The early Quakers or Friends came from relatively modest backgrounds. Though few were formally well educated, they valued literacy. They documented their spiritual life in journals and letters to friends and kept copious records of their meetings. In an age of religious and sectarian controversy, they defended their beliefs and practices in print. Robert Barclay’s Apology for the True Christian Divinity (1678) became a classic exposition of the doctrine of the Inward Light, the in-dwelling spirit of God in each person’s soul. Robert Mather, who was not then a Quaker, brought a copy in London before embarking for Tasmania in 1821.
Largely excluded from public office and the learned professions, the Quakers pursued careers in manufacturing and business. Their practical education, willingness to work, and habits of thrift assured the success of their businesses. Honesty cut margins but increased custom. William Tout of Lancaster hated setting prices unreasonably high and then haggling: ‘plain dealing obliged worthy customers and made business go forward with few words’. 5 Their reputation for honesty and the strength of their networks help to explain the prominence of Friends in banking. Barclays and Lloyds are two banks that originated as Quaker businesses in the eighteenth century.
The Friends were not entirely comfortable with their worldly success. They dressed plainly and continued to eschew luxury and fashion. Most lines of business raised ethical concerns, and they were taken seriously. The Darbys of Coalbrookdale, who pioneered a revolution in iron-founding, wound down their involvement in the armaments industry. Still, the Quakers were not inflexible. Quaker brewers consoled themselves that beer was at least more wholesome than gin. Though at first they regarded chocolate as a luxury, and were always troubled by the use of sugar produced by slaves, Quakers rapidly came to dominate the chocolate industry. Fry’s of Bristol led the way, both in promoting chocolate and mechanising production, with Cadbury’s of Birmingham and Rowntree’s of York becoming their major challengers.
The Quakers set up their own schools, where children benefited from a curriculum that emphasised mathematics and science more than the classics. Benjamin Franklin, the prodigy from Pennsylvania, became the archetype of homespun Quaker polymath on both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain Dr John Fothergill enjoyed a formidable reputation as a physician, scientist and philanthropist. A notable botanist, he was responsible for the introduction of Sydney Parkinson, the son of a Quaker brewer in Edinburgh, to Joseph Banks. Parkinson was a gifted artist with a passion for plants, and was recruited for the Endeavour voyage of 1769. Before his untimely death on the voyage home, he produced a thousand drawings of the flora and fauna, people and places of the Pacific. He was the first Quaker to set foot in Australia. 6
Sydney Parkinson by James Newton 1773
The Friends focused on doing good in the world rather than on seeking to convert others to their faith. Nonetheless there was a missionary tradition, but with the emphasis on witness and example: ‘Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come’, Fox had written, ‘that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people and to them: that you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one’. 7
In the late eighteenth century the Quakers were prominent in humanitarian movements like the campaign against the slave-trade. They were troubled by the savage penal code that brought so many people to the gallows. They lobbied for the reform of prisons. Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845), the mother of ten children, fought to improve the lot of the women imprisoned at Newgate prison in London, and to provide them with religious instruction and the skills to support themselves. Opposed to the death penalty, she saw transportation as providing a second chance. She visited the women on the transport ships, inspected their berths, and presented each female transportee with ‘one Bible … one pair of spectacles, one comb, knife and fork, and a ball of string’. 8
In the early nineteenth century the Australian colonies were a focus of concern. Dr John Walker regarded penal labour as akin to ‘the man trade’ or slavery. He had written about Botany Bay in a geography textbook, and was incensed to find in the second edition that someone had inserted, without his permission, the observation ‘as lives must be wasted in the formation of the new settlement’, the lives of the convicts could be most ‘easily spared’. 9 There were also distressing reports about the ill-treatment of Aborigines, especially in the new colony of Van Diemen’s Land.
James Backhouse (1794-1869) was aged twenty-one when, while at work in a nursery in Norwich, he ‘was first impressed that it was the will of the Lord’ that he ‘should go on a gospel errand in to Australia.’ 10 Elizabeth Fry encouraged and helped to prepare him for the mission. He set out in 1830, taking as his companion George Washington Walker (1800-1859).
Barclays Apology, An Apology for the true Christian divinity, as the same is held forth, and preached by the people, in scorn, Quakers: being a full explanation and vindication of their principles and doctrines, by many arguments, deduced from Scripture and right reason, and the testimonies of famous authors, both ancient and modern: with a full answer to the strangest objections usually made against them, presented to the King / written and published in Latine, for the information of strangers, by Robert Barclay, and now put into our own language for the benefit of his countrey-men, by Robert Barclay, 1648-1690 [S.I] ; [s.n.], 1678 : University of Tasmania Special and Rare Materials Collections
Elizabeth Gurney (Fry) 'from a portrait taken at the age of eighteen' Frontispiece, Vol 1. from Memoir of the Life of Elizabeth Fry
Elizabeth Fry, detail of portrait from Memoir of the Life of Elizabeth Fry : University of Tasmania Special and Rare Material Collection
Memoir of the life of Elizabeth Fry : with extracts from her journal and letters edited by two of her daughters, London :
C Gilpin, 1847. University of Tasmania Library, Special and Rare Materials Collection
Page 191 from Memoir of the life of Elizabeth Fry : University of Tasmania Special and Rare Materials Collections