Simplicity of dress, speech, possessions, worship, meetinghouses set Quakers apart from the surrounding community from the earliest days. The word that has been used most often to describe this until recently was “plainness”.
There is often confusion about simplicity because there are many reasons to simplify one’s lifestyle: overconsumption contributes to wars, suffering of the poor, slavery, and damage to the environment. John Woolman wrote about all these things being results of people wanting and acquiring more than they truly need.
In addition to these, however, having lots of things makes it hard to hear God’s voice: the belongings, the busyness, the clutter gets in the way. Jesus said that the pure of heart are blessed—because they can see God. Having too much activity and things in our lives is like have dirty window panes that prevent the Light from getting through to our hearts.
Friends were known for their plainness for the first 250 years. They were known as a plain people along with Amish, Mennonites, Brethren, Moravians, and Hutterites. Mary Penington came from a very wealthy aristocratic family. She resisted becoming a Friend for a number of years because she believed she would be ostracized by her wealthy friends and relatives if she had to dress plainly as a Friend.
Plain speech and dress created a separation between Friends and non-Friend—somewhat in the same way that eating kosher and distinctive dress set Jews apart from non-Jews. This was considered a positive thing in the past because these faith communities saw themselves as having a special relationship with God that could be undermined by too close relationships with “world’s people” and “worldly ways”. These groups took seriously Paul’s admonition to resist being conformed to the world:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)
Towards the end of the 19th century many Friends felt distinctive clothing and speech to be a mistake and more and more Friends abandoned plain speech and dress. Conservative Friends continued these practices longer than most Friends.
Why Do Some Quakers Dress Plain? is a QuakerSpeak video in which several Friends explain why they maintain this practice today.
Today there is a renewed interest in how saturation in electronic media interferes with a contemplative life. Many families are reluctant to encourage their children to come to meeting on Sunday because of the press of sports, studies, and other activities that seemed less urgent or pressing in past generations, even in the mid-20th century.
Elaine Prevallet is a member of the Sisters of Loretto who was on the teaching staff of Pendle Hill from 1976-78. She led a number of retreats at Pendle Hill on simplicity and wrote Pendle Hill pamphlet #244 Reflections on Simplicity in 1982.