Single-heartedness as the core of simplicity
Jesus said “Bless are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.” (Matt. 5:8)
He also said the “Eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be filled with light.”
Having lots of things makes it hard to hear and heed God’s voice: the belongings, the busyness, the clutter gets in the way. 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. Early Friends believed that even speaking more than was needed was a potent barrier to open-hearted listening to God.
In 1941, Thomas Kelly wrote an essay on The Simplification of Life, which was included in his spiritual classic, The Testimony of Devotion.
Fran Taber wrote an essay, Finding the Taproot of Simplicity: The Movement between Inner Knowledge and Outward Actiony, that draws upon 350 years of Quaker writing on this subject.
Plain speech, dress, and living
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)
Why Do Some Quakers Dress Plain? is a QuakerSpeak video in which several Friends explain why they maintain this practice today.
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.
Many reasons for living simply
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. This is a theme through his Journal and his Plea for the Poor.
Mildred Binns Young wrote several Pendle Hill pamphlets on the subject of what she called functional or voluntary poverty examining the many reasons to live more simply, as she and her husband Wilmer did throughout their lives together. Functional Poverty is Pendle Hill Pamphlet #6 published in 1939.
A Swedish Friend, Sven Ryberg, delivered a talk Return to Simple Living, describing his personal journey with his wife Evior to turn from professional careers to starting a retreat center called Svartbäcken and take up sheep farming as their main pursuit.
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.