At one point in our history, Friends made a conscious decision to dress differently than the people around them. By adopting a counter-cultural form of dress, these Quakers set themselves apart. It took no more than a glance to distinguish them from their more conventional neighbors. Friends also adopted a form of plain speech and a code of plain conduct that further separated them from the norms of society at large. We were a "peculiar people" and glad of it.
Modern Friends are not so easily identified by modes of dress or speech or conduct. There is nothing outwardly to distinguish us from our neighbors.
Our own history teaches us that outward appearances are a deceptive standard for measuring ones commitment to simplicity. If we reduce "simplicity" to a matter of conforming ourselves to some outward standard, then we risk pursuing the letter of the law while killing the spirit. A focus on outward appearances leads to pharisaical hair-splitting and self-justification.
This sort of thing actually happened in Friends history. Some Quakers adopted a plain style of dress, but had their clothes made of the finest material money could buy! These Friends felt justified owning fabulous luxuries, as long as they were plain fabulous luxuries. Clearly, people can adopt the "correct" outward form without making a true commitment to simplicity.
If simplicity can't be defined by outward standards of self-denial, then what is it? Quite simply, simplicity is freedom.
The first Friends adopted plain dress -- not to conform -- but to be free from the burdens of material excess. William Penn (himself no stranger to wealth) warned that those who pursue riches become slaves of a harsh master: "Do we not see how early they rise; how late they go to bed; how full of the Change, the shop, the warehouse, the customhouse; of bills, bonds, charter-parties, etc., they are?" To avoid this form of slavery, Penn advises, "Let your industry and parsimony go no further than for a sufficiency for life, and to make a provision for your children (and that in moderation, if the Lord gives you any)."
Of course, Jesus himself warns that no person can serve two masters. Anthony Benezet (an 18th Century American Quaker) emphasized this same point: "I cannot look upon the love of the world & giving way to desire for riches, as many do, as a pardonable frailty; but rather esteem it a departure from the divine life, which must either gradually kill all religion in the soul, or itself be killed by it." By living simply, Friends hoped to free themselves from one master in order to serve another.
Friends have also believed that a commitment to simplicity will benefit the entire social order. If the wealthy were freed from the snares of their luxury, the less fortunate might also be freed from the snares of poverty. George Fox explicitly criticized the notion that wealthy people who spent money on themselves would naturally provide jobs for the poor. Historian David Shi writes, "George Fox suggested that those who believed such a theory should exchange their jewels, raiments, and mansions for money and then distribute the proceeds to the needy, a considerably more direct approach to the problem of poverty. He reminded affluent Quakers that 'there is so much destroyed in your superfluity and vanity that would maintain the weak, lame and blind.'"
In addition to serving Christ, a commitment to simplicity frees us to serve one another. It frees up resources that we may expend on behalf of those in greatest need.
John Woolman (another 18th Century American Friend) notes that a commitment to simplicity also helps our fellow creatures by lightening the load we would otherwise place on them in our pursuit of luxury. Woolman warned that those who intentionally caused, "men and animals to do unnecessary labor in order that they themselves might have money to spend on luxuries were acting contrary to the design of their creator."
From a Quaker perspective, simplicity is the freedom to serve as we were meant to serve: both God and our fellow creatures. Trying to conform to some outward standard of simplicity only robs us of the freedom we hope to attain.
Here are some questions to consider:
1. What is "enough" for you? How do you know?
2. Why don't more people equate the pursuit of wealth with a kind of slavery? How might people develop this perspective?
3. Are there some things so extravagant or wasteful that no one should ever own them?
4. What makes it especially difficult to practice simplicity during the holidays? What steps might you take to counter these pressures?