The Quaker Peace Testimony, Economics, and the Common Good

Quakerism and Economics of the Common Good

English Quaker John Bellers (1654- 1725) was the first social thinker to advance universal healthcare as a public policy. He based his case on the enhanced level of well-being and economic efficiency that would result from an improved level of health across the entire society. Bellers was also the first social thinker to advance a comprehensive plan of vocational training and sustainable employment as a national solution to chronic poverty. This policy and investment proposal was also based on calculations of progressive improvement in the economic well-being of those in poverty, and on the society-wide benefits of ameliorating social degradation and its accompanying violence.

These are but two of many social and economic reforms that unfolded from the Quaker faith and moral vision of John Bellers. His social and economic analyses and his visionary moral response come to us from the beginning of Quakerism. His lucid and prescient approach to social and economic conditions was focused through the new light that early Quakerism was bringing to the sense of “right relationship.” Bellers was just a half generation younger than George Fox.

Bellers repeatedly petitioned the English Parliament to enact legislation that would implement the social policies and economic projects he proposed. He was not successful in convincing the national government of the time, or the holders of capital to whom he also appealed, that implementing his proposals would advance the common good and be beneficial across the entire economy. However, it was only a matter of time until the soundness of his proposals would be recognized and acted on in many progressive jurisdictions. One hundred and fifty years later, Robert Owen, England’s greatest social reformer and the originator of the cooperative movement, said he had gotten all his best ideas from John Bellers.

As far as I know, there is no direct evidence that John Woolman was familiar with the work of John Bellers, but there is no doubt that the same holistic vision informed both men’s social and economic analyses and moral witnesses for the common good. All of John Woolman’s discussions on spiritual life, and in particular on spiritual disorders, crossed over into their social and economic consequences. And all his discussions on social and economic behavior led back to their spiritual foundations. In his continual probing of these relationships, he repeatedly returned to the recognition that minds possessed by the spirit of domination lead to social and economic disorder. Woolman’s holistic understanding also went a step further and helped set the stage for ecological thinking. He clearly understood economic geography and ecological adaptation. He understood that unwise use of resources leads to ecosystem breakdown in the same way that unwise use of labor leads to societal breakdown.

Why is it that from the beginning of Quakerism, the life of the spirit and economic affairs converge into a single focus? Why is it that both William Penn and John Woolman amplified this convergence into the larger context of the human-Earth relationship? Why is it that Quaker economist Kenneth Boulding (1910-1993) was one of the first social scientists to recognize Earth’s ecological context as the primary reference for all progressive thinking, policy, and action with regard to the human future? The answer, I suggest, is as obvious as the full moon in a cloudless night sky.

The Spiritual Basis of Economics and Ecology

In a deeply profound sense, economics and ecology are domains of relationship. Economics is about access to the means of life. Ecology is about the mutual interdependence of life communities. There is a deep sense of right relationship within a fully rounded understanding of these domains.

For example, in the right relationship of human solidarity, we see economic activity flowing from social relations that enhance the common good. In the right relationship of ecological integrity, we see the human economy as a wholly owned subsidiary of Earth’s ecology.

When we bring these two perspectives together, the lens of human solidarity and the lens of ecological science pivot into a single focus. Through this focus we can see right relationship in a more fully rounded and deeply instructive way. Right relationship then becomes the central motif in both the social design of human well-being and in ecologically sound economic adaptation.

Our spiritual traditions teach us that in right relationship, we touch the fullness of human meaning and the presence of the Divine. The Friends Peace Testimony is about elevating all areas of human policy and practice into this zone of right relationship. Because economic behavior is so often excluded by policy from the zone of right relationship, it is a primary area of injustice, conflict, violence, and war. A Peace Testimony that does not address economics in a major and sustained way is not a fully developed or spiritually accountable witness.

A Fully Developed Peace Testimony

Near the end of his short life, Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) saw how certain kinds of economic arrangements were directly connected to oppression, conflict, violence, and war. He began to focus his analysis through a vision of right relationship that challenged inequity and structural violence in U.S. economic behavior and its worldwide extensions. Within this enlarged context he asked the question, “What is the moral assignment?” This question of right relationship in economic policy and behavior is now central to the renewal of the Peace Testimony.

In this context we need to make a distinction between the economics of resource competition and the economics of the common good. The former is leading to resource wars, social disintegration, and ecological degradation. The latter has the potential of creating cultures of peace, social cooperation, and ecological resilience. A fully developed Peace Testimony will offer critical intervention in the former and creative advancement of the latter.

If Friends can now move the Peace Testimony into this arena, we will help advance an already substantial faith witness that has boldly challenged economic violence and injustice. For example, when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently issued a document of social teachings strongly critical of the capital-driven economy and its morally unacceptable inequities, some economists, politicians, and corporate leaders told them to butt out. They argued that the bishops had no business making pronouncements on economics and economic policy, and that they should just stick to religion. This naïve reaction failed, of course, to understand that Catholic social teaching has a long history in these matters.

Heritage as a Resource for Renewal

Quakerism, likewise, has a long genealogy of concern, thought, and action with regard to economics. The Peace Testimony applied to economics is not breaking new ground. We need only to update our heritage. In addition to the witnesses of Bellers and Woolman, the following more recent examples are worth noting.

In 1934, the Industrial Relations Committee of Friends General Conference prepared and published A Statement of Economic Objectives, which addressed the disaster of the Great Depression. This document offered a comprehensive strategy for equity-based economic reform. (A significant number of Quakers were deeply involved in creating the New Deal.)

In 1969, Friends Committee on National Legislation issued a well-crafted policy statement on Goals for a Just Society: Jobs and Assured Income. This document makes the case for the elimination of poverty through a combination of measures addressing health, education, vocational training, employment, and basic income.

In 2004, American Friends Service Committee published the report of its Working Party on Global Economics: Putting Dignity and Rights at the Heart of the Global Economy. With an acute awareness that poverty is a peace issue, this document calls for a Global New Deal, and for the moral leadership of Friends in fostering such a transformation. The authors write, “Just as the charges of ‘idealism’ have never made the AFSC abandon the commitment to the Peace Testimony and the power of love, charges that ‘the market doesn’t work that way’ should not distract us from our goal of a world of economic justice for all.”

The most recent work on this theme comes from the Friends Testimonies and Economics Project, which is now posting its three-volume resource guide Seeds of Violence, Seeds of Hope on the website of Friends General Conference. (Copies are available from Ed Dreby at

Our quest to renew the Peace Testimony will be lifted into a more fully rounded and relevant context if we bring this heritage into a position of central focus and if we see the economics of the common good unfolding as the central peace issue.

Strengthening the Peace Testimony in Its Moral Vision

The Peace Testimony is strengthened in its address to economics when we remember that economics is primarily a social science. It is further strengthened when we realize that economics, in its origin, was a moral discipline. It still is. And being a moral discipline, economics is precisely the arena where religion enters most fully into the service of the world. It is the arena of analysis and action where Friends can discover a more fully rounded expression of the Peace Testimony as it develops within the economics of the common good. Ongoing study and research will be needed to support and advance this witness. A certain fearlessness may be required. Those who benefit from human exploitation, resource domination, and the economics of war do not want the present financial architecture and economic arrangements altered.

In the time of spiritual crisis when Quakerism began, Friends decided they could not leave religion to the established Church. In our time of mounting social and ecological crisis, Friends should likewise not leave economic relationships to the current political-financial establishment. Economics and finance have become, in effect, the modern world’s established religion, and they now need, for sake of the common good, the same wind of reform that Quakers brought to religion in the 17th century.

The Ethics of Human Solidarity

If the ethics of human solidarity and the economics of the common good are our moral assignment, can we pose a straightforward and helpful guide to action? To answer this question we can paraphrase Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), a founding figure in conservation biology and a thinker who formulated a “land ethic”: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” With this simple admonition, Leopold coined an ethical formula that has entered into the foundation of the ecological worldview and environmental ethics. It is an expression of solidarity at the level of the human-Earth relationship.

In a similar way, and with respect to human solidarity, we can say: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the human community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” In a time when human solidarity is a preeminent requirement for decent human survival, this is a moral template against which all economic policy and behavior can be gauged and evaluated.

Renewing the Peace Testimony is, in large part, a matter of how Friends respond to the economic, social, and ecological mandate now placed before us by the converging crises of our time. This is the moral assignment. As a matter of religious responsibility, we can enter fully into reshaping economic policy and economic behavior on behalf of the common good and the integrity of Creation. Thus will the visions of John Bellers, John Woolman, and many Friends since their time be given new opportunities for realization. Thus will the Peace Testimony be renewed, and thus will Quakers be able to more effectively advance a moral vision of the common good.
This article was inspired by the called meeting on the renewal of the Quaker Peace Testimony held by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, November 18, 2006, at Arch Street Meetinghouse, Philadelphia, Pa.

Keith Helmuth

Keith Helmuth, a member of New Brunswick Monthly Meeting in Canada, recently completed a ten-year sojourn at Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting. He is a founding member of Quaker Institute for the Future and secretary of the Board.