Healey on Sahle, 'Quakers in the British Atlantic World, c. 1660-1800'

Esther Sahle
Robynne Rogers Healey

Esther Sahle. Quakers in the British Atlantic World, c. 1660-1800. Melton: Boydell & Brewer, Incorporated, 2021. 292 pp. $25.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-78327-586-1.

Reviewed by Robynne Rogers Healey (Trinity Western University) Published on H-Early-America (January, 2022) Commissioned by Patrick Luck (Florida Polytechnic University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56923

Esther Sahle’s book is an insightful analysis of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Quaker communities in London and Philadelphia, especially Quaker merchants within those communities. Using the extensive records of the Religious Society of Friends from archives on both sides of the Atlantic, Sahle interrogates the account of Quaker mercantile success and challenges the narrative of Quaker exceptionalism—the idea that Quakers’ success in business was a result of unique Quaker structures and business practices, or “because, so the story goes, they were Quakers” (p. 1). Sahle’s carefully researched study joins the work of other historians in the past thirty years who have revisited and revised traditional, sectarian interpretations of Quaker history. It offers valuable insights into a group that has played an important role in early modern economic history.

Quakers’ prominence in business and industry is not in question. Well-known Quaker businesses come easily to mind. There are banks (Barclays and Lloyds), chocolate manufacturers (Fry, Rowntree, and Cadbury), biscuit or cookie producers (Carr’s and Huntley & Palmers), shoemakers (Clarks), and more, including several successful nineteenth-century manufacturing and industrial companies in both the United Kingdom and the United States. The most famous “Quaker” business, the Quaker Oats Company, founded in 1877, was never Quaker. Quakers were involved in neither its establishment, nor its development. Regardless, the company’s name and its iconic label rely heavily on the symbolism of a smiling Quaker wearing a broad-brimmed hat. Sahle informs readers that the company selected both the name and the image to evoke trust among consumers, an indication of the extent to which Quakers were associated with the ideal of honesty in the nineteenth century (p. 177). Was this always the case?

Historical interpretations of Quakers in business have been dominated by the view that eighteenth-century Quaker mercantile success was a result of the existence and enforcement of a set of unique, even superior, business ethics buttressed by Quaker endogamy and dense family networks. Sahle not only questions these interpretations, she contends that their conclusions have been “rooted in a flawed methodology” (p. 9). First, she shows that the scholarship on Quaker business ethics lacks comparison to business ethics in society at large. Second, she argues that scholars have assumed that Quaker behavior aligned with the prescriptions set out in the advice literature from which conclusions have been drawn. To address these faults, Sahle “undertakes the first comparative and empirical study of Quaker business ethics, the Society of Friends’ enforcement of debts, and Quaker marriage patterns” (p. 20) to present “the actual nature” of these elements of Quakerism to which economic historians have attributed “Quaker merchants’ success in trade, and British economic development as a whole” (p. 21).

Sahle arranges her work to address the three areas of ethics, enforcement, and endogamy. After outlining the formation and organization of the Religious Society of Friends, she focuses on the Quaker communities in the port cities of London and Philadelphia, paying particular attention to Quaker merchants in these cities who “were at the centre” ofexpanding eighteenth-century Atlantic exchange. Sahle’s statistical analysis confirms that Quakers were over-represented among those active in overseas trade and that their business interests were particularly broad in scope, but that they did not become disproportionately wealthy (p. 54). This leads her to suggest that it was numerical prominence, not Quakerism itself, that explains Quaker mercantile success.

Sahle’s perceptive comparison of Quaker business principles to those of contemporary mainstream British merchants demonstrates that Friends’ business ethics were not exceptional. Placing Quaker and non-Quaker prescriptive business literature side by side, Sahle reveals their similarity if not their sameness: both shared concerns about debts, taxes, and fraud, all of which were believed to be born out of covetousness; both called upon identical verses of scripture to support their admonitions; and both employed the same metaphors to communicate their message.

To explore enforcement, Sahle categorized the contents of London’s and Philadelphia’s meeting minutes. Her analysis notes the dramatic increase in disownments after 1750 in what historians have called the Quaker Reformation, a period of significant institutional change in the Society of Friends. Sahle demonstrates that the dramatic increase in disownments after 1750 resulted from stricter enforcement of Quaker discipline, not from a sudden escalation in Quaker delinquency. Violations of the marriage discipline accounted for almost half of the disownments between 1750 and 1800 (pp. 94, 149); this included marrying a non-Quaker and/or having the wedding performed by a priest. Friends also developed a heightened interest in business misconduct, especially defaulting on debt. These offenses account for the second-largest category of transgressions in the minutes. Significantly, Sahle reveals that, after 1750, “debts began to appear as the main and even sole reason for a disownment” (p. 107) and solvency became an important attribute of honest character on both sides of the Atlantic.

Scholars have generally explained the paradox of eighteenth-century Quakerism and the Quaker Reformation—increased sectarianism resulting from stricter enforcement of the discipline alongside expanding interaction with mainstream society through commercial activities and social reform work—in theological ways. For instance, in 2003, Phyllis Mack reasoned that the “desire for passivity and self-annihilation, on the one hand, and the urge toward self-transformation and world transformation, on the other” has been a consistent aspect of Christian thought where self-transcendence is realized by acting charitably toward others.[1] In 2010, Pink Dandelion contended that eighteenth-century Quakers, caught between their desire to reform the world and their longing to build a distinct community, created a dualistic world in which their mysticism remained isolated from the world they worked to change.[2]

While Sahle accepts that the transformation of eighteenth-century Quakerism began as a religious reformation in the 1740s, she asserts that dramatic change accelerated in mid-century in response to a series of political conflicts in Pennsylvania that harmed the Society’s public reputation. Disputes between Thomas Penn, the proprietor, and the Quaker-led Assembly during the Seven Years’ War resulted in Quakers becoming the scapegoat for General Braddock’s defeat at Fort Duquesne in 1755. Public faith in Quakers deteriorated over the course of the war and during Pontiac’s War that immediately followed, especially after Quakers joined the militia mustered to protect Philadelphia from the Paxton Boys. The Paxton pamphlet war dealt a decisive blow to the Society of Friends’ reputation. The pamphlets crafted an image of Quakers as self-interested, duplicitous pacifists motivated solely by money and power; they refused defense funding for their non-Quaker fellow colonists but resorted to violence if they themselves were threatened. This was not the Friends’ first pamphlet war, but it was one they did not win. Individual Quakers interpreted the Society’s commitment to peace in a variety of ways, depending on a combination of personal circumstances and level of devotion. No matter how the Society defended itself against the smear campaign, by 1764 “Quakerism had become equated with dishonesty, avarice and violence” (p. 171). The Quaker Reformation, then, was a response to these circumstances. The Society rehabilitated its tattered reputation by tightening enforcement of its discipline, especially against infractions that brought dishonor on the Society—financial dishonesty, fighting, and slaveholding. The success of the reformation is evident in its results: “honesty in business and pacifism emerged as central elements of Quakerism’s identity” (p. 176).

Sahle’s work contributes some unique insights to the conversation on eighteenth-century Quaker history. She offers clear and compelling arguments for Pennsylvanian Quaker communities affected by a series of political crises. What is not clear is how this interpretation applies to other parts of the Quaker Atlantic world not as deeply affected by the Pennsylvanian crises, but still deeply immersed in the Quaker Reformation. And, as much as enforcing Quaker testimonies for financial honesty and against war and slaveholding work well within Sahle’s framework of rehabilitating the Society’s reputation, it is also not clear how enforcing endogamy fits within this interpretive structure. Were exogamous marriages sufficiently scandalous to damage the Society’s reputation?

Finally, I appreciate Sahle’s thoughtful methodology and insightful analysis; she makes a significant contribution to the historiography. However, the claim that Quaker historiography still presents Quaker institutions as static between 1660 and 1800 or that the “literature treats the Society of Friends as existing in a social and economic vacuum” (p. 5) is not an accurate assessment of the field. Sahle is certainly correct that Quaker history has been sectarian and insular. Historians have recognized this and began calling for its contextualization decades ago. In considering Quakerism’s origins, Marxist historians Christopher Hill (The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution, 1972) and Barry Reay (The Quakers in the English Revolution, 1985) drew attention to the important context of the Civil Wars and the rise of radical religious sects. And, in 1987, Quaker historian H. Larry Ingle (a Quaker himself) chastised Quaker scholars for their insularity, commenting that “one can read the works of two of the main participants in the [origins of Quakerism] debate and hardly realize that two civil wars and a revolutionary upheaval formed a violent backdrop for the rise of Quakerism.”[3] The field has undergone substantial change in the past thirty years. Efforts to interact with mainstream history and engage audiences outside the Society of Friends have produced a fertile field of inquiry. I have reviewed a sample of this significant body of scholarship in an essay for Brill’s Research Perspectives in Quaker Studies (Quaker Studies: An Overview, 2018). Sahle’s work adds to this ongoing conversation and shows the promise of bringing new voices into the dialogue.


[1]. Phyllis Mack, “Religion, Feminism, and the Problem of Agency: Reflections on Eighteenth-Century Quakerism,” Signs: Journal of Women and Culture 29, no. 1 (2003): 149-77, quotation on 163.

[2]. Pink Dandelion, “Guarded Domesticity and Engagement With ‘the World’: The Separate Spheres of Quaker Quietism,” Common Knowledge 16, no. 1 (2010): 95–109.

[3]. H. Larry Ingle, “From Mysticism to Radicalism: Recent Historiography of Quaker Beginnings,” Quaker History 76, no. 2 (1987): 79-94, quotation on 79.

Citation: Robynne Rogers Healey. Review of Sahle, Esther, Quakers in the British Atlantic World, c. 1660-1800. H-Early-America, H-Net Reviews. January, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56923

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.