Pennies from Heaven

July 5, 1996

David Jeremy looks at the business world's debt to the other world

Money, rather than religion, arouses popular interest in 1990s Britain. With scratch cards, lottery tickets, and share options, added to football pools and betting shops, a higher percentage of the population than ever before stands some chance of becoming a toadstool capitalist. However, religion has been of some significance in the creation and distribution of capital even in 20th-century Britain.

Quakers have pre-eminently demonstrated how the Puritan ethic has survived, with the Cadbury and Rowntree families creating some of the largest firms in the UK economy. But there are Catholic capitalist dynasties also, though the most widespread of their businesses, C&A (Charles and Albert Brenninkmeyer), originated in the Netherlands. The Rothschilds and the Marks and Sieffs (of Marks & Spencer), figure among Jewish business families. There have been major Church of England capitalists like the Smiths (of W. H. Smith); and proportionately a good number from the Nonconformist denominations, individuals such as William Lever, Josiah Stamp, John Laing, and J. Arthur Rank.

How has religion played a part in creating their fortunes? How have they used their wealth? Invariably religion has been inextricably bound up with family. Family values, business inheritance from fathers, a network of siblings, cousins and marriage alliances: there are obvious ways in which family has simultaneously mediated religious values and created business networks. On the other hand, family firms, and delays in adopting the structures and personnel of the modern managerial corporation, have been identified as one cause of Britain's relative economic decline. Global experience of the family firm suggests a need to make recurrent trade-offs between the interests of family members and the interests of the firm, with religion on either side.

Education has been another route by which religion has influenced business careers. Quakers sent their sons to a denominational school like Friends' School, York, or Leighton Park, Reading; Methodist businessmen favoured the Leys School at Cambridge; Congregationalists Mill Hill, London; and Anglicans had a wide range of public schools, headed by Eton and Harrow. Robert Perks, the Wesleyan railway company director and wily Liberal MP, had unflattering memories of his days at Kingswood School, Bath, which he as a minister's son attended in the 1860s. He nevertheless commented: "Kingswood certainly turned out a body of hard-working, self-reliant, well-educated lads who knew that they had to face the struggles of life with courage. Most of us have done so."

Capitalists sometimes found religion of advantage in their creation of capital. Clearly religious networks have operated between businessmen, although evidence is scarce. Perks recalled that he helped a fellow Wesleyan, Edward Holden (son of Sir Isaac the Bradford woolcomber), get rid of an unprofitable and potentially ruinous railway company investment by organising the sale of his shares to the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway. Another less laudable use of religion in business was to be found in the otherwise exemplary model industrial village established by William Lever (later 1st Viscount Leverhulme) at Port Sunlight in 1888. In order to counter the threat of socialism he appointed a Wesleyan minister and Christian Socialist as the company's welfare officer and minister at Christ Church (which Lever built in 1904). By skilfully muzzling his welfare officer Lever intended to keep ideological dissent under control. Quite extraordinarily, he confined membership of his church to his employees.

Less exploitatively, the religious factor has provided the deepest impulse and motivation for capitalist creativity. Stewardly accountability to God as well as to his fellow directors was how the self-made John Craig understood, from his Free Church of Scotland upbringing and adult convictions, his chairmanship of Colvilles, the great steel business he developed between 1916 and 1957. Carrying the Sermon on the Mount in their heads, were these Christian capitalists a soft touch for their employees? Justice and straight dealing, and a sense of the proper time and place, tempered their compassion and mercy. As William Lever frequently avowed, his was a business not a charity. Almsgiving was appropriately performed privately out of personal wealth.

How then in the religious sphere did these pious capitalists use their new wealth? Mid-Victorian predecessors advocated systematic and proportionate giving of charity. Joseph Rank the miller introduced a very different approach. At the annual Wesleyan Conference in 1900 he made charitable giving public, dramatic, and provocative. This persuaded wealthy Edwardian businessmen including Thomas Robinson Ferens MP to give away thousands.

By the 1930s, however, Joseph Rank changed his almsgiving technique again. He set up a Benevolent Fund in which he and his son, J. Arthur Rank the film magnate, had a controlling interest. Why? It did not diminish his munificence, for between 1921 and his death in 1943 he gave Pounds 3.5 million to the Methodist church, mostly for foreign missions. Apparently he had become disillusioned with the clerical stewardship of his money. On one application to his fund he observed: "I do not agree with wasting money to carry out the views of some people who do not mind how much they spend so long as they do not have to provide the money." Successors in his tradition, like John Laing the Carlisle builder or Alfred Owen the Darlaston motor accessory manufacturer and BRM backer, promoted the interdenominational Billy Graham crusades in the 1950s. Doing good in the Christian tradition, "for the glory of God and the relief of man's estate" (to quote Francis Bacon), surely countered the suffocating effects which (one imagines) a wholly selfish use of new-found millions brings.

David Jeremy is professor of business history, Manchester Metropolitan University.

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