Quakers in the British Atlantic World, c.1660-1800

Dr Esther Sahle’s new book is the latest in the People, Markets, Goods: Economies and Societies in History series that we publish with the Economic History Society. These are paperback and ebook originals priced for student and individual use.

Here Dr Sahle explains how her interest in the history of trade and the value of reputation led her to focus on Quakers.

I came to Quaker history as an outsider. I was interested in trade, and how merchants managed to succeed in the face of long distances, dangerous sea journeys, pirates, frauds and poor law enforcement. I read that Quaker merchants navigated this ‘sea of hazards and uncertainty’ by being particularly honest. That seemed oddly simple. In Britain and the States, Quakers are a household term, Quaker honesty a by-word. I’m from Germany, and I’d never heard of either – the Society of Friends, or their reputation for honesty. Now I read that superior business ethics on the one hand, and Quaker meetings’ policing of their membership’s behaviour on the other created a reputation for honesty that helped Quaker merchants succeed in trade.

At the time I was living in London, and so headed over to Friends’ House – still one of my favourite places in the city – to prowl through their archive. Reading through the London monthly meeting’s records from the 1660s onwards I found – nothing. Or, next to nothing. The business ethics the records reflected were simply those of the middling sorts, nothing out of the ordinary. What was more, the minutes contained barely any references to meetings monitoring Friends’ businesses. Every once in a while, a meeting would disown – ostracise – a Friend for misconduct, but dishonesty was rarely given as the reason. London was the biggest commercial centre of the Western hemisphere, and home to the largest Quaker community. Yet, the capital’s meeting records provided little evidence of what was supposedly typical Quaker practice.

Eventually, I arrived in the 1750s, and interestingly, the pace of sanctions picked up. Meetings began disowning members left and right. WEIRD! What was going on? It wasn’t that Friends’ conduct had deteriorated: I found enough Friends who became bankrupts or broke other Quaker rules before that time, facing no repercussions at all. The meetings didn’t seem to care. During the 1750s, this changed. Meetings explained their motives, too: they always expressed regret at having to let one of their members go, but thought that they had no choice, as the individual’s conduct reflected badly on the community as a whole. Meetings never claimed to respond to the ‘crime’ itself. They were not the police, they were not in charge of what Friends did or didn’t do. What they did feel responsible for, instead, was protecting the community’s collective interests: they ostracised individuals whose behaviour threatened the Quakers’ reputation. One cannot overemphasise the importance of reputation in the early modern world. Everyone depended on it for credit, and people went to great lengths to protect it. But why did Friends suddenly feel that their good name was in danger? The search for the roots of their concerns led me across the Atlantic, to Pennsylvania.

By the 1750s, Friends in Pennsylvania had become a minority, albeit one that held great political and economic power. Other groups within colonial society envied Friends’ position. Conflict arose around business opportunities the Seven Years War provided, the exploitation of natural resources, and the colonizers’ relationship with the native American population. Friends as a well-to do religious minority presented a perfect scapegoat for public frustrations, fears and resentments during these years of crisis.

An anti-Quaker faction emerged that aimed at ending Friends’ control of the colony. Using pamphlets – the mass media of the day – they conducted a large-scale defamation campaign. Spreading false information about Friends’ supposed crimes against other communities in the colony, they threatened Friends’ political position, economic interests, and personal safety. Confronted with these attacks, the Society decided to take action. By disowning everyone who attracted negative attention, meetings signalled to outsiders that Friends were good people. Over time, their efforts proved successful. Meetings managed to shape public perception of the Society, eventually culminating in the image of the especially honest Quaker we know today. Quaker exceptionalism became so deeply ingrained in the cultural matrix of the Anglosphere that later generations simply assumed it had been part of Friends’ history from the beginning.    

Researching and writing this book, I learned a lot about Friends and Atlantic History. Even more important though, I believe, is what it reveals about how people create the narratives that shape our view of the past. These serve a purpose. In the case of Friends, the aim was safety. But motives can also be sinister. History remains the go-to means through which society legitimizes present-day situations, especially relationships of power – something the Quakers have often been highly critical of (just think of abolitionism). It shows that we need to be wary of the narratives previous generations pass down to us: the past often is not what it seems.


This guest post was written by Esther Sahle, Lecturer at the University of Oldenburg. She holds an MSc in Global History and a PhD in Economic History from the London School of Economics.

Quakers in the British Atlantic World, c.1660-1800
by Esther Sahle
9781783275861, Paperback, £13 or $16.87