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Scrupulous businessman

by
20 September 2013

Arthur Burns considers the study of a spiritual diarist and his state of mind

The Watchful Clothier: The life of an eighteenth-century Protestant capitalist
Matthew Kadane
Yale £35
(978-0-300-16961-4)
Church Times Bookshop £31.50  (Use code CT449 )

OVER 35 years, Joseph Ryder (1695-1768), a successful Leeds clothier, penned a spiritual diary of 41 volumes, containing roughly 2.5 million words of poetry; sermon summaries; records of deaths and funerals in his Nonconformist community; and reflections on the providential significance of occurrences in personal and national life. Historians have long known of this extraordinary source, but Kadane's thoughtful and readable book is the first to give it detailed attention.

One explanation of the journal's former neglect is that, while Ryder devoted his diary to remarkable events, he was less concerned to record the events than the remarks: thus names of protagonists and key details of the occasions prompting his musings were only intermittently recorded, and cannot now be recovered from other evidence. There can be few lives generating so much detailed self-reflection about which so frustratingly little is known.

Kadane circumvents these problems by attempting to reconstruct not Ryder's life, but his state of mind. We get a clear sense of the melancholy - but perhaps not depression in the modern sense? - that characterised a man who in one year attended a funeral every 17 days, and who constantly reassessed his spiritual standing in nervous expectation of his own end. We are also offered a nuanced and sensitive portrayal of the interaction of religious commitments and commercial activity in a "godly entrepreneur on the cusp of industrialization", ideally placed to constitute a case study in the validity of the Weber thesis on the relationship of Protestantism and the rise of capitalism.

Kadane persuasively argues that any "elective affinity" between Ryder's commercial success and a belief system that understood this as evidence of divine favour must be balanced against the equally clear evidence that his faith promoted agonised "watchfulness" regarding the corrupting effects of the levity and luxury that commercial success brought in tow; it was a younger generation of Dissenters, inclined to a more optimistic Unitarian understanding of their faith, and whose advance also unsettled Ryder, who were perhaps more inclined to be unequivocally at ease with the fruits of their labours.

Anyone interested in the afterlife of English Puritanism, urban life in the early 18th century, or the development of life-writing will find much of interest in this volume.

Arthur Burns is Professor of Modern British History at King's College, London.

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