Plainness and Simplicity
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter explores the development of the concepts of ‘plainness’ and ‘simplicity’ from the seventeenthcentury through modern times, suggesting some ways that these concepts have informed Quakers’ thought, choices, and behaviours, as theological, economic, and geographic circumstances have influenced the course of Quaker history. Through the words of early Quaker thinkers and the choices of modern Friends, this chapter discusses how concepts such as ‘plain speech’, ‘humility’, ‘luxury’, and ‘voluntary poverty’ have played out as Quaker constituencies have diversified over several centuries, continents, and cultures.
Soon after creating the Religious Society of Friends, its architects sought to systematize and articulate a coherent body of beliefs and disciplines by which to circumscribe membership in its communities. Early Quakers aimed to declare themselves ‘Christian’. However, they also sought to distinguish themselves from what they considered to be the corrupt Church of England, the stultifying rigidity of Puritanism, and the undisciplined anarchy of other religious rebels. Consequently, these Friends began to delineate a body of theology that included divesting themselves—as individuals and as a community—of what they described as ‘needless’, ‘vain’, or ostentatious possessions and behaviours. In the early years, this concern was manifested in choices such as the refusal to acknowledge social deference by doffing a hat or using the formal ‘you’ when addressing people of higher social standing.
Though, over time, the definitions of simplicity widened, neither early Friends nor their religious descendants have succeeded in establishing a unified definition of the boundaries between ‘needful’ versus ostentatious consumption. Over time, the terms ‘simplicity’ or ‘plainness’ came to be used to convey what remains—even today—an imprecise idea. This chapter engages some of the dimensions of Friends’ ongoing search for clarity on guidelines for simplicity.
Introduction: in search of modesty
Of all the testimonies Friends have adopted to differentiate Quakerism from other forms of Protestantism, and the stripping of worship to its uncluttered essentials, the concept of ‘simplicity’ has remained among the most elusive and difficult to define. At its core, the goal of simplicity was—and is—to guide Quakers in how to turn away from ‘worldly’ distractions, and to situate themselves in a deeply worshipful posture, with distracting influences kept to a minimum in order to receive Divine messages, which—Friends believe—are delivered in a ‘still, small, voice’. This goal calls upon Friends to (p. 336) eschew ‘excess’ in their lives, lest the acquisition, maintenance, and protection of what William Penn (1644–1718) termed ‘more than is necessary or appropriate’ (Frost 2003a, 21) result in vanity or other distractions that may interfere with concentration on that Divine voice. Yet interpretations of practical applications of the concept have remained in flux through changes in time, geography, and theological interpretations.
Though there are multiple facets to Friends’ concern with ‘simplicity,’ often the conversation has turned on what seem to be easily visible aspects: material possessions, ostentation, and vanity. Balanced along the thin edge of a theology that requires being ‘in the world, but not of it’, adherents of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) have long grappled with the issue of how much and what kind of material consumption might compromise their posture of uniqueness and religious integrity. Quakers do not have monasteries into which the dedicated can withdraw in a neatly bounded asceticism. And unlike Mennonites and other sects that embraced similar codes of dress and behaviour, Quakers lacked designated authorities who could impose uniform, uncontestable boundaries. Rather, intra-community discernment and discussion remain the only guides to what is appropriate.
But the problem is not just about external possessions. As Quakers seek the ‘divine’ connection within themselves and others, discerning what disciplines and behaviours promote the desired quality of interior worship also becomes a matter of deep concern. Over time, many Quakers have embraced the idea of ‘simplicity’ or ‘plainness’ (sometimes described as ‘humility’ or ‘modesty’) as one strategy for nurturing a posture that promotes balance between secular and sacred lives. But, like much of Friends theology, which is grounded in the New Testament focus on visionary experience and continuing ‘revelation’, simplicity and plainness have been subject to a diversity of interpretations. Though scholars differ on how and when the words ‘simplicity’ and ‘plainness’ were first used to signify Friends’ intention to live lives that were uncluttered by outward distractions (Frost 2003a, 22–3; Hamm 2003, 101) one way to explore the diverse meanings of these concepts is to examine some of the changing meanings and emphases across time and geography.
Seventeenth century: ‘useful’ and ‘sober’
The discourse about simplicity was enjoined at least as early as the 1650s, when British Friends set the standard of turning their backs on the tradition of churches with stained-glass windows, altar furnishings, ordained-and-robed clergy, and prepared prayers, sermons, liturgy, and pageantry. Such standardized rituals, early Friends argued, not only invited vanity, corruption, and stagnation into religious worship, but also distracted worshippers from experiencing for themselves the immediacy of the Lord’s presence. Worship should be spontaneous, and should bring each individual into direct contact with the Divine Spirit, without intermediary people or prescribed ceremonies.
By the 1670s Quakers in Britain aimed to codify some of the nuance of a ‘simple’ approach to religious posture. Though at first neither the words ‘plain’ nor ‘simple’ were (p. 337) used frequently, as early as 1699 William Penn, admonished his children to embrace ‘truth-speaking, ministry, plainness, simplicity, and moderation in apparel, furniture, food, salutation’ (Frost 2003a, 23). In No Cross, No Crown, published thirty years before, Penn had warned that Friends should steer clear of what was ‘vain’, ‘costly’, ‘useless’, or not ‘sober’, and he admonished that material goods should be ‘simple and plain’. Ornate clothing and furniture, which reflected ‘pride’ rather than ‘humility’, were to be avoided. Likewise, games, poetry, comedies, plays, and riddles were among the distractions that should be replaced with ‘the best recreation [which] is to do good’ (Frost 2003a, 21–3).
Developed in the context of the social realities of seventeenth-century England—agricultural enclosure, widespread homelessness, and conspicuous consumption on the part of the wealthy—Penn’s recipe for a Christian society included a radical social component. Though a well-educated member of the upper classes, Penn argued that luxury goods, available only to a small wealthy minority, created artificial and dangerously irreligious social distinctions. Moreover, said Penn, luxury goods impoverished society as a whole by deflecting workers’ energies to creating extravagant items instead of creating products that would increase trade and thereby provide work to help the poor rise from poverty. Out of this line of thinking, Penn suggested that clothing should be ‘plain and modest’, but these terms were not specifically defined except to indicate that choices should not be dictated by popular or ‘worldly’ fashion. Friends, advised Penn, should adopt a posture of ‘non-conformity to the world’ which included ‘simple and plain speech…’ (Penn 1877, 134).
Indeed, much of what passed as definition for ‘plain’ was arrived at only by triangulation. For example, another social reality of William Penn’s world was the tradition of social hierarchy that required deference to those who were above one’s own station in life, and the accompanying acceptance of the idea that certain human beings were more valuable or important than others. Friends’ adoption of practices to counter the notion of hierarchy included the refusal to follow the social convention that designated the use of ‘you’ as showing deference versus ‘thee/thou’ as indicating social equality. This resistance to hierarchical language came to be known as ‘plain speech’. Plainness also came to include refusal to doff a hat as a gesture of subservience, and refusal to address people by socially defined honorary titles. At various times, these and other behaviours were described as measures of Quakers’ participation in the ‘plain’ life, or what would come to be called the ‘holy conversation’, i.e., a life stripped bare of useless behaviours that seemed to contradict the Truth that in God’s eyes, all souls were equal. Thus, the theory of ‘plainness’ was reasonably clear, but aspects of practice were more blurred.
Penn’s contemporary, Robert Barclay, also from an economically and educationally privileged background, added yet another level of complexity to the question of what constituted ‘plain’ or ‘simple’. In his 1678 Apology for the True Christian Divinity, a treatise widely quoted and revered by many generations of Quakers, Barclay echoed Penn’s concern that Friends should eschew vanities and excesses. For Barclay, however, this dictate was variable:
…two things are to be considered, the condition of the person, and the country, he lives in. We shall not say, that all persons are to be clothed alike, because it will perhaps neither suit their bodies, nor their estates. And if a man be clothed soberly (p. 338) and without superfluity, though they may be finer, than that which his servant is clothed with, we shall not blame him for it. (Barclay 1678, 446–8)
For Barclay, one measure of proper plainness, it seemed, was to keep a low ratio of means-to-consumption—a definition that seemed less well defined than that of William Penn.
Hence, the seventeenth-century English Quakers’ attempts to codify humility were mired in ambiguity. Account books from the 1670s show that the Quaker role model Margaret Fell (1614–1702), a woman of considerable means, clothed herself in high-quality, brightly coloured fabrics. She insisted that to make inflexible rules about such outward things as clothing and possessions would reduce true faith to a ‘silly, poor gospel’ of conformity to lifeless rules. On the other hand, in 1686, Fell’s less-well-known comrade Joan Vokins advocated conformity to modest consumption. She admonished her children to ‘be careful and take heed that you do not stain the testimony of Truth… by wearing needless things and following the world’s fashions in your clothing or attire, but remember how I have bred you up’ (Vokins 1691). Presumably Vokins, whose 1680s ministry travels had taken her to the New England and mid-Atlantic regions of America as well as to Ireland, was summarizing for her children a message that she had already carried far and wide. By the end of the 1680s, George Fox, George Keith, and several groups of American Friends would expand the issues to question of whether human exploitation such as the keeping of slaves, might also violate the tenets of a ‘plain’ life.
Despite the attempts of these early Friends, future generations were no more clear about methods to actualize seventeenth-century Quaker values, and several modern historians have continued to try to illuminate what early Quakers meant when they commended a member’s ‘holy conversation’ (Levy 1978, 152–3; Specht 2002, 45–7). In addition to issues of hierarchy/social equality, exploitative labour practices, and ‘useless’ material goods, some tension about modesty versus ostentation seems to have been partly a reflection of seventeenth-century rural English Friends’ disdain for more affluent urban Quakers. All of these themes—and some new ones—reappear in future generations’ deliberations about what constitutes ‘simplicity’.
Eighteenth century: appropriate uses of means and time
Whereas the majority of seventeenth-century English Friends had been rural and of limited means, Friends’ routines of hard work, high integrity, and restrained consumption had resulted in an increasing number of well-to-do Quakers. A number of scholars have explored the religious implications of the ways that transatlantic capitalism coupled with the Protestant ethic resulted in unanticipated wealth—and unanticipated (p. 339) tensions (Weber 1930; Bailyn 1964). Many Quakers in Britain and America, looking to their forefathers, experienced more than a little anxiety about their new-found affluence. How would one practise a ‘plain’ lifestyle if one continued to accumulate excess economic means?
When the 1689 Toleration Act freed British Friends from persecution for their beliefs, the enticing excitement of a new reformist radical religion faded somewhat, and Friends found themselves struggling to meet the multiple challenges of declining membership and a decrease in converts as well. One strategy was to focus on the children of current members, to establish schools to protect them from corruption, to encourage parents to shield Quaker children from worldly temptations, and to define for children a set of high-minded guidelines and rewards to inspire their loyalty. By the 1730s, London Yearly Meeting had instituted the concept of ‘birthright Friends’, a status of belonging that was bestowed on children by virtue of being born to Quaker parents. By implication, the job of those parents was to raise those children to embrace Quaker values—including the value of ‘plainness.’ A parent’s role, then, was to adopt a ceaseless posture of ‘holy conversation’, a consistent comportment that modelled rather than preached Friends faith and attentiveness to God’s wishes—including ‘simplicity’.
However, the contours of the simple life, never having been well delineated in the first place, now needed to be honed against Quakers’ increasing affluence. Twentieth-century historian Frederick Tolles referred to these eighteenth-century newly wealthy Quakers as ‘Quaker grandees’, who formed a transatlantic ‘Quaker mercantile aristocracy’ (Tolles 1963, 63–84). These affluent young American Quakers travelled frequently to England, where they indulged in opulent shopping sprees, their parents’ attempts to dissuade them from excess notwithstanding. Indeed, their parents, themselves struggling to set limits on self-indulgence, often chose to rely on Robert Barclay’s (1648–90) guidance that social hierarchy was inevitable, and that the simple life should be gauged by a considered means-to-expenditure ratio. Such a guideline, that allowed for the purchase of expensive, high-quality products, so long as consumption stopped short of ‘frivolous’ decoration or living beyond one’s means, seemed to satisfy many Friends (Tolles 1963, 27–8, 109–43). However, a number of Conservative Quakers were concerned that more clear-cut boundaries should be set. English-born Thomas Chalkley (1675–1741) and American Friends such asJohn Pemberton publicized their anxiety that the very process of acquiring, using, and protecting worldly possessions would threaten the moral fibre of Quaker individuals and communities. Chalkley challenged fellow Quakers with the question ‘what service will… be the riches of the rich’ in death. Pemberton reminded them ‘that when one feeds himself with the vain pleasures of the world, the spiritual senses become stupefied… (Chalkley 1866, 440; Pemberton 1785, 8–10).
One Quaker who rose to prominence partly as result of this concern with restraining Quaker excess was John Woolman (1720–72), who is best known for his soul-searching Journal, and for his 1754 treatise on Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes. Woolman’s concern with social and economic fairness, including the abolition of slavery, is present throughout his journal, which has been continuously popular with Quaker readers since his death. Woolman, like Chalkley, carried his reform ministry (p. 340) throughout the Atlantic world. In shunning dyed fabrics because dyes were made by slaves, and because dye workers were made ill by the chemicals, and in refusing to use silver table service, on the grounds that slaves were forced to dig such precious minerals and gems for the rich, Woolman echoed William Penn’s concerns about the labour ‘wasted’ on frivolous products. Woolman carried the concern even further, sometimes refusing to ride in stagecoaches, because this mode of transportation demeaned and injured horses, and he travelled abroad in steerage with the crew rather than in the more luxurious passenger accommodations. Woolman often visited slaveholders and attempted to dissuade them from living a life of ease by bondsmen, and when served by a slave, he insisted upon paying the slave (Woolman 1989, 11).
In the example of John Woolman, widely known across the Quaker world, was rekindled another dimension of ‘plain-ness’: conscious and consistent self-examination for signs of one’s participation in subtle forms of social exploitation. This line of reasoning articulated by Woolman was soon enjoined by scores of Quakers in England and America, who admonished their peers about the perils of wealth and began to develop guidelines for managing ‘excess wealth’ (Marietta 1974, 230).
One manifestation of Woolman’s commitment to simplicity was his decision to retire, as a young man, from his lucrative retail business, because he felt that it demanded too much of his time, distracting him from the more important matter of fulfilling his religious responsibilities. Travelling widely through America, England, and Europe, Woolman and his comrades become the inspiration for later Quakers who would aspire to ‘retire at age thirty to a life of genteel leisure and public service’. Historians have noted how the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries ushered in the context within which ‘propertied self-sufficiently and performance of public service… [became]… the classic goals of the benevolent genteel and successful philanthropic Quakers’ (Frank 2002, 121–5) So, too, would the guidelines modelled by Woolman reflect Penn’s concerns that true religion should lead to avoiding clothing and consumer goods that required ‘wasted’ effort in caring for them, effort that might better be used for ‘the best recreation’ of doing good for society.
By the end of the eighteenth century, Quakers developed a strategy that drew on the social philosophies of William Penn, Robert Barclay, and, perhaps especially, Woolman. The strategy involved making a conscious choice to not only adopt simplicity in one’s own life, but also to donate a sizeable segment of one’s resources to charitable causes. Thus, as many British and American Friends joined the fight against slavery, others such as Peter Collinson and John Fothergill devoted their excess wealth to establishing philanthropic institutions such as schools, hospitals, and orphanages.
This adoption of strategies of committed philanthropy, often done anonymously so as to avoid the appearance of self-aggrandizement, occurred in the context of a discourse grown tense as Pennsylvanian John Churchman (1705–75), a supporter of Woolman, excoriated Friends for being ‘delighted in the pursuit of worldly treasures’. Reacting with horror to the fact that London Friends had speculated in American land, Churchman and his peers reminded their community that Quakers should be ‘particularly careful (p. 341) to have our minds redeemed from the love of wealth’. The desire to protect such wealth, argued these Friends, was the cause of war (Marietta 1974, 233–4).
The discourse acquired even greater urgency after the1750s, with the emergence of the issues that precipitated both the Seven Years War and the American Revolution. In America, a growing gap between the poor and the wealthy heightened class tensions. In addition, debates and finally war over England’s right to tax that wealth, led some prominent Quakers to withdraw from positions of public authority rather than participate in warfare (Tolles 1963, 17–18, 27–8, 231–46). When, during the American Revolution, many Friends had their property confiscated because of their refusal to support the war, some interpreted this as God’s message, expressed by Quaker abolitionist schoolmaster Anthony Benezet that ‘it is in nothingness God is found’ (Marietta 1974, 241). Thus by the end of the eighteenth century, frugal living (accompanied by vigilance about the social implications of one’s economic behaviours), and the redeployment of time and effort to charitable causes, had become a sine qua non of Quakers’ ‘holy conversation’.
Nineteenth century: schisms and redirections
Nineteenth-century Friends looked back nostalgically to their forebears who appeared to have found ways to discern and operationalize aspects of the holy conversation. John Woolman, with his staunch conviction about what was Truth, and his commitment both to living that Truth and to speaking it powerfully to others, was frequently held up as a model. In addition, Thomas Clarkson’s (1760–1846) Portraiture of Quakerism, published in Britain in 1806, helped to codify the unostentatious lifestyle. Though Clarkson was not a member of the Religious Society of Friends, his Portraiture deeply influenced how Quakers and non-Quakers alike measured Quakerliness. Clarkson devoted significant attention to Quakers’ ‘Peculiar Customs’—including ‘Plain Dress’—explaining that:
[Quaker] men wear neither lace, frills, ruffles, swords, nor any of the ornaments used by the fashionable world. The women wear neither lace, flounces, lappets, rings, bracelets, necklaces, [or] ear-rings… Both sexes are also particular in the choice of the color of their clothes. All gay colors such as red, blue, green, and yellow, are exploded. Dressing in this manner, a Quaker is known by his apparel through the whole kingdom. (Clarkson 1806, 242)
Yet, even as Clarkson was describing how to recognize a Quaker, the nineteenth century ushered in factionalism among Friends who had begun to point accusing fingers at each other, insisting that the Religious Society of Friends was losing its moorings to its original theological foundations. Some elements of the controversy were familiar: were (p. 342) Friends avoiding conspicuous consumption? Might one meet the guideline of plainness by purchasing an item of very high quality, but without decorative adornment? Was the most important means test an ‘appropriate’ ratio of means-to-expenditure? Might significant time and/or money donated to charity count as one measure of participation in the ‘holy conversation?’.
But while the issues were recognizable, the language and tone of the debate were new. The debates at first coalesced around two New York Friends, Hannah Barnard (1754–1825) and Elias Hicks (1748–1830). Barnard travelled in England and Ireland, while Hicks, a New Yorker, travelled mostly in the United States. But the message they carried to their Quaker comrades was similar: over time, they argued, Quakers had lost the purity of their original spiritual energies. Distracted by secular temptations, modern Friends had allowed their faith to be diluted. As early as 1795, Elias Hicks, upon visiting a northern New York meeting, lamented that the Quaker children there had ‘almost all gone out of plainness’. Though Hicks did not always specify exactly which aspects of loss caused him the most dismay, he indicated that he had preached to the parents to exercise ‘more diligence and circumspection… in disciplining their children to live ‘more agreeabl[y] to the simplicity of our holy profession’ (Buckley 2009, 62).
Hicks, originally from a rural area, was wary of urban Quakers, whose wealth, he suspected, dimmed their religious vision. He railed against what he saw as over-reliance on the Bible and early Friends’ writings, instead of reliance on the authority of the spontaneous Light Within. Identifying slavery as a stark indication of sinfulness in society, Hicks and his followers made anti-slavery activity a central tenet of their religious practice, embracing plain clothing as one symbol of their disapproval of slave labour. Many Friends, particularly wealthy ones in eastern US cities, aggravated by Hicks’ zeal, labelled his followers ‘Hicksites’, and shunned them as heretics, redefined what it meant to be an ‘orthodox’ Quaker, even establishing ‘guarded’ educational institutions to shelter young Friends both from Hicksites and from other temptations of modern world.
Meanwhile, Hicks’ disdain for urban Quakers was not unfounded. Indeed, during the first half of the nineteenth century, many American ‘Orthodox’ urban Friends had relaxed their rules against fashionable clothing and possessions. And it was not only urban American easterners whose vision of Quakerism was shifting. Moving to the western frontier, American Orthodox Friends became more willing to adorn their worship houses so that they resembled those of the other Christian communities they encountered there. Formal pastorates and systematically evangelical mission projects followed in time. Though in Britain the tensions did not rise to the level of schism, some prominent nineteenth-century Quakers also embraced more formal worship services and missionary zeal.
Friends such as British-born Joseph John Gurney (1788–1847) were drawn to other aspects of non-plain religion. The wealthy Gurney, whose aristocratic background and love of music made him suspect among some Friends, travelled throughout England and the American West, promoting Friends’ alliances with religious sects that supported more elaborate worship rituals than had heretofore been advocated by Friends. By the 1860s, music, paid ministers, and revival meetings had, for many Quakers in the American Midwest, overridden the traditions of unadorned meeting housess and silent, (p. 343) spontaneous worship services. Expensive, if somewhat conservative, clothing and material goods now became part of the lives of such as Gurney, who remained devoted to Quaker theological and philanthropic values, but whose consumption patterns earned them the moniker ‘gay’ Quakers, i.e., Quakers whose high-style tastes could hardly be called ‘plain’ (Dandelion 2007, 95–9; Hamm 1988, 15–22).
Though in England the debate about theology and worship practice was more muted than in America, in other parts of the world, Quakerism acquired a diversity of beliefs and worship styles as revivalist Quakers from Britain and from Midwestern America introduced a version of Quakerism that was more traditionally Christian (i.e., including sermons and music) into Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Central America. In these settings, debate about simplicity and plainness took a back seat as evangelicalism became the central theme of theology and worship.
Even as Friends’ reality was becoming more diverse, however, popular culture—statuary, cartoons, and especially literature—gave rise to a stereotypical ‘plain’ Quaker as a vessel of virtue and uncorrupted (if rigid) social conscience. From novels such as Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853), and Sarah Stickney Ellis’ Friends at Their Own Fireside (1858), readers in Britain and America formed a seemingly indelible image of the ‘plain’ Quaker, morally stolid and ascetic, dressed in drab clothing and wedded to ‘plain speech’ (Cummings 1996).
By the late nineteenth century, however, it was mostly Hicksite and ‘Conservative Friends’ who maintained external markers of plainness, and by the early twentieth century, only small groups of Quakers, scattered mostly in rural areas of the western United States and Canada, remained committed to outward expressions of the plain life, holding to dark-coloured, homespun clothing, and avoiding politics, voting, theatre, art, and alcoholic beverages. By that time, most other Quakers in England and the Americas had deemed such disciplines ‘dead formality and ceremony’, though urban Quakers in East Coast America often continued to send their children to Quaker schools and to address each other using plain language (Hamm 1985, 85).
The attention to ‘plainness’ as a guide to Friends’ faith did not die but was transformed into a focus on simplicity. Most Friends across the world had settled on the definition expressed in the 1877 edition of the Baltimore Yearly Meeting Discipline, which espoused the vague guideline of ‘simplicity in deportment and attire, avoidance of flattery and insincerity in language, and… non-conformity to the world…’ (Baltimore Yearly Meeting 1877, 65). And Friends continued to caution themselves to avoid ‘a life of ease and self-indulgence’ (Baltimore Yearly Meeting 1877, 62).
Since the 1920s
The First World War accelerated a trend that had been growing since British Friends formalized their Friends Service Council, an international war-relief service that had begun as early as the 1870s. Building on this model, the 1917 founding of the American (p. 344) Friends’ Service Committee ushered in a fresh interpretation to the concept of simplicity. This emerging focus on the importance of ‘right sharing’ harkened back to the ideas of Penn and Woolman, who maintained that the creation and procurement of luxury goods are inherently exploitative of the poor, and therefore constitute economic injustice that is destructive to world peace and to Christian community life.
In the ensuing years, British and American Quakers joined forces to develop social service programmes that went beyond William Penn’s concern of helping society’s disadvantaged. Relief work during and after the First World War, support for peace negotiations and the development of the United Nations, and assistance for disenfranchised minorities became the focus of many Quaker communities. The new twist on Penn’s theme was to identify with those who had been wounded by society. Terms such as ‘voluntary poverty’ appeared in Quakers’ vocabulary, and by the 1930s activists such as Mildred Binns Young (1901–95) not only wrote about the value of such a choice, but also chose to make their lives in communities alongside the disadvantaged (Young 1939 and 1941).
Similar human rights programmes followed. Support for workers’ cooperatives and education in Appalachia, coupled with deep involvement in the United States racial-justice work led many Friends to reduce their own consumption in order to support philanthropic causes. In Pennsylvania, the home office of the AFSC, and in other areas around the world, a concept developed of ‘Live simply, that others may simply live’. Housing and industrial cooperatives, based on the democratic Rochdale principles developed in nineteenth-century England, sprang up in the 1940s. The area of Monteverde, Costa Rica, was developed as dairy farm land and wildlife preserves by American Quakers whose pacifist values led them to defy the American draft during the 1950s. By the 1960s, an increasing awareness of the lopsidedness of industrialized countries’ consumption led Quaker meetings in western Europe and the United States to turn their attention to combating conspicuous consumption and planned obsolescence. In 1982, North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative) noted that ‘… the testimony of outward simplicity began as a protest against the extravagance and snobbery which marked English society in the 1600s’. However, this group argued that in modern times simplicity should ‘not mean drabness or narrowness’ but rather should be ‘a testimony against involvement with things which tend to dilute our energies… and an appreciation of all that is helpful towards living as children of the Living God’ (PYM, 2002:158).
By 2002, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice suggested that ‘Friends in comfortable circumstances need to find practical applications of the testimony of simplicity in their earning and spending… balancing the social value of self-sufficiency against the social value of… help for those more needy’ (PYM, 2002:80–1).
Since the late nineteenth century, then, the concepts of ‘plainness’ and ‘simplicity’ have broadened and changed to embrace more expansive interpretations than were the guidelines of Founding Friends. Subsumed under more wide-ranging modern concerns to which many Liberal Friends are committed— human rights and social justice, preservation and sharing of natural resources, evading the constrictions of technology and/or capitalism, and the development of ‘global community’—the concepts of plainness and simplicity in the twentieth century have, for many Friends, merged into concerns about (p. 345) responsible ‘stewardship’ of the world’s finite resources. Expressions such as ‘right sharing of world resources’ or ‘living simply so that others may simply live’, have, in many Friendly communities, come to express values that originated in early Quakers concerns about simplicity and plainness.
By the twenty-first century, while most Quaker discipline guides include the testimony of ‘simplicity,’ many have muted specific recipes for achieving it. A few Friends communities remain who are explicit about prohibiting such adornments as jewellery, make-up, and sexually provocative dress; the modern trend bends towards focusing on other elements of faith, such as the role and importance of Scripture, baptism, holy communion, or other aspects of Christian theology (Dandelion 2007, 221–40). Only a minority of present-day Friends, mostly Conservative Friends, use ‘plain speech’ or plain dress as markers of their faith. Nevertheless, the struggle to define a lifestyle that is sufficiently uncluttered to allow for hearing the ‘still, small voice’ of the Divine, remains a continued focus of Quaker faith. Additionally, especially for modern Liberal Friends, William Penn’s suggestion that Friends maintain ‘non-conformity’ remains an important marker of Quaker identity and of Quaker plainness in Europe and the Americas. However, in the Quaker communities of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, where capitalist consumption is somewhat less pronounced, honing a definition of ‘simplicity’ takes a back seat to other religious concerns.
Recent decades: an acceptance of diversity
Since its inception in the mid-seventeenth century, the Religious Society of Friends has differentiated itself from other religious communities by a commitment to a constellation of tenets that has included non-violence, spiritual equality, and an avoidance of external or ‘worldly’ distractions and fads. However, the focus on avoiding fads has lent itself, over time, to a diversity of definitions and strategies, and to an elusive vocabulary that embraces ‘plainness’, ‘simplicity’, and ‘non-conformity’. Evolving from concepts drawn out of seventeenth-century British realities, these definitions, strategies, and vocabulary have both retained a core meaning and diversified as the realities of Quaker constituencies have diversified over several centuries, continents, and cultures.
Suggested further reading
Barbour, H. and Frost, J. W. (1988) The Quakers. New York: Greenwood Press.Find this resource:
Durham, G. (2011) Being a Quaker: a guide for newcomers. London: Quaker Quest.Find this resource:
Heron, A. (1995) Quakers in Britain: a century of change, 1895–1995. Kelso, Scotland: Curlew Graphics. (p. 346) Find this resource:
Gummere, A. M. (1901) The Quaker: a study in costume. Philadelphia: Ferris and Leach.Find this resource:
Ingle, H. L. (1986) Quakers in conflict: the Hicksite reformation. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.Find this resource:
Martinie Eiler, Ross (Spring 2008) ‘Luxury, Capitalism, and the Quaker Reformation, 1737–1738’, Quaker History 97:1, 11–31.Find this resource:
O’Donnell, P. (2003) ‘Quakers as Consumers: Introduction’, in Lapsansky, E. J. and Verplanck, A. A., Quaker aesthetics: reflections on a Quaker ethic in American design and consumption. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 16–40.Find this resource:
Slaughter, T. (2008) The beautiful soul of John Woolman, apostle of abolition. New York: Hill and Wang.Find this resource: