Quakers and SRI: Some Historic Perspective

Quakers are often given credit for being pioneers in the formative era of Socially Responsible Investment. As I was reading an array of early SRI publications, it was easy to see that Quaker traditions and practices have played an important role in this movement’s history. While you may not have the same faith as the thinkers and authors quoted here, the lessons and insights are applicable regardless of your spiritual background or belief.

When we remember that many of the concerns we are trying to address through our investments are global issues (climate change, deforestation, gender equity and LGBT rights, supply chain/human rights, etc.), it becomes even more important to broaden our understanding. While Quakers come from the Judeo-Christian tradition, universalism is a commonly held belief among Friends, as Quakers are often called. There is diversity among Quakers, and an openness and curiosity about others is central. As Tom Head wrote in Envisioning a Moral Economy, “To study well the other faith traditions through which all humankind knows and experiences the sacred is especially important in our era of globalization.” (Footnote 1)

Quakers are one of the three historic Peace Churches, believing there is “that of God” in all people. This has inspired a strong history, still continuing today, of social justice advocacy on pressing topics of the day, from slavery to women’s rights, prison reform, and armament issues. As early as 1688, Quaker meetings in the United States were corresponding and discussing the ethical issue of profiting from the slave trade, and in 1758 the Philadelphia yearly meeting unanimously issued a proclamation forbidding its members from participating in the slave trade.

Could you imagine a church/mosque/temple in 2017 forbidding its members to profit from the fossil fuel industry? Or forbidding its members from investing in and working with predatory or discriminatory financial institutions?

Quakers are a group that values the connection of daily life and spiritual life. In fact, many meetings publish books about the spiritual beliefs of the meeting, entitled “Faith and Practice.” Seeing these two as inter-related concepts certainly makes you think twice about honking your car horn at the slow driver in front of you, or grabbing the very last brownie off the plate!

As folks involved with Natural Investments, it seems likely that you have taken time to consciously think about investment decisions and have decided to align your values with your financial life. Congratulations! Now consider whether there are other, or further, steps that can be taken.

Thomas Paxson speaks of his faith not as a system providing concrete answers, but rather as a lens through which one can be more discerning about our choices in the financial world:

“Theology can and does provide criteria for evaluating the adequacy and propriety of human economic institutions and systems without stipulating the structure of the system itself.” (Footnote 2)

Many Quakers worship in services called meetings, which can be either programmed or un-programmed. In un-programmed meetings, there is no “Pastor” or sermon; Friends sit in silence waiting for spirit to move them to share with the group. From these times of reflection, great and simple wisdom often emerges, to the benefit of all who are present.

To end by looking forward, I want to maintain the Quaker spirit; instead of giving action steps that I believe are appropriate, I will leave you with a couple of final thoughts from Jonathan Dale. From there, you can reflect and listen for your own next steps.

“The economy that we know and experience in the here and now is truly violent. Most wars have underlying economic causes… we see the violence of drug dealing, sex trafficking, and the arms trade… the slow violence of starvation, medical neglect and climate change. How many deaths each day are attributable to these causes?” (Footnote 3)

“Every time we shop with our conscience, every time we hold an investment decision in the light, every time we consider whether to use the car or travel in a more humane way, we are rediscovering the critical distance between our faith values and the values of the market and of secular society.” (Footnote 4)


1 – Tom Head, Pendle Hill Pamphlet #405 “Envisioning a Moral Economy” Published 2010, page 16

2 – Thomas Paxson, Quaker Religious Thought “Human Welfare: Economics and Theology” volume 27, published 1994 Page 37

3, 4 – Jonathan Dale, Pendle Hill Pamphlet #360 “Quaker Social Testimony in our personal and corporate life” Published 2002, page 25,21

This article first appeared in the Spring 2017 edition of the Natural Investment News.


Evan Quirk-Garvan

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