Bellers was born in London, the son of the Quaker Francis Bellers and Mary Read. Unable to attend University or join a profession as a result of his religion, John was educated as an apprentice cloth merchant. He rapidly became active in Meetings and in the Quaker community as a whole, purchasing 10,000 acres (40 km2) of land in Pennsylvania in 1685 for Hugenot refugees for example. William Penn was a close friend. He married a fellow Quaker, Frances Fettiplace, in 1686, and they had six children between 1687 and 1695, although one died shortly after birth. From 1695 to his death in 1725, he was continually involved in writing innovative tracts on social issues, including education, health provision, care for the poor, support for refugees, a plan for a European State, and an argument for the abolition of capital punishment, making him "the first European advocate of the abolition of capital punishment". He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in February, 1719.
Proposals for Raising a College of Industry of All Useful Trades and Husbandry (1695)
Bellers' essay is a proposal for a "College of Industry", a sort of colony for the poor - those who depend on their work or on charity for their living. Bellers argued that it was in the interest of the rich "to take care of the poor and their education".
Bellers dedicated the first edition to his fellow Quakers, although the College was to be a "Civil Fellowship rather than a religious one." The first edition of the pamphlet ends with an appeal for funding - An Epistle to Friends Concerning the education of Children - in favour of the College, signed by about forty-five leading Quakers. They included William Penn, Robert Barclay, Thomas Ellwood, John Hodgskin, Leonard Fell and Charles Marshall. The second edition (1696) was dedicated to Parliament. The Quaker Workhouse at Clerkenwell was established in 1702 as a result of his efforts.
The combination of agriculture and manufacture would enable self-sufficiency and even profit. Bellers argued that if all "the present idle hands of the poor of this nation" were put to work, it would bring England "as much treasure as the mines do Spain".
The plans for the education of children at the College were ahead of their time. Practice and experience were to be valued over rote-learning. Bellers advocated the combination of learning and work as a way of preventing idleness. Karl Marx mentions Bellers in Chapter 25 of Das Kapital, quoting Bellers' argument that "the labour of the poor [is] the mines [sic] of the rich". Bellers is also quoted in a footnote in Chapter 23 of Das Kapital; "Labour [is] as proper for the body’s health as eating is for its living [...] Labour adds Oyl to the Lamp of Life when thinking Inflames it".
Robert Owen read the proposals in 1817, and in a letter to The Times acknowledged their resemblance to the community he himself had created at New Lanark. He had 1,000 copies reprinted that year. Eduard Bernstein saw Bellers as a precursor of socialism, if not communism, highlighting his argument for valuing goods according to labour, not money.
About the Improvement of Physick (1714)
Bellers advocated a national system of hospitals, which were to treat the poor and act as training schools for new doctors. Eduard Bernstein saw in this essay an anticipation of a national health service.
- Proposals for Raising a College of Industry of All Useful Trades and Husbandry (1696)
- Essays about the poor, Manufactures, Trade, Plantations and Immorality, and of the Excellency and Divinity of Inward Light (1699)
- Some Reasons for an European State proposed to the Powers of Europe... (1710)
- An Essay towards the Ease of Elections of Members of Parliament (1712)
- About the Improvement of Physick (1714)
- An Essay for Employing the Poor to Profit (1723)
- An Epistle to Friends of the Yearly, Quarterly, and Monthly Meetings (1724)
- An abstract of George Fox’s Advice and Warning To the Magistrates of London in the year 1657... (1724)
- Clarke 1987, p. 3.
- Clarke 1987, pp. 5-6.
- Hitchcock 2004.
- "Library and Archive Catalogue". Royal Society. Retrieved 12 December 2010.
- Hitchcock 1987, pp. 7-23.
- Leachman, Caroline L. "Marshall, Charles". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/18130. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
- Industry brings plenty (Reprint, Headley bros., n.d) p. 22.
- Bernstein1980, Chapter XVII.
- Bernstein, Eduard (1980) . "Chapter XVII John Bellers, Champion of the Poor and Advocate of a League of Nations". Cromwell and Communism Socialism And Democracy in the Great English Revolution (Reprinted ed.). Nottingham: Spokesman.
- Clarke, George, ed. (1987). John Bellers: his life, times, and writings. Routledge and Kegan Paul. ASIN B003KVGM1C.
- Hitchcock, Tim (2004). Bellers, John (1654–1725) (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/2050.
- Hitchcock, Timothy V., ed. (1987). "Introduction". Richard Hutton's complaints book: The notebook of the Steward of the Quaker workhouse at Clerkenwell, 1711-1737. Institute of Historical Research. pp. 7–23. Retrieved 12 January 2012.