One morning last year someone called the Friends Journal office to try to understand a confusing experience she had experienced at her meeting. She had innocently suggested that they have a Valentine’s Day contest challenging participants to guess the number of candy hearts in a jar. Reaction from Friends in the room was a quick and definitive no: this would be a form of gambling frowned upon by Friends.
She was calling us to see if we had any recent articles that could help her explain the cultural landmine onto which she had inadvertently stepped.
It turned out we didn’t. The most recent piece is a 1998 column by S. Francis Nicholson that looked at the relationship between gambling and high‐risk investment. The author was the model of an old‐school style of Quaker: a graduate of Westtown and Earlham College, he served as an AFSC relief worker in France after the First World War then went on to a four‐decade career at a prominent Quaker‐founded investment company. He served on numerous Quaker boards and wrote a Pendle Hill pamphlet on Quakers and Money. He wrote his Friends Journal op‐ed in the late 1990s in response to bills in the Pennsylvania legislature aimed at legalizing riverboat gambling.
Opposition to games of chance and lotteries had once been one of the most well‐known testimonies of Friends. One of the earliest editions of Faith and Practice had a whole section on “Gaming and Diversions”:
As our time passeth swiftly away, and our delight ought to be in the law of the Lord; it is advised that a watchful care be exercised over our youth, to prevent their going to stage‐plays, horse‐races, music, dancing, or any such vain sports and pastimes; and being concerned in lotteries, wagering, or other species of gaming. And if any of our members fall into either of these practices, and cannot be prevailed with, by private labour, to decline them, the monthly meetings to which the offenders belong, should be informed thereof, and, if they be not reclaimed by further labour, proceed to testify our disunity with them.
Mid‐twentieth century Faith and Practice editions modernized the language but were still disapproving:
Our Society bears a testimony against betting, gambling, and lotteries or any other endeavors to receive value without exchanging an equivalent. We hold a firm belief that these practices are wrong in principle: we owe an honest return for that which we receive. Indulgence in games of chance for the purpose of winning prizes also blunts this proper sense of obligation.
Thomas Clarkson, a well‐known chronicler of early‐nineteenth‐century Quaker mores, wrote an interesting passage on the contextual rationales for this Quaker testimony.
Our cultural opposition to these games and diversions often still exist—cf. the Jellybean Affair of 2018—but the lack of any mentions in recent Friends Journal issues suggests that we’ve fallen out of the practice of explaining it to one another and to the outside world. That wider culture has softened up to gambling, with state lotteries, legalized gambling in many states, and bingo halls at churches across the land. Is this a testimony we still hold or is it some kind of quaint artifact we only remember inside the meetinghouse walls?
- Economists will argue that state‐sponsored lotteries are a regressive tax, one that disproportionately targets poor people.
- The democratization of mutual funds means that many people now play the stock market, albeit indirectly. How do Quaker reconcile this? Does our investment strategies differ from those who don’t worry about gambling? Do Nicholson’s cautions still apply?
- The “money for nothing” argument against games of chance still applies. Do Quakers care?
- For those maintain a testimony against gambling, what is it like to be the person who refuses to participate in activities others consider just good fun, like office sports pools or raffles?
- Gambling is a debilitating addiction for some. How does easy access to casinos and state‐sponsored lotteries affect people, especially those least economically able to lose money? How should Friends respond both to those in our meetings and as advocates in the general population?
As always, these ideas are just suggestions. We’re happy to read whatever readers think about the issue of Friends and gambling.