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These powerful ideas translated into an equally powerful vision of a new social order. Implicit in them was a conception of society which, though hardly devoid of distinctions of status and wealth or even of party, rejected the static hierarchical structure of the old regime and assumed a much more open communion of individuals. Both the Baptists and the Quakers accepted a degree of social diversity as an element of social unity and would not permit the state to override the freedom of individuals to choose their own way. Robert Purnell, for example, reminded Parliament in the early 1650s that, “next under God, all power fundamentally was in the people of God,” of whom those in authority were merely “Trustees.”[42] What he wanted was a new “Church-state,” in which the poor and forlorn would receive succour, the godly would go free from the meddlings of excisemen and contribution-collectors, and the sects would continue to have their separate existences, but now based upon a spiritual union; for, as he says, “the body is not one mem-ber, but many.”[43] Differences about discipline and about “how, and when, and in what places…God is to be worshipped” were to be tolerated.[44] “And when this day is dawned,” he prophesied,

and this Day-star is risen in our hearts, Ephraim shall not envy Judah, nor Judah vex Ephraim; Presbyterians shall not so bitterly cry out against Independents, nor Independents have such hard thoughts of the Presbyterians. Yea, they will be ashamed to own one another by these fleshy titles, but look upon and love one another as Christians, members of the same Body, heirs of the same promise, children of the same Father, having all the same Spirit, all cloathed with the same Robe, inclined to the same Work, ruled by the same Word and Spirit, and so their love to each other, shall arise from the Union in the Spirit.[45]

For Purnell and his brethren, the religion of the Spirit permitted or, rather, demanded the communion of men and women in outward difference with one another. But for the Quakers it went even further, since in their doctrine, liberty of conscience was the keystone of all personal freedom. “Ye know,” George Bishop said, “that the Good Old Cause, was (chiefly) Liberty of Conscience…and the Liberties of the Nation were bound up and joyned together (with it), as two lovely Twins that cannot be divided.” Moreover, liberty of conscience was the preeminent civil right, “and where this Liberty is abridged by a State, that State is not free, For a free mind, and a free speech, and a Free State, go together, and weere the two former are wanting, the later is not.”[46] This meant, in effect, that the exercise of authority must rest on the acquiescence or consent of those subject to it. An individual who was not personally convinced of the righteousness of a governmental action was bound, not by it, but by his conscience. Consider, for example, the case of William Foord, a Quaker serge weaver, who first came to attention in 1655 when the Company of Milleners in Bristol accused him of keeping a stranger in his employ, contrary to their ordinances. The mayor ordered Foord “to turn the stranger a way and not to teach him.” But Foord refused, saying “he was not of their trade, and therefore their Ordinary had no power over him.”[47]

Foord’s remark might well be read as a manifesto for a host of sectarian small traders and dealers. These men and women envisioned a world in which arbitrary economic distinctions created by actions of the law or the state had no force. They insisted on the rights of Englishmen to “freely come into, and live in any place, within the English jurisdiction, giving an accompt of their names, former habitations, business, places of birth, and last abode, and freeing the parish from charge if it be demanded.”[48] In other words, they rejected the basic premise of urban life, which separated freeman from foreigner and gave the magistrates authority to remove unwanted strangers, vagrants, and rootless persons from the town.[49] They believed instead that the “Law of God” required “strangers to be entertained, and cherished, and loved as thy self, not to be vexed or oppressed,” and that the “Rights, Liberties, [and] Fundamental Laws” of the English demanded that “Justice be open and free to all” and that “the Magistrates without respect of persons, judge according to the Law, not their own wills or lusts.”[50] Their beliefs would not let them accept anyone’s exclusive trading privileges. For example, when George Bishop acted during the Commonwealth to defend the Merchant Venturers’ rights to trade in calfskins and butter, he would not limit his protection to merchants alone, but extended it to the shoemakers and shopkeepers who also traded in these goods.[51] For him and those like him, all who violated these basic principles were agents of the devil and “Merchants of Babylon.”[52]

These ideas come very near to the views upheld in more systematic seventeenth-century discussions of liberty in politics and society. They envision a social order grounded in personal choice and individual commitment. If William Foord had voluntarily placed himself under the rule of the Milleners, he could have no claim to disobey; but since he had not, he assumed a right to pursue his business free from outside interference. His own choice, based on a personal judgment of his rights and interests and of God’s will and its demands upon him, governed his activities. This freedom was far from unlimited, since he could not hope to succeed without God’s aid and blessing. But how was God to make his will manifest? For a trading man like Foord, the test of whether to continue in his enterprise was a test of the market. If the enterprise prospered, he would maintain it. The same sentiment seems to have prevailed among the sectaries in the colonial trade. They asked no more than for the market to decide whether they should engage in it. By implication, they also placed the colonial servant under the same regime, free to sell his labor to whom he wished, according to what the market would bear.[53]

Since R. H. Tawney’s time it has been something of a commonplace that the medieval conception of a social theory based ultimately on religion was discredited in the mid-seventeenth century. Where once the theory of a just price had ruled, Restoration Englishmen are said to have relied more upon the idea of an impersonal market that regulated all economic affairs.[54] The members of the dissenting sects, however, had a distinctively religious view of the market and their relation to it. Many of them believed it wrong to haggle over the price of a commodity. They thought instead that a good Christian should set one fair price and hold to it.[55] In the words of Charles Marshall, one of the leading Bristol Quakers of the Restoration period, a tradesman was to “use but a few words” in his dealings

and be Equal, Just and Upright; and…be not drawn forth in many words,…but after you have put a price on your Commodities, which is Equal, and as you can sell them, then if the Persons you are Dealing with, multiply words, stand you silent in the Fear, Dread and Awe of God, and this will answer the Witness of God in them you are dealing with.[56]

According to George Fox, Christ himself required this practice in his Sermon on the Mount when he ordered that all our communication be “Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more cometh of evil.”[57] “[Y]ou tradesmen, merchantmen of all sorts whatsoever, buyers and sellers,” Fox says,

set no more upon the thing you sell in exchange, than what you will have; is it not better and more ease to have done at a word, than to ask double or more? Doth not this bring you into many vain words, and compliments, and talk, that fills the vain mind? This is deceitful before God and man. And is it not more savoury to ask no more than you will have for your commodity, to keep yea and nay in your communication, when you converse in your calling, than to ask more than you will take? and so is not there the many words where is the multitude of sins? This is the word of the Lord to you, ask no more than you will have for your commodity…and here will be an equal balancing of things.[58]

These ideas were developed most systematically by the Quakers, but other dissenters, such as John Bunyan, agreed with them in principle.[59] They thought that in the ordinary course of business affairs each commodity should have one price, which the buyer was free to take or leave as he wished. In other words, they believed in what John Locke, writing in the mid-1690s, called “the common rule of traffic,” namely, the obligation to sell goods to one and all at the price set at the point of sale by the current state of supply and demand, i.e., by the prevailing market price. According to this view, as Locke outlined it, a merchant or shopkeeper who “makes use of another’s ignorance fancy or necessity to sell ribbon or cloth etc dearer to him than to another man at the same time, cheats him.” Similarly, if by “artifice” he raises his customer’s “longing” for his wares or by his great “fancy” sells them “dearer to him than he would to an other man he had cheated him too.” But so long as there is no deceit and each side is equally subject to the same trading conditions, the demands of justice are served. For this reason, Locke argues that “what any one has he may value at what rate he will and transgress not against justice if he sells it at any price provided he makes no distinction of Buyers but parts with it as cheap to this as he would to any other Buyer.”

In a market of this sort, the buyer guarantees no assured profit to the seller, but buys “as cheap as he can” even if it is to the “merchant’s downright loss when he comes to a bad market.” Conversely, the merchant or shopkeeper is at “liberty…to sell as dear as he can when he comes to a good market.” In this fashion they each expose themselves to the risks inherent in trade. Without this sharing of the dangers, Locke says, there would be “an end to merchandising,” since the possibility of loss would not be counterbalanced by the chance of gain. Trade would also halt if in practice the burdens were not distributed equitably, if either the buyer or the seller was more likely than his counterpart to suffer loss. “The measure that is common to buyer and seller,” Locke concludes, and that therefore moves the continuous exchange of goods between the parties

is just that if one should buy as cheap as he could in the market the other should sell as dear as he could there, everyone running his venture and taking his chances which by the mutual and perpetual changing wants of money and commodities in buyer and seller comes to a pretty equal and fair account.[60]

There is perhaps nothing new in the idea that the just price for a commodity is the market price and that this price ought to be the same to all. A number of scholastic thinkers had so argued in the Middle Ages, among them San Bernardino of Siena.[61] Nevertheless, the understanding of mercantile morality set forth by George Fox and Charles Marshall and given sharper theoretical form by John Locke makes a significant break from one of the most fundamental aspects of earlier economic practice, the full meaning of which becomes apparent only in the context of mid-seventeenth-century affairs. From the Middle Ages into the seventeenth century, most buying and selling were inseparable from bargaining. A price was set only after agreement between the parties. Gerard Malynes defined the process as “an estimation and price de-manded and agreed upon…according to a certaine equalitie in the value of things…[s]o that equalitie is nothing else but a mutuall voluntary estimation of things made in good order & truth.”[62] On its face, nothing would appear to uphold the idea of a modern, free market more than this. But in fact this regime of bargaining served an economic order that was anything but free.

Outside of the trade in staples, the market was highly opaque. Commodities were not standardized, communications were slow, and, consequently, the overall state of the market was unknown and unpredictable. As a result, the needs and interests of the different buyers and sellers were not immediately apparent. The market was small both in number of dealers and number and variety of commodities traded within it. Buyers could not readily abandon one supplier for another when dissatisfied with the goods they were offered, or shift their preference from one type of goods to another. Bargaining helped remedy these shortcomings. The price asked and the price offered set the limits of the market, and the haggling permitted each of the parties to judge the other’s situation as it compared to his own. In the end the transaction was to give a profit or benefit to both sides. Hence Malynes’s insistence on the word “equality,” for this type of market was not inherently a competitive one.[63]

In such a market, transaction costs necessarily were high. It was difficult for sellers and buyers to locate each other; large risks were involved in the extension of credit; and little genuine recourse was available if the goods purchased turned out to be defective. To minimize these costs, however, a host of regulatory devices existed. Trade in “market overt” was a supervised trade, whether it occurred at a dealer’s stall in the market square or at the tradesman’s counter in his shop. In the towns, as we know, only sworn freemen enjoyed a right to trade in shops; and they were subject to a host of local regulations, including in many cases gild ordinances, intended not only to assure honesty and good quality but to limit competition. All others were confined to the market square, the market hall, or the fairgrounds, where local dealers had advantages and transactions were subject to close scrutiny by city officials. When disputes arose, they were subject to the decisions of a local market court, operating under the principles of law merchant and staffed by local tradesmen. Failure to obey its rulings would lead to a loss of trading privileges in the town. In other words, bargaining represented only a limited degree of freedom, designed to overcome the difficulties inherent in an opaque market. The economy itself was a restrictive one, subject to “custom and command.”[64]

The economic practices advocated by the Quakers and other dissenters stood in sharp contrast to this older regime. These tradesmen were, in a sense, market democrats. In their view, the seller was not merely to be consistent in all his dealings with his fellows; he was literally to be “no respecter of faces,” or, as the King James version has it, “no respecter of persons.” Once he had decided, without the benefit of bargaining, on a price for his goods, he was to welcome all comers without distinction. If he had found a price that would attract customers and still leave him a modest profit on which to maintain his enterprise, he would thrive, provided no outside authority interfered in the conduct of his affairs beyond setting down the common rules of fairness to be maintained by all parties.[65] The decision on what price to charge was his, and so was the risk. Customers would be equally free to take what was offered or go elsewhere. The requirement that dealers set one price and stick to it was tantamount to insisting on the creation of a free, competitive market of a modern type along the lines suggested by Locke. What had once required haggling now was to be done by one party’s judgment alone. How had this transformation of commercial practice come to be? What does it signify?

The new economic circumstances of the second half of the seventeenth century offer one element of the explanation. As Joan Thirsk has shown, England in these years experienced a veritable consumer revolution, conditioned by a secular rise in real wages, by the growing concentration of population in the towns, and by the expansion of the colonial markets. These changes not only assured a larger and more stable demand for non-staple items but were accompanied by the establishment of new trades and industries as new commodities, domestic and colonial, and new manufactures appeared in quantity for the first time. Consumers, in consequence, had much greater freedom to shift preferences from one type of goods to another, as well as from one dealer to another. This change in turn supported the development of new principles of business ethics. In these ways, then, the consumer revolution brought with it the rise of a new type of market society in England. It was a revolution that especially affected the small craftsmen and shopkeepers in the towns. Many of them very much depended for their livelihood on meeting the burgeoning demand for new wares.[66] In places like Bristol, where religious dissent was strong in these same circles of small tradesmen, it was also a revolution that especially affected the sectaries.

These new economic conditions affected everyone in the trading community, however, not just the Quakers and other dissenters. Why, then, did the sectaries become the first and strongest advocates of the new marketing practices? To find an answer to this question we need to place seventeenth-century economic practice in the context of the wider world of politics and culture. It is too easy to think of the economy as an autonomous realm of human behavior and to forget that for many purposes individuals or groups may be able to choose between economic and political solutions for a particular problem. This point has been made by Albert O. Hirschman in his Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. Hirschman begins his discussion by considering the case of a customer who is dissatisfied with the goods he has bought from a firm. To register his protest, the customer has two choices. He can use the market mechanism and take his business elsewhere, a strategy Hirschman calls “exit.” Alternatively, he can return the goods with a complaint or appeal to the government for a remedy, a process Hirschman calls “voice.” The first is an economic solution, the second a political or quasi-political one, and Hirschman’s work has been concerned to understand the conditions under which individuals or groups would prefer one or the other, setting up a spectrum of possible actions between complete withdrawal from the market into a kind of autarky, and reliance upon open violence to obtain redress for one’s grievance. Given this polarity, individuals and groups can sometimes find themselves caught up in a process of what Hirschman has called “shifting involvements,” in which people move in a cycle from “voice” to “exit” and back to “voice,” as political engagement first attracts, then repels, them, then attracts them again. The great power of this insight is its treatment of these modes of behavior as alternatives, not as mutually exclusive categories. It sees them as opposite poles on a single, graded scale, not as an absolute dichotomy.[67]

This understanding of economic behavior illuminates the history of the dissenters. Adopting the viewpoint of the merchant and tradesman, they advocated a regime of “exit,” not “voice.” Why? Their arguments were universal ones, intended not merely to set ethical standards for themselves but to transform the actions of all traders in the market and therefore to change the economy as a whole. But the position they advanced was very much in their own interest. In the 1640s and early 1650s, the sectaries had been among the leading practitioners of “voice” in its most overt form. Some had been in the Cromwellian army, and many had pressed for social, moral, and religious reform by the Long Parliament and the Commonwealth. They had been especially active in the Rump and in Barebone’s Parliament. But their hopes had been frustrated by politics, and with the coming of the Protectorate they no longer had the leverage to exercise “voice” very effectively.[68] A number of sectaries, especially the Quakers, withdrew from politics in these years, or, to put this more precisely, from active efforts to win command of the institutions of the state. As we have seen in Bristol, many found themselves more likely to be the victims of “voice” than its beneficiaries—victims, that is, of attacks by their political and religious enemies who now had command of the instruments of the state.

The history of the Society of Merchant Venturers shows how the “voice” of the influential could win privileges for them to the detriment of their competitors. Similarly, the history of the Bristol Register of Servants demonstrates how the “voice” of political grievance, when exercised by those who controlled the institutions of force and coercion in society, could be turned against the economic activities of political opponents. With the Corporation and the Conventicle acts of the early 1660s, these trends became even more general. Not only did they force convinced dissenters out of political office, they placed the weapons of persecution in the hands of their long-standing social and political enemies. Under these conditions, “exit” was the only strategy available to the sectaries, and they expressed it both by disengaging from active politics and by advocating a free market economy in which to work. The strategy of “exit,” understood in this way, offers those who choose it a chance to achieve purity, where “voice” with its continuous engagement with political ambiguity is, as Hirschman puts it, “treacherous”: it sometimes requires compromising one’s principles to gain practical advantage.[69]

We should not think that for the sectaries this withdrawal into economic activity necessarily represented an abandonment of the public life for a completely private one. Just the contrary: the Quakers and other dissenters thought of it as a witness to their righteousness, which in the end would achieve what could not be accomplished by politics alone. Setting a fair and fixed price, Charles Marshall argued,

will answer the Witness of God in them you are dealing with; and if this should not please People at first, yet you will see it will Overcome; so that you in your Dealings therein keep out of the Spirit of the World, out of all Covetousness, Over-reaching, and Craftiness, in the harmless Life, seeking the Kingdom daily, and let other Things come as Additional: So all being diligent in the pure Fear of the Lord…you will see great Opportunity in your Dealings of reaching unto People, and thereby Thousands may be reached, convinced and brought to Truth.[70]

According to George Fox, such action inevitably would lead to triumph in this world, for

a child shall trade with you as a man, because of the equity, and yea and nay, and righteousness, and true weighing of things, and true consideration of things, and people shall not be afraid of one cheating the other, of destroying the other, where truth and equity is among them, and mercy and righteousness, and no more is set upon the thing than what they will take, who are in their yea and nay in their communication.[71]

For Marshall and Fox, therefore, economic activity was not politically passive, but a form of attack. It did not tame the old passions, but redirected them into new social realms. Far from abandoning the good fight, the Quakers and other dissenters redefined the arena of public action to include their ordinary engagements in everyday life and then sought to gain by their commercial interests and personal example what they had failed to achieve by their militant evangelism.[72]

What gave the sectaries an advantage in this form of warfare was the discipline imposed upon them by their meetings. Whereas they followed a doctrine of “exit”—of free and open market relations—in dealing with outsiders, they maintained a regime of “voice” in relations among themselves. Baptists and Quakers regularly assumed the obligation to offer moral guidance to individual members and to chastise them for their moral failings. They attacked drunkenness, gluttony, licentiousness, and evil conversation, and sought to assure that all brothers and sisters lived frugal, sober, and disciplined lives. These interventions extended to the members’ business practices, especially among the Quakers, whose Men’s Monthly Meeting, established in 1667, was specifically charged with this responsibility. These duties turned the Men’s Meeting into something akin to a medieval merchant gild that regulated the trading relations of its members among themselves and with the larger economic world. It assured that all members would uphold the reputation of the Friends for fairness in their dealings with outsiders. It intervened with merchants and shopkeepers to keep them from spendthrift practices and to prevent them from overreaching themselves in their investments. It set standards for manufacture and for honest dealing, and it arbitrated business disputes between members when they arose. If necessary, it acted as an agency for collection of their outstanding debts, and, when all else failed, it supported those in need, often helping them to cover their business obligations and to start anew. Where Quaker, and to a lesser extent Baptist, businessmen were individualists in regard to the state and the market, they were subjects of an egalitarian spiritual fellowship in regard to one another. Their dealings together were founded on the reasonable assurance that a promise made was a promise performed.[73]

What made this necessary was the prohibition against swearing which dominated the teachings of the Quakers and many other dissenters. Until Parliament passed the Affirmation Act in 1696, the unwillingness of the Friends and other sectaries to swear oaths cut them off from ordinary recourse to law, where oath-taking was essential.[74] The prohibition marked those who upheld it as a people apart, willing to suffer for their “testimony”; in a sense it drove them back upon one another’s assistance in all vital matters, economic and social as well as religious. A Quaker or Baptist tradesman who felt a scruple against swearing necessarily bore a large risk in offering credit in his trade, and outsiders bore a large risk in selling on credit to him. Yet, as we have seen, trade in the early modern period was virtually impossible without credit. This forced dissenters to deal primarily with other members of their sects whenever credit transactions were required. Here the moral discipline and economic intervention of the religious institutions gave them a measure of security that other Englishmen lacked. Not only did the sects promote among their members the development of a psychology of striving and hard work, but their meetings enforced this ethic with group efforts and real sanctions. In addition, the religious associations provided networks of business contacts both within and between communities that helped lubricate the wheels of commerce. Among the Quakers this was especially the case, for the Men’s Meeting, which formally controlled apprenticeships and marriage arrangements, provided a ready means for mobilizing capital among large groups of small investors.[75] Among the Baptists and other nonconformists, similar though less formal sources of social solidarity also reinforced the bonds created by shared religious convictions. Through these mechanisms the Quakers and other dissenters could play a prominent role in industries demanding large-scale investment in fixed capital, such as shipowning, sugar-refining, soapmaking, and metalworking, and in long-distance trades with lengthy turnarounds, such as commerce with the colonies.

This same point can be put another way. The old ideal of the town market had depended on the existence of a body of sworn freemen who alone fully enjoyed the benefits of the town monopoly. However, the restrictions imposed on the trade of non-freemen had economic purposes beyond guaranteeing a crude competitive advantage to the privileged body. We can see this if we look again at the various ways freemen could be made in most towns: patrimony, apprenticeship, marriage to a freeman’s daughter or widow, and redemption. Each method had its own significance, but each in its own way also assured that the new freeman had a strong tie to the community he was entering. A craftsman or shopkeeper who became a burgess after his apprenticeship, for example, would be well known to his master’s customers and business associates. His training not only would have taught him skills but would have woven him into the fabric of urban society and established his reputation for honest dealing. Similarly, admission by patrimony and, to a lesser extent, admission by marriage and by redemption relied on family or social ties within the city to certify and guarantee the good character of the new freeman.

By assuring that the sworn citizenry would have such strong local connections, these methods of admission to the freedom reinforced the most fundamental values upon which urban society depended. On the one hand, the town as a political community needed a body of men able and willing to pay local rates and bear the heavy burdens of office. Citizens with a long-term personal interest in the community were more likely to do so, if only for fear of losing face before their family, friends, and neighbors.[76] On the other hand, the town as a trading community needed a body of men honor-bound to pay their debts. In an economy habitually scarce of money, all business, even the most petty, depended on credit. Ordinarily a merchant or shopkeeper could not pay his suppliers until he had sold the goods and himself received payment for them. One trader along the line breaking faith could cause a credit crisis for everyone else in the chain. So long as most such trade was between fellow townsmen, however, community pressure acted to prevent such crises, both by encouraging debtors to pay if they could and by keeping creditors from unnecessarily destroying a debtor’s business by going to law too early or by refusing the efforts of local arbitrators to settle on mutually acceptable terms.[77]

Before the development of modern markets and modern methods of market discipline, there was a very close link in many towns between the desire to assure that citizens would perform public service and the need to guarantee the payment of personal debts. Under the trading conditions prevailing in the late medieval and early modern economy, a man’s good name was his principal capital asset. It bound him to the community in which he was known and reduced the risk that he would break faith with its members, either by refusing to meet his public obligation to serve them or by failing to meet his private obligation to fulfill his promises and contracts. Failing in the performance of these duties would hurt, even destroy, his ability to maintain his way of life in the city. At the same time, every improvement in his status was also an improvement in his fortune. Officeholding not only gave official recognition to his reputation for good judgment and reliability but enhanced it and thereby furthered his capacity to conduct his private affairs. For these reasons, the pursuit of gain in the market, which we have been calling the strategy of “exit,” was not distinguished in the medieval town from the strategy of “voice.” If one wished to advance in business one could not withdraw from political involvement or the demands of service to the community.

This regime was always somewhat fragile, even in its heyday in the high Middle Ages, but it became more and more frail as industry migrated out of the towns and as internal trade became regional or national in scope. It should be no surprise to discover that from the early sixteenth century, at about the same time as Bristol’s fairs and other old market institutions were taking on new functions and the city abandoned the collection of the traditional tolls at its gates, the tendency of its citizens to refuse service in civic office also grew. Such refusals persisted throughout the ensuing period.[78] The migration of George Monox, Paul Withypool, Robert Thorne, and other major cloth exporters to London in the early sixteenth century should be seen in this same light. Their public service followed their business interests.[79] By the second half of the seventeenth century these civic traditions in Bristol were in an advanced state of decay. As we have seen, the city became filled with shopkeepers and craftsmen who conducted retail trade without being sworn freemen and in many cases without even having been apprenticed in their occupations. Furthermore, Bristol found its substantial men refusing office with unheard-of frequency. Between the Restoration and 1680, for example, some fourteen Bristolians elected to be common councillors refused to serve and had to be discharged, and a further seven were sworn only after having put up considerable resistance.[80] Under these conditions, it became possible to separate “exit” from “voice,” to pursue alternative strategies for obtaining one’s ends.

But in examining the relation between credit and the scheme of admission to a town’s freedom, a question immediately arises. What mechanisms for assuring credit discipline developed to substitute for those that used to be in force in the cities? A partial answer to this question can be supplied if we look again at the economic implications of religious politics after the Restoration. The Clarendon code, especially the Corporation Act, had removed from the cursus honorum of the towns all those unwilling to conform themselves, even occasionally, to the Anglican service. Insofar as officeholding marked one’s rank in the social hierarchy, these men no longer stood on the same ladder of mobility as their fellows. Moreover, some nonconformists refused to swear oaths and thus found themselves unwilling—or, as they would have said, unable—even to enter into the freedom of their home communities. In Bristol and similar places, it is these religious dissenters we find most frequently arrested for illicit retail trading or fined for refusing to serve in office. Indeed, in many instances nonconformists were purposely elected to office in order that they could then be fined. The fines served both as a way of taxing their wealth, which would otherwise not be employed for civic purposes, and as a form of persecution. At least three of the fourteen unsworn common councillors elected between 1660 and 1680 fall into this category.[81]

However, the members of the dissenting sects had their own mechanisms for maintaining credit discipline when they were cut off from the older civic and gild forms. Those mechanisms were of a type that remained useful after the trader had left the jurisdiction of the town. The concept of “calling,” which demanded hard work, sobriety, honesty, constant striving to do one’s best, and, above all, a religious devotion to keeping one’s word, played an all-important role. As a dissenter went about his business, he showed his creditworthiness by the same means he used to manifest his commitment to God’s law. Among some groups, moreover, this psychological scheme of credit discipline was reinforced by a social one. Their religious meetings in many ways performed similar functions to the clubs, Masonic lodges, and pseudo-Masonic organizations that John Brewer has shown to have been essential in stabilizing the credit system of the eighteenth century.[82]

The world of the shopkeeper, the peddler, and the itinerant craftsman was the environment from which such religious dissent drew its greatest strength. It was peopled by individuals whom Christopher Hill has termed “masterless men” because they depended primarily upon their own resources, psychological as well as economic, in earning their livelihoods.[83] Far from being masterless, these men were their own masters. They viewed life as a pilgrimage on which they progressed along a straight and narrow path guided by a religious and ethical compass within them. They represented at one and the same time the two principles of independence and trustworthiness. Once they had bound themselves by a promise, whether it was to God or to creditor, they would do everything in their power to keep their word. It was this outlook, inculcated and reinforced by the work of the religious meeting, that made possible the dissenters’ participation in the economic revolution of the later seventeenth century.[84]

Take, for example, the sugar refinery established in 1665 at Whitson Court in Bristol by a group of Baptists headed by Thomas Ellis and Edward Terrill.[85] Its history in the 1660s and 1670s gives a good picture of how connections within the dissenting community could be employed to build up an enterprise from relatively small beginnings. Ellis, who became a freeman of Bristol in 1641, was the son of Walter Ellis, a prominent Merchant Venturer from before 1618, a common councillor in the 1620s and 1630s, and keeper of the Backhall under the reformed city government in 1647–48. Both Thomas’s father and his grandfather had been importers of sugar to the city in the years before the development of the West Indies trade. Ellis was also the cousin of John Gonning, Junior, another prominent Merchant Venturer and well-connected supporter of the parliamentary cause in the 1640s, who from 1651 to his death in 1662 was part owner of St. Peter’s sugar house, the first such establishment in Bristol, founded by Alderman Robert Aldworth in 1612. In Ellis, therefore, we have a man who not only had family ties to and personal interest in the sugar trade but who no doubt also benefited from a comfortable inheritance from two generations of successful trade in the city and who enjoyed close connections to the wealthiest and most prominent elements in the city’s commercial leadership.

By the later 1650s and early 1660s, however, Ellis’s religious convictions had almost certainly undermined his position in the city at large. We find him in the city’s commercial records only as a small-scale trader in West Indian sugar. At one point, for example, he shipped a modest cargo of shoes to Nevis for his supplies. When he started his own sugar refinery he turned primarily to his dissenting brethren, first buying the old priory property in Lewins Mead in St. James parish from William Davis, merchant, and John Teague, leatherseller, who were almost certainly co-religionists. Within two years of this purchase he was made Ruling Elder of the Broadmead Baptist Church, located not far from his new sugar house. To get started he depended on the expertise of two fellow Baptists as his sugar bakers: Anthony Wood, a colonial merchant who also became a trading partner and key supplier of sugar to Ellis’s enterprise, and Godfridt von Ittern, a recent émigré from Hamburg. To build up a capital stock for equipment and supplies, Ellis also looked for credit to his fellow Baptists, receiving it from Thomas Harris, an apothecary; Edward Terrill, a scrivener; and John Wathen, apothecary, kinsman of James Wathen, shoemaker, whom we have already met. In this way, capital of approximately £800 was built up to pay for the property and equipment on the site.

Although we find both William Colston of St. Peter’s sugar house and John Knight, Junior, who had a sugar house at the Great House on St. Augustine’s Back, importing sugar “ten tons at a time,” Ellis and his associates rarely made entries in the Customs House on their own. Instead of sending their servants to buy directly from the planters, they relied for their supplies on the large numbers of small traders who brought sugar to Bristol. At the same time, they undertook to secure further supplies by “coloring” sugar and molasses belonging to strangers as their own. In most cases the suppliers were American planters who were probably also fellow Baptists. Using these techniques, a risky investment in one of the few early modern industries requiring significant stocks of fixed capital was turned into a success. By 1682, when Ellis sold the sugar works to Edward Terrill and a partnership of three Presbyterian grocers headed by Michael Pope, the enterprise had multiplied in value. The three grocers each had invested £1,000 to start their business. These figures suggest that the original £800 investment had grown in value to perhaps between £4,000 and £6,000 in less than twenty years.

The nature of the shipping industry also offered room for pooling resources and talents. Ships were inherently complex pieces of machinery, demanding large outlays of funds and a variety of skills to build and maintain. To work efficiently they demanded a cohesion or solidarity among all the parties—investors, merchants, and crew—that could only be enhanced if these individuals also shared extra-economic loyalties.[86] Often these ties were promoted by kinship, but it is not surprising to find interconnected groups of dissenting shipowners, builders, and sailors operating in a fashion not unlike that of Ellis and his associates. We have already seen such a connection at work among the Quakers in the makeup of the crew of the Dolphin of Bristol, which brought young Farwell Meredith to Barbados in 1654. A similar pattern can be observed in the history of the ship Love’s Increase, which William Bullock employed to transport Irish prisoners to the West Indies as indentured servants in the 1650s. It was built in the 1640s by a team of sectaries headed by Bullock’s father and was owned in the 1650s by Thomas Speed’s sister-in-law, Ann Yeamans, herself a prominent Quaker. It was from Ann Yeamans that Bullock contracted for its use. Its name, chosen for it in the 1640s, was not a mere fancy but an expression of the fondest hopes of those associated with it.[87]

The link among the dissenters between the pursuit of gain in the wider world and the maintenance of solidarity in their own communities was an intimate one. Their external strategy of “exit” could not have succeeded so well without their internal practice of “voice.” Indeed, in the dissenters’ own minds these two methods of addressing humankind were conceived as interconnected parts of the same design. Both turned on their abhorrence of false swearing, since they understood bargaining in the traditional manner as simply another form of oath-taking. Their practice of setting a single price for the sale of a particular commodity thus arose from interpretation of the same scriptural passages that had produced their prohibition against swearing of any kind. In the Sermon on the Mount, they argued, had not Christ required “Yea, yea” and “Nay, nay” as an alternative to oath-taking? Had he not said, “Swear not at all”?[88] And in the Epistle of St. James were not Christians told, “above all things…swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be your yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into a condemnation.”[89] In conventional Protestant commentaries, such as those of William Ames, these words were not interpreted as absolutely prohibiting oaths or forbidding all bargaining—far from it.[90] The dissenters, who had experienced the defeats of the Interregnum and the religious and economic persecutions of the Restoration, used these doctrines to define their place in the world as an embattled remnant. At one and the same time they were able to face their enemies as militant proselytizers for the Truth and to draw together for moral guidance and material support.[91]


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