The idea of prayer as the central ‘work’ of the monastery was proposed by St Benedict (c.480–547), and has been cited from time to time as inspiration by Christian businesses. One piece of etymological evidence that the business world is indeed built on ecclesiastical origins is the word ‘company itself’, which derives from the Latin cum panis: a group of people united ‘with bread’, perhaps indicating origins in a Eucharistic community of monks. But for all their crossover into commerce, monasteries remain ecclesiastical at heart, insulated from the market by rigorous monastic rules, and thus outside the category of business operations with a faith heritage.
The first purely commercial organisations based on imported Christian values are post-Reformation. The era of the paternalistic and sometimes explicitly Christian factory owner began in the century preceding the Industrial Revolution, and is closely linked to Nonconformist denominations. As will be discussed in the section on Quaker businesses, as early as the 1660s it was a condition of entry into the Society of Friends that individuals had to be honest in trade and free of debt. The implications of this can be seen in both trading relationships and in terms of manager/employee relationships.
From the outset, some of the earliest adherents to the Society of Friends in the 1650s were involved in their own small-scale trade. The society went on to nurture some of the first entrepreneurs to build up sizeable businesses. Abraham Darby I (1678–1717) was the Quaker owner and manager of what became the Coalbrookdale Company, a foundry business whose perfection of coke-fired rather than charcoal-fired iron production enabled the mass metal production so essential to the Industrial Revolution. The company developed a school, built workers’ cottages and paid higher wages than other firms. Many other Quaker businesses followed, including all four of the country’s main chocolate manufacturers (Cadbury, Rowntree, Fry and Terry). The phenomenon of Quaker business activity is influential enough to be considered a management case study in its own right, and is dealt with in its own section below.
Entrepreneurs from different Christian denominations also set up businesses that claimed a faith foundation, a movement that peaked during the Victorian period. Three Methodist entrepreneurs of the period are Jesse Boot (1850-1931), who founded the Boots chemist chain, William Pickles Hartley (1846-1922), who founded the Hartley’s jam company, and John Mackintosh (1868–1920), the toffee manufacturer. The economist Everett E. Hagen has calculated that half of the top 92 entrepreneurs in Britain during the early industrial period were Nonconformist believers, a statistic which demonstrates a strong correlation between faith and business activity, even though other academics have queried the precise figure.