-population, a systematic and necessary correction by Nature. Malthus argued against government relief and instead advocated private acts of charity, that the poor be made more resilient to hardship. Some adopted his philosophy to justify their own indifference, claiming food handouts would only delay the inevitable collapse of the population.
The Quakers continued to give, a charitable impulse formed by a steady habit of self-denial. For many, the donations came from the family savings. Famous for their frugality and industry, Quakers have conscientiously followed St. Paul’s advice since the founding of their movement. Ephesians 4: 8 gives a recommendation, not just for the reformed thief, but for all Christians:
‘He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.’
To this day, Quaker groups administer hardship funds for the poor and unfortunate. Not just for their own, as the Irish work shows, but for anyone, regardless of creed. Similar noble sentiment has moved men from other backgrounds to establish the co-operatives and credit unions essential to Britain’s working class. Sampson Lloyd, another Quaker, was following this tradition of financial assistance when he joined with John Taylor to form the bank that became Lloyds Trustee Savings Bank.
Britain has a rich history of social reformers – religious and secular – who, unconcerned with their own pleasure, have laboured to improve the well-being of their fellow citizens.[fn8] Jesus described His Church as the salt of the earth. Through charities, social reform, and simple honest living, Christians especially have sprinkled this influence throughout society, helping to preserve it. The civilisations of modern Europe and the Americas have inherited a legacy from successive generations whose minds, elevated by Christian teaching, have striven to establish a pattern of Christ’s kingdom on earth.
^[fn1]This was the second law by this name. The previous Five Mile Act, enacted during the reign of Elizabeth I, prohibited Roman Catholics who refused to attend Church of England services to travel more than five miles from their abode, under penalty of forfeiting their goods and income.
Birmingham is famous for its Brummagem, a 17th-century byword for counterfeit goods. The name derives from the founding settlement of Bromwicham. The city’s foundries, presses and workshops have served Britain and her empire with every metal device imaginable, from buttons to steam engines. Even before the Industrial Revolution Birmingham had been dubbed the city of a thousand trades.
^[fn3] The Code civil des Français, also referred to as the Napoleonic Code. Enacted in 1804, it eliminated privileges pertaining to heredity and guaranteed freedom of religion.
^[fn4] Rowntree’s is now a subsidiary of Nestlé, the Swiss multinational food and beverage company.
^[fn5] The Fry’s brand is now owned by Cadbury’s and has ceased independent production.
^[fn6] Stranz, Walter, George Cadbury, An Illustrated Life 1839 to 1922 (Shire Publications Ltd., 1973), 9.
^[fn7] Bournville 1895 to 1914: The Model Village and its Cottages (Michael Durman & Michael Harrison; Birmingham Institute of Art and Design, 1995), 2.
Other notable (non-Quaker)
individuals active in the
reform of working and living conditions:
Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928) envisioned garden towns, healthy places in which the residents would share in the ownership and prosperity. He is best known for his contribution to the development of Letchworth. Robert Owen (1771-1858) at his cotton mill in New Lanark had provided rooms for workers and a school for their children. Titus Salt (1803-1876) moved his woollen mill, with its workers, from crowded Bradford to the banks of the river Aire near Shipley. Employee’s houses at Salt’s mill had running water, with access to a hospital and a library. Perhaps the largest venture of this kind was by William Hesketh Lever (1851-1925). He created the garden village of Port Sunlight, situated on the Wirral across the River Mersey from Liverpool. Here Lever built 800 houses, complete with gardens and allotments for workers in his successful soap-making business. With his brother James, he established Lever Brothers (now Unilever), a worldwide manufacturer of a wide variety of household products.
Bournville 1895 to 1914: The Model Village and its Cottages
(Michael Durman & Michael Harrison; Birmingham Institute of Art and Design, 1995).
(Bournville) Is this the nicest place to live in Britain?
Fox, George, The Journal of George Fox (Everyman’s Library; J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1944).
Greenwood, John Ormerod, Quaker Encounters; Volume 1, Friends and Relief (William Sessions Limited,
York, England, 1975). [ISBN 0900657294]
Stranz, Walter, George Cadbury, An Illustrated Life 1839 to 1922 (Shire Publications Ltd., 1973). [ISBN 0852632363]
Development Trusts Association (Ebenezer Howard, et al)
New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia (Thomas Mathew)
The Rochdale Pioneers (the co-operative movement)
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