Prior to Quaker merchandising we all had to bargain to determine the exact price of any purchase. The concept of a fixed and fair price for all merchandise is the Quakers’ most pervasive contribution to our common culture. George Fox (1624-1691), founder of Quakerism, was a Puritan in England who opposed civil war as a means to accomplish religious ends. He began preaching publicly in 1647. He was imprisoned about twelve times from 1649 to 1675 mostly for brief periods but twice for two years. He was a model prisoner and spent much of the time preaching to other prisoners making many converts among them. In 1650 when Fox told Justice Bennet of Derby, “Tremble at the word of the Lord,” the justice sarcastically called Fox a “quaker” before jailing him for blasphemy. Obviously the name has persisted.
One of George Fox’s prison stays was for refusing a captaincy in Cromwell’s army with the statement, “I live in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion for all wars.” His personal pacifism became explicit at about this time in 1652, but it wasn’t until 1661 when George Fox and Richard Hubblethorne drew up The Declaration of 1661, which made pacifism an official Quaker tenet.
The vast majority of Quakers sympathized with the Puritans in opposition to the monarchy, a few of them even fighting in Cromwell’s army---you probably remember that Oliver Cromwell ruled England from 1648 to 1659. Quakers were persecuted by both the Puritans and monarchists for opposing the civil war. As many as 15,000 Quakers were jailed with 450 dying in prison. The Toleration Act of 1689 brought an end to serious, state sponsored religious persecution in Great Britain. Ironically both Quakers and Roman Catholics were officially excluded from the benefits of this legislation. Nevertheless, serious religious persecution subsided.
The combination of Quakers’ industry, frugality and exclusion from the universities resulted in many of them succeeding handsomely in merchandising and banking. Their refusal to take oaths in court because they spoke the truth all the time was apparently duly noted by the general public whose trust in Quaker honesty no doubt contributed to their commercial success. Their idea of a fixed price to all customers has its origin in their tenet that they speak the truth as they know it all the time---the dissimulation required for bargaining about price was anathema to them in principle. A Quaker attorney William Penn codified this tenet before emigrating to North America because of his persecution in England for being a Quaker.
I went to a Quaker college and became aware of the Society of Friends’ contributions to my personal development as well as to society at large---the fixed price to all customers is only one example. Many faculty members took their sabbaticals working overseas for the American Friends Service Committee. They didn’t even have to be Quakers to be eligible. Competence was the only requirement. The Quaker example of personal responsibility pervaded Haverford College where exams were never proctored and “take home” exams were commonplace. I was there from 1940-1943, where the grand old man of Quakerism, Rufus Jones, was still teaching as emeritus professor of philosophy. Haverford College was founded in 1833 by Quakers to provide an excellent education without too many doctrinal or worldly temptations.
Most, if not all, private colleges were founded by religious groups for similar reasons. The perceived doctrinal temptations differed from group to group. A hundred years or so of selecting the best available faculty generally results in the sectarian roots becoming vestigial. For example, Harvard was founded by dyed-in-the-wool Puritans. (Two Quakers were hung in Boston on their second visit there because they were highly unwelcome during the early days of the Bay Colony). Unlike the rest of the sectarian colleges, the Quaker schools have retained their sectarian roots probably because the Quakers have evolved to be less and less sectarian. The example of faculty members taking their sabbaticals doing foreign service for the American Friends Service Committee showed me how to do missionary work--go somewhere that needs help and quietly do what needs doing without tooting your own horn or trying to make the locals over in your image. The most effective “standard brand” missionaries do quite a bit of this, but their conviction of access to universal truth gets in the way more often than with the Quakers who eschew hubris.
My wife and I have supported the American Friends Service Committee throughout or 66 years of marriage because they do such imaginative things. They even offered me a job in 1971 helping with a medical installation in Vietnam where the primary mission was fitting artificial limbs for civilian casualties. This installation suffered no damage from either of the combatants. We are the proud possessors of a registered letter from a federal judge containing an apology from the FBI for having us under surveillance as subversives because of our Quaker association and the Quaker opposition to the Vietnam War. Did the FBI miss the point that Quakers have always been opposed to all wars? When the Quakers found out about the surveillance, apparently they went to court to clear the record of their supporters. However, I am not a Quaker because the silent meeting and lack of music doesn’t wear well over time for me.
My writing of this was occasioned by mentioning about Quakers being the origin of fixed retail prices to a highly educated friend. He didn’t know this was a contribution of the Quakers. An informal poll of patients, fellow staff members and other acquaintances indicated that very few people know of this basis for our commercial system. The fixed retail price is such a good idea that it has even “invaded” Asia. I am quite sure that the Asians are even less aware of its Quaker origin than we are.
May 8, 2003, revised January 12, 2012