Do you know what is better than charity and fasting and prayer?

It is keeping peace and good relations between people,

as quarrels and bad feelings destroy mankind.

- Prophet Mohammed


Day 9

I've had a few casual exchanges with a couple Protestants about the nature of poverty and what my role (as a Quaker) is and how it's different from that of Protestants. I wasn't sure how to answer that, but I engaged anyways. I sounded off a few things about the sharing of resources and how Quakers deeply supported extended aid and mission work in Africa, but in all honesty, Protestants do the same. Many Friends will rattle for hours about searching for the root of injustice and I think that is something in itself, but it was not enough for me to truly answer the question. 

The hardest part about this project is my struggle to define the religion. I could use the texts, but people often violate their own rules making it hard to decipher fluff from reality. I could use modern practitioners as well, yet they are typically different from their elders. If you were to ask me off the cuff, I would probably say that Quakers are very serious about giving. Conservative Friends might have less to offer while the Liberal Friends perhaps could have more expendable assets to throw around, but that is only my assumption which, unfortunately, is based on very little.

So, I ask myself again, How do Quakers view poverty? Or more importantly, what are Quakers supposed to do about it?

To answer this question, we must first seek to understand the true nature of Quakerism. Simply put, Quakerism is about simplicity, truth, equality and understanding. Every aspect of the religion adheres to those principles. It should also be said that adhering to such principles doesn't dictate that wealth is an evil nor does it push a particular work ethic in return for salvation. 
"Quakers came to do good, and stayed to do well."
This quote originated from Philadelphia Friends and sums up early Quakerism. While some could misconstrue this as exploitation of talents, the truth is actually more like people chose to do business with Quakers because of the level of trust they earned. Historical Friend, William Penn, was regarded as a man that was very fair and just. He earned the respect of his fellow countrymen and neighboring Native American population just the same. He was enterprising and a bold businessman. 

The map to the left is from what was called the "Walking Purchase". It's been deemed a "swindle" at this point, but in its original conception, Penn was there and was said to have handled the deal in a honest fashion. It wasn't until long after his death did the deal go sour and turn into yet another betrayal of our Native American brothers and sisters. 

And while Penn might have been the enterprising busy-type that he was, he didn't lose sight of what was important.
We are inclined to call things by the wrong names. We call prosperity 'happiness', and adversity 'misery' eventhough adversity is the school of wisdom and often the way to eternal happiness. 
Another strand of Quakerism can be witnessed through the life of John Woolman who could have been just as much of a success as Penn but chose to live by the Testimony of Simplicity insofar that he only worked enough to maintain a sustainable wage and the rest of his time was committed to helping the less fortunate. 

Both of these men were devout Quakers and both are still highly regarded by all Friends. They were trusted in business because they lived by their own principles of truth, simplicity and understanding. Quakerism stresses simplicity in several ways that far exceed the realm of simplicity in dress and speech. They sought a simplified life where any form of manipulation and coercion was recognized to lead to a more vexing existence. They understood that in order to truly understand the plight of the impoverished, they must too feel such poverty. 
“If a man, successful in business, expends part of his income in things of no real use, while the poor employed by him pass through difficulties in getting the necessaries of life, this requires his serious attention.” —John Woolman
Of course, this raises an important question. Do we have to experience poverty in order to understand poverty? And furthermore, is this a uniquely Quaker characteristic?

I think being impoverished certainly helps to understand what it's like. Barbra Ehrenreich certainly got a heavy dose of the struggles of the workin' (wo) man while writing Nickel And Dimed. It gives you a firsthand experience and a kind of shared feeling for the less fortunate. However, if you were to ask college kids (save for parts of the South and Midwest) whether or not they believed the government should be providing more social welfare and assistance to the impoverished, they'll most likely say 'yes'. Students aren't typically "poor", though. Some would argue they hold such convictions because they've never really toiled to earn money; that they don't understand the true value of it. 

Perhaps, and the fact that Barbara Bush Jr. has now joined Laura in concluding that  "health should be a right for everyone" when asked about the historic healthcare law that her father's party fought so hard to derail. 
Why do, basically, people with money have good health care and why do people who live on lower salaries not have good health care?" she said.
Characteristically eloquent, huh? Still, the Bush family is about as wealthy as they come. But just like with the college students, one could argue that since they've never had to work hard just to scrape by that they have a somewhat jaded or out-of-touch perception on the value of money. Following that logic, only people who have worked hard for their money can opine on healthcare and poverty. Right?

Nope. The rich are rich and believe that the government does NOT need to provide assistance to the poor

Remember this incident? I wonder what religion this Ohio teabagger was?

So sad. The poor, on the other hand, wouldn't mind the help. Yet, William Penn was wealthy and Woolman was a tad more on the modest side and they offered everything they could to help. You would not hear even mutter the words "hand-out". What accounts for this difference?


Most people who aren't named Glenn Beck find empathy to be a wonderful thing. Then again, most people aren't trading in their last scraps of integrity for a few more finals breaths of "professional" life. I know I think it's a wonderful thing and I know that Quakers do as well. Empathy is a fascinating thing.  A recent study found that vegetarians are more empathetic in general to all forms of suffering. (I'd like to see a religious and political breakdown as well.)

The first main finding of this study is that, compared to Omnivores, Vegans and Vegetarians show higher activation of empathy related brain areas (e.g. Anterior Cingular Cortex and left Inferior Frontal Gyrus) when observing scenes of suffering; whether it be animal or human suffering.
Further, pictures of animal suffering (in contrast to pictures human suffering) recruited specific brain regions in Vegans and Vegetarians that were not differentially recruited by Omnivores. These were areas which are thought to be associated with higher-order representations of the self and self values (e.g. medial Prefrontal Cortex)

Quakers aren't all vegetarians or vegans, but they do actively pursue the end of human suffering. As mentioned before, the oneness with God makes all living things equal and therefore deserving of respect, assistance and empathy. Even though some early Quakers own slaved, they quickly switched from buying them for labor to buying them for freedom and education. That trend has continued as they still fight for the poor and unfortunate and have taken the first steps on everything from suffrage to immigration reform.

So, after thinking about this for awhile, I've come up with a few ideas. Many Protestants are giving just like many Catholics, Buddhists and just about every other religion. Love is stressed in all religions. However, Quakers are very organized, somewhat cohesive and define a mission statement at their Meetings. That mission in then carried out in a very organized fashion. There's nothing symbolic about it. If the Quakers want something done, they're going to do their darnedest to get it done. The ripples might not be felt all across the world or even the country for that matter, but all Friends who are part of that specific Meeting live by that mission.

So, do Quakers view poverty differently than Protestants?

No, they view it the same. It's just that the Quakers are organized enough to get something done and Friends feel very responsible for each and every person regardless of faith or whether or not they can be converted. We are all equal and we all deserve an equal shot.


  1. The Quakers sound like they have a good plan. Did you sense any of this at your first meeting last Sunday? Do they do any good works in Seoul?

  2. Yes, I am unclear about your first meeting. Did it happen? What was it like?