Simplicity Part 3 — Historical reflection

The Testimony of Simplicity is basically a positive re-framing of the more ancient testimony of plainness. Quaker plainness dates back to the first generation of Quakerism, and is described along with other Friends testimonies in chapter 11 of William Penn’s Primitive Christianity Revived. Quaker plainness was something that was obvious to anyone who observed. Plainness was applied to speech, dress, the decoration and keeping of the home, and the activities a person took part in.

“Thee” was the most noticed mark of plain speech, however it was not the most important. Plain speech was to be an honest speech that included an economy of words. 18th and 19th Century Friends had no place for speaking just for the sake of speaking. Friends avoided joking, and avoided conversing on unnecessary subjects.

Plain dress and plain housekeeping were roughly the same originally. The idea was that the Quaker was supposed to wear, or decorate with what was necessary, and no more. It was a mixture of frugality and solidarity with the poorer classes. Plainness was a way of taking away one way that the wealthy were distinguished from the poor. Over time, Plain dress became a quaint uniform, and keeping a plain house became an exercise in legalism.

Plain behavior was basically a list of things that people did not do. Engaging in plain behavior was shown by avoiding sports, avoiding stage-plays, dancing, music, and ‘pernicious’ books. The third Query of Philadelphia Yearly meeting (1806) offers the positive alternative of frequently reading Holy Scripture in order to fill up the time left by plain living. By pointing people away from the profane and to the sacred offers an insight to what it means to live simply.

Plainness might make simplicity easier, but it does not quite make the leap to simplicity. Plainness removes distractions, but it does not produce focus. Over time, plainness can even become a distraction of its own. There was a time when Overseers would visit the homes of meeting members, and examine the house and furnishings to make sure that they fell within the standards of plainness. The legalistic understanding introduced a new complexity, and over time the testimony was abandoned until it was re-framed.

Re-framing simplicity is somewhat challenging in that one has to avoid creating a new plainness testimony. A clear definition of what simplicity means invites a return to legalism. On the other hand, the word alone without definition is something that makes people feel good, but offers no clear guidance of how to live. This re-framing is a continuing process, my current personal position is as follows:

  • Seek God’s kingdom first (Matthew 6:33)
  • Live in a way that is consistent with my faith.
  • Check myself for right priorities. (Hint, spending history offers an objective view of priorities.)
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