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Esther Sahle, Quakers in the British Atlantic World, c. 1660-1800

Woodbridge: The Boydell Press. 2021, 206 pp. ISBN 9781783275861.
Nathalie Caron
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SAHLE, ESTHER. Quakers in the British Atlantic World, c. 1660-1800. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2021. 206 pp. ISBN 9781783275861.

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1In Quakers in the British Atlantic World, c. 1660-1800, Esther Sahle, an economic and social historian of early modern Europe and the British Atlantic, is interested in understanding why, in the early modern Atlantic, trade expanded in some places and not in others. Her book focuses on Quakers because they occupied a central place in Britain when the country emerged as the world’s leading trading nation, and also because Quakers have enjoyed a “reputation for being disproportionately successful in trade” (1). Sahle questions that reputation and the historiography. According to economic historians, the reputation for honesty was the consequence of the Quakers’ distinct business ethics, the Society of Friends’ formal system for discipling members who failed to settle their debts, and the Quaker doctrine of religious marital endogamy. Sahle challenges those views, highlighting problems in the methodology, such as the lack of comparative studies, the amalgamation of theory and practice, and a demographic determinism that explains marriage patterns by the marriage market and ignores institutional and economic factors. What Sahle eventually does in her book is establish “the actual nature of these three aspects of Quakerism, which economic historians have credited with such great influence over both Quaker merchants’ success in trade, and British economic development as a whole” (20-21).

2To do so, Sahle undertakes “the first comparative and empirical study of Quaker business ethics, the Society of Friends’ enforcement of debts, and Quakers marriage patterns” (20). She mostly uses the records of the Quaker meetings — more specifically those of the London Meeting, which first sat in 1668, and to a lesser extent those of the Philadelphia Meeting organized in 1685 — but she also explores personal papers, publications by Quakers and non-Quakers, as well as the Quaker Family History Society Database. In the first chapter, which introduces the book, she contends that historians have perceived those three institutions as static and the Society of Friends as “existing in a social and economic vacuum” (5), untouched by external factors. She shows that “Quaker practices were not as distinct as theretofore assumed” (20) and that “Quaker institutions changed dramatically between the mid-seventeenth and the end of the eighteenth century” (22). Chapters 2 provides an overview of the early history of the Society of Friends showcasing its success among other revolutionary sects, and the early introduction of a “public relations campaign” — which involved an appropriation of the term “Quaker” — aimed at improving its reputation (27). Chapter 3 focuses on London and Philadelphia, where the largest single Quaker communities resided in the period covered by the book. Salhle suggests that if Quakers had an unusual degree of success in commerce (including slave trading), it was because “a much greater proportion of Friends acted as merchants than among the general population” (52). Then Sahle demonstrates that Quaker business ethics were not distinct (Chapter 4), that the meetings rarely sanctioned delinquencies regarding debt and marriage until 1750, and that although they did more frequently afterwards, they did not comprehensively (Chapters 5-9). Sahle shows that the growth of sanctions in the mid-eighteenth century was not due to the deterioration of Friends’ conduct, but rather to a shift in the attitude of the institution towards individual members (chapter 7). For Sahle, honesty in business, pacifism and later anti-slavery only emerged as elements of Quaker identity as a result of the political and religious developments of the mid-eighteenth century and the efforts Quakers made to reorient their values as they were entangled in conflicts that threatened their reputation and consequently their economic and political interests (Chapters 10-11).

3The developments which damaged Quaker reputation took place in the colony of Pennsylvania, where Friends were outnumbered by followers of other religions and where the Quaker Party competed for power in the Assembly with the Proprietary Party. The efforts to remove the Quakers from colonial government began with the War of Jenkins’ Ear (1739-1748), when the Friends’ opponents argued that their pacifism made them unfit to govern the colony. Secondly, in 1755-1756, the proprietor’s allies petitioned the Crown arguing that Quaker reluctance to participate in the war against the French and their Indian allies was in fact aimed at maintaining control over the Assembly and defending their own commercial interests. As Anglican cleric William Smith had it, Friends had turned “Religion into a political scheme of power” (159). Thirdly, in 1764, an anti-Quaker pamphlet and cartoon war broke out, triggered by the participation of Quakers in the march against the massacres perpetrated by the “Paxton Boys” against Conestoga Indians. The Philadelphia Friends were criticized by the Paxtonians and their supporters for leaving the frontier undefended and accused of being enemies of the people. They were shown as having sexual encounters with Indian women and were called fake pacifists. As a result, and because the Friends were a transatlantic community, in the mid-eighteenth century, “the public in England and Pennsylvania began to perceive Quakers as greedy and hungry for power. A morally corrupted sect, Friends were thought to place their own political and financial interests before the welfare of their fellow colonists and the Empire.” (172)

4Sahle concludes that there is little evidence for the Quaker reputation for honesty in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (176). In the early modern period, reputation was central to commerce because economic transactions relied on credit. It is the Quakers’ concern over their collective reputation, together with the rise of religious competitors during the revivals of the early eighteenth century, such as the Methodists, which prompted the Society of Friends to reform itself and redefine the boundaries of membership. If the Quakers finally managed to be viewed as trustworthy, they did in the course of the nineteenth century and only because they had succeeded in repairing their reputation after what Sahle calls “the Pennsylvania scandals” (176). In 1877, Ferdinand Schumacher and Robert Stuart, who were not Friends, chose to call their company Quaker Oats. In 2008, Barclay’s Bank referred to their “Quaker roots.”

5Sahle’s relatively short book is an example of how necessary it is to cross disciplinary lines — here economic history and religious history — to confront and nuance traditional and often biased accounts of a given religious community. Grounded on a comparative perspective that covers 150 years and drawing on previous works that have contributed to the revision of sectarian approaches, it convincingly challenges narratives that continue to promote Quaker exceptionalism and tend to sanitize the relationships of the Society of Friends and individual Quakers with slavery and Native Americans. Sahle dissociates Quaker success in commerce from the traders’ Quakerism, but does not ignore theological factors. Rather she complexifies our knowledge of religious dynamics by crisscrossing studies of the institution and individual Friends within a transatlantic framework. The book does not have a proper introduction and conclusion. Chapter 1, inappropriately titled “The Institutional Foundations of Pre-Modern Trade,” is about historiographical problems and outlines the structure of the book. Chapter 11, titled “Reformation and Reputation,” synthetizes the author’s argument and underlines the link between antislavery sentiment among Quakers and concern over reputation. It leaves some questions unanswered, such as the relationship between endogamy and reputation. It also contains what seems to be a contradiction or a confusion between sanction and disownment. On p. 175, Sahle writes that “the main cause of disownment in both Philadelphia and London was exogamous marriage” although on p. 107, she had stated that “in the second half of the [eighteenth] century, debts began to appear as the main and even sole reason for disownment” and on p. 153, that marriage offences made up “the largest category of delinquencies.” The book, however, reads well and is a valuable contribution to the scholarship on Quakerism and commerce. It will be of great use to anyone who is interested in early modern economic and social history, British and American Quakerism, the place of women in Quakerism, the history of Pennsylvania, and antislavery.

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Nathalie Caron, « Esther Sahle, Quakers in the British Atlantic World, c. 1660-1800 »XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 79 | 2022, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2022, consulté le 20 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Nathalie Caron

Sorbonne Université

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