by Frances Taber

It may surprise some of us to hear that the first generation of Friends did not have a testimony for simplicity. They came upon a faith which cut to the root of the way they saw life, radically reorienting it. They saw that all they did must flow directly from what they experienced as true, and that if it did not, both the knowing and the doing became false. In order to keep the knowledge clear and the doing true, they stripped away anything which seemed to get in the way. They called those things superfluities, and it is this radical process of stripping for clear-seeing which we now term simplicity.

Because of this interrelationship with core experience, simplicity is not a topic which we can very usefully talk about in an isolated sense. It is not something which Friends set out to achieve for its own sake, but is rather the by-product of a single-hearted intention to follow God all the way, wherever we may be led Attempts to talk about simplicity in itself, without recognizing its vital root, usually end by going in circles around the impossible question of deciding just what is simple.

The taproot of simplicity is to be found at that point in the life of a Friend when the realization comes that his or her inner and outer lives are connected, that for the inward life to continue to grow, there must be a response from the outward life. It is at that point where awareness dawns that spiritual knowledge itself comes from an open relationship between one’s inner and outer lives, and from a free movement between the two.

Early Friends Find the Taproot of Simplicity

Among seventeenth-century Friends, Mary Penington was very much aware of this movement between one’s inner and outer lives. The second time she met Quakers, she heard the Scripture quoted, “He that will know my doctrine, must do my commands.” She thought at once, “If I would know whether that was truth they had spoken or not, I must do what I know to be the Lord’s will.” That is a striking statement of the experimental nature of the way of early Friends. The same truth that Mary Penington understood comes in twentieth-century language in Henri Nouwen’s words, quoted by Parker Palmer: “You don’t think your way into a new kind of living; you live your way into a new kind of thinking.” Sven Ryberg, a Swedish Quaker, suggests the same
understanding in his phrase, “the new situation, necessary to remake a man.”

In their effort to ground themselves by living their way into a new relationship to life and to God, many early Friends found that they had to strip away superfluities in their lives. They also discovered that when they did that, they were given new joy and power.

For Mary Penington, whose social circle was fashionable, upper crust London, the struggle to bring her outer life into accordance with her new-found understanding of truth was intense, even though she had been a frustrated seeker of inner peace all her life. It became clear that for her the inner peace which had been so elusive would be connected with some outward changes, and she could not bear the thought of them. Her statement about her struggle is characteristic of much of seventeenth-century Quaker experience:

I never had peace or quiet from a sore exercise for many months, till I was, by the stroke of judgment, brought off from all those things, …and I was given up to be a fool and a reproach, and to take up the cross to my honor and reputation in the world. The contemplation of those things cost me many tears, doleful nights and days; not now disputing against the doctrine preached by the Friends, but exercised against taking up the cross to the language, fashions, customs, titles, honor and esteem in the world. Once the leap had been made and she was “brought off from all those things,” Mary found herself at last content. She wrote, “But Oh! the joy that filled my soul in the first Meeting ever held in our house at Chalfont.”

First-generation Quakers found not only joy, but power, resulting from their efforts to make their outward lives congruent with their deepest interior sense of reality, or truth, as they often called it Stephen Crisp describes the sense of empowerment he felt when he finally made the leap to bring his life into accord with his inward convictions:

And the cross of Christ was laid upon me, and I bore it And as I came willingly to take it up, I found it to be to me that thing which I had sought from my childhood, even the power of God; for by it I was crucified to the world and it to me, which nothing else could ever do: but oh, how glad was my soul when I found the way to slay my soul’s enemies.

To understand what Crisp means, we need to know that before becoming a Quaker he had tried the whole range of dissenting sects in Puritan England without finding satisfaction. None of them could show him how to have “power over corruptions,” or in other words, strength against the big and petty temptations of life. Finally, among the Quakers he found what he was looking for. He calls it the Cross, which “was laid upon me, and I bore it.” He means that when he made the decision to actually live in his own life what he knew was right, he felt a release from powerlessness and received the empowerment which he had vainly sought He had discovered “that thing which I had sought from my childhood, even the power of God”

Not all Friends of the seventeenth century record the same kind of struggle about customs and fashions. Those not of London society had less of lace and “ribbons” to take off. A review of journals from that period gives the impression that the specifics which exercised each Friend had to do with his or her temperament and spiritual needs as well as station in life-which is exactly what we would expect. For instance, Margaret Fell makes no mention of issues of superfluities in her brief story of her convincement by George Fox.

However, John Gratton’s entrance into Friends Meetings was so swift that he was already speaking in a Meeting for the third time when he realized that

The People looked earnestly upon me, at which I marvelled, but perceived it was at a laced band which I had upon my collar; at this I was smitten and sorry, for until now I had not minded it since my convincement. Besides, Friends in those days shewed no appearance of pride in their apparel, neither was I pleased with myself; for I saw that the Holy Spirit did not allow of any superfluity, either in apparel or anything else, from a sense of which I took it off, and wore it not more.

Gratton’s record shows unity with the testimony against superfluities, but suggests that at that date (1671) no one was enforcing uniformity. It even hints that the greater uniformity of a later period actually involved a greater pride in appearance. Whatever their personal journeys, all of those Friends would have been in unity with John Banks when he wrote:

Now the way of my Prosperity in the Truth and Work of God, I always found was by being Faithful unto the Lord, in what he in the light manifested; though but in little and small Things, which Unfaithfulness in, is the Loss and Hurt of many in their Growth and Prosperity in the Truth.

“Live up to the light thou hast, and more will be granted thee.”

It is important when thinking about the experiences of early Friends to remember that this movement between the inner life and the outward one which resulted in the testimony of simplicity was a pivotal one in their faith. And it is no mistake that it is called a testimony. It testifies, or witnesses, to a perceived inner truth. It might even be called the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace-the phrase used to define a sacrament Caroline Fox, a nineteenth-century British Quaker, recognized the importance of these life-statements of Friends when she wrote in a letter:

The “inner life” amongst our worthies is, I think, as, or more, legible in their outward existence as in their most earnest writings—they…conceive themselves…as simply taking our Lord’s declarations…translating them —however imperfectly—into Life.

Caroline Fox also recognized the relationship of this translation into life to the continuance of that inner life in this quotation from her writings, which Susan Stark has turned into song:

The first gleam of light, “the first cold light of morning,”which gave promise of day with its noontide glories, dawned on me one day at Meeting, which I had been meditating on my state in great depression. I seemed to hear the words articulated in my spirit, “Live up to the light thou hast, and more will be granted thee.”

It is no accident that John Woolman is the Friend most often quoted on the subject of the congruence between the inner and the outer life, and the resulting simplification of the outer. Surely in no other journal is the path between the two walked so often. Woolman was also far-seeing in terms of the social implications of a simplified life. Fox had spoken of unity with the creation in personal terms; Woolman’s vision saw that that personal unity also had implications for the welfare of his fellow humans and for the animals in their care. It would be only one step more to a concern for the entire ecology.

Woolman’s characteristic phrase on the subject is “the right use of things,” and his continuing care was “to apply all the gifts of Divine Providence to the purpose for which they were intended.” He was firmly convinced that as God “is the perfection of power, of wisdom , and of goodness, so I believe he hath provided that so much labor shall be necessary for men’s support in this world as would, being rightly divided, be a suitable employment of their time.” His correlative was always that “Every degree of luxury of what kind soever, and every demand for money inconsistent with Divine order, hath some connection with unnecessary labor,” and that we cannot pursue such luxury “without having connection with some degree of oppression.” The link of oppression to war was only too evident, and he recommended: “May we look upon our treasures, the furniture of our houses, and our garments, and try whether the seeds of war have nourishment in these our possessions.” In the late twentieth century we might properly add our food to John Woolman’s list.

Woolman’s view of divine order clearly allowed for the enjoyment of what we can in good conscience possess. He observed that “Treasures, though small, attained on a true principle of virtue, are sweet; and while we walk in the light of the Lord there is true comfort and satisfaction in the possession.” At the same time, the connection between what we do with our outer lives and the progress of our inner being was continually before his mind at one point he wrote:

Sometimes when…I have been drawn into retired places and have besought the Lord with tears that he would take me wholly under his direction, and show me the way in which I ought to walk, it hath revived with strength of conviction that if I would be his faithful servant I must in all things attend to his wisdom, and be teachable, and cease from all customs contrary thereto, however used among religious people.

The same “tenderness,” or sensitivity, to truth which led Thomas Ellwood to take the rows of useless buttons off his coat and John Woolman to see a connection between that sort of luxury and the causes of war is still able to sensitize our consciences to the implications of our lifestyle, both to our spiritual growth and to the cause of justice.

The unostentatious life of one Friend I have known spanned and can symbolize the movement from a traditional to the mid-twentieth-century interpretation of simplicity. Born before 1890 in an area of Conservative Quakerism, his desire to live the truth as he understood it led him to adopt a collarless suit-coat worn without a tie when he was about twenty years old. By the early 1940s, he felt it to be more consistent with his understanding of simplicity not to have a dress suit, and for the last forty years of his life he wore a fresh, clean outfit of work clothing for Meeting and other dress occasions. Other parts of his life showed the same Woolman-like sensitivity. He and his wife sold their wedding silver in order to have funds to help meet the needs of others less blessed than they felt themselves to be. As long as they lived they kept informed about many areas of human need, and, with an income bordering on or below government definitions of poverty, they
managed to live in frugal comfort and to give generously to help others.

Such experiences of Friends make it clear that simplicity, when it has been a live practice, has not been incidental to Quaker faith, nor an isolated feature which can be admired for its elegance or rejected for its inconvenience. It has rather been a core or pivotal testimony, a way of honing or making oneself available to God’s work in one’s life, a necessary corollary to other testimonies. These qualities will become even more apparent in exploring other twentieth-century witnesses to simplicity as a part of the vital workings of a Quaker’s experiment with faith.

Some Twentieth-Century Witnesses to Simplicity

Sven Ryberg’s story as described in his pamphlet, Return to Simple Living, is a strong witness. In it he reviewed the spiritual seeking, both unconscious and deliberate, which led to his joining Friends in Sweden and deciding to leave his work in the film industry to become a farmer, an occupation about which he knew nothing. Of that decision he wrote:

But the main impetus, by far, was a dim, in fact a most dim and unidentified feeling, growing more and more awkward, that we had to do something before “religion” had run out of us completely. When “it had no root, it withered away.” (Matt. 13:6).

Sven and his wife Eivor took up farming in the search for a life root to nourish their “religion” and found unexpectedly that the taproot out of which sprang a growing faith was also the root of simplicity. He feels that simplicity cannot live without this root, saying:

After more than twenty years of experience as a farmer (by choice) and of simple living (by compulsion), I can hardly believe that any serious decision “to live simply” will last for long or work out positively if it is not part and parcel of an inner context.

The Rybergs found that for them a simple life was a necessary component of their intention to dig deeper. Sven describes the result of “our transformation through action,” saying about it, “Most precious of all, in our souls the Divine Seed has, by the Grace of God, begun to germinate,” an outgrowth of their commitment to live and work within the limitations of a way of life to which they felt called. He suggests the process involved in this growth by saying, “The bread of life within has to be harvested, baked, broken and shared by deeds, not read about in a recipe.”

The radically experimental nature of the Rybergs’ “transformation through actions” and its consequent kinship with the experiences of seventeenth-century Friends, are apparent as he speaks out of his life in
these words:

In the New English Bible, in the 12th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans, the second verse is rendered: “Adapt yourselves no longer to the pattern of this present world, but let your minds be remade and your whole nature thus transformed. Then you will be able to discern the will of God and to know what is good…. ” My reading of that bit relates the text to our actual situation. The essence of simple living is to know what is good. Therefore adapt yourself not to the wicked values of the current system. They only breed destruction and pollution in all directions. Disobey, revolt, but not in a pretending or theoretical way, [as] it will never put you in a new situation, necessary to remake a mind. To transform our whole nature goes even further and requires to be in the test-tube body and soul, in other words, a discipleship. Living without any sort of security, true discipleship is shaking our very foundations. When we have gone down into the silent crypt of our soul and discovered our true relations, we may discern the will of God.

Another radical challenge to consider what we may be missing if we are not serious about simplicity comes out of twentieth-century American Quakerism through the lives and writings of Wilmer and Mildred Young. Like the Rybergs, the Youngs left professional life (teaching at Westtown School) for farming. They lived and worked with local farms in rural Mississippi and South Carolina for nineteen years. Their convictions about the relationship of simplicity (or functional poverty, to use Mildred Young’s unambiguous term) to our other testimonies as Friends was forged in that and other contexts of working with the poor.

Out of that life experience and the understandings which it brought to them, Mildred Young wrote several Pendle Hill pamphlets. She is unequivocal in blaming our inflated standard of living for our ineffectiveness in other testimonies—conspicuously peace and the related issue of justice. She said in A Standard of Living:

I shall impugn our admired standard of living elevated to an ideal, as a main cause of the distress and violence of our world. I shall announce the choice of poverty a reasonable corollary to our refusal to participate overtly in that violence, almost a condition to our constructive approach to that distress. I shall have to say that, to me, it no longer seems possible to reconcile pacifism with physical ease, or with the effort to get and to hold property.

In her essay, Another Will Gird You, Mildred Young describes the purification which she feels the Society of Friends must undergo if we are to be effective witnesses to our testimony on peace with justice:

If Friends are to be able to contribute their insight and leadership to the effort to find a substitute for war-if they are to make their ancient testimony existential-we shall individually need such purification of life as Friends made when they set their slaves free. Corporately, we have never known, since Friends were first out of the early persecutions, such a purification as we shall need now.

She feels that there is among us a worldliness which is “throttling our witness and giving a hollow ring of pretension to what we say” and identifies that worldliness as “characterized by our uncritical and insensitive attitude toward our insatiable material wants.” Mildred senses that our effort to speak to a testimony for peace without wrestling personally with related economic issues is creating a split in our Quaker personality, and states in What Doth the Lord Require of Thee? that, “It is in this split, this need to maintain ourselves in a sharply felt contradiction, that I find the root of most of the causes of our spiritual decline.” Aware of the two-way nature of the movement between testimony and spiritual life, she points out that “The testimonies grow out of the relatedness, but on the other side, they are also the means by which we clear the path to the relatedness.”

A Contemporary Movement toward Voluntary Simplicity

There is a current in contemporary American life, larger than the Quaker stream, which is moving toward simplicity. This current is described in a recent book, Voluntary Simplicity, by Duane Elgin, who states that it is also present at the grass roots in almost every western industrial nation and has been growing through the decade of the 1970s. He says that “one of the principal qualities of voluntary simplicity is that of an unfolding balance between the inner and outer prospects of our lives.” One might call it the process of achieving a congruence between the real, as we most deeply perceive it within, and the reality which we express in our daily lives.

A reading of that book leaves the distinct impression that the kind of voluntary simplicity he advocates is nothing less nor more than the Quaker testimony under another name. The impetus to it, the basis in spiritual reality or inner experience, the type and patterns of its working out in everyday life, are certainly congruent with Quaker experience. One has the feeling one is watching a non-Quaker pick up a theme which our spiritual foreparents worked with, taking the ball from our flagging hands and running with it into the future.

Nine distinctive characteristics which I have found in the Quaker testimony on simplicity are all shared by the contemporary voluntary simplicity which Elgin describes.

  1. These two traditions of simplicity hold in common an unfolding, developmental, or process quality. One does not come full-blown into the practice of simplicity or lay hold of it suddenly. Elgin says that: Overall, the journey into this way of life seems to be a relatively slow, evolutionary process–one that unfolds gradually over a period of months and years…. One conclusion that I draw… is that if change is too abrupt, it may not have the staying power to last.
  2. The traditional Quaker and this contemporary experience also have in common a balance between attention to the outer and to the inner life, and of continual movement between the two. I have already emphasized this aspect in Quaker experience. In talking about the same quality, Elgin says that” ‘voluntary simplicity’ refers to a way of experiencing the integration and balance of the inner and outer aspects of life.”
  3. Quaker and contemporary voluntary simplicity both involve the development of an immediate awareness of world reality. This is contributed to by internal and also by external experience. Elgin finds that: …it is the very deepening of insight through the inner quest that reveals the entire world as an intimately interconnected system. The interior journey is indispensable in revealing that we inhabit an ecological reality. At the same time he observes that “when people deliberately choose to live closer to the level of material sufficiency, they are brought closer to the reality of material existence for a majority of persons on this planet.” As life simplifies itself, we awake from what he aptly calls “the hypnosis of a culture of affluence.”
  4. Both in traditional Quaker and in non-Quaker contemporary experience, there is an awareness of personal empowerment as a result of taking action. This was significant in Stephen Crisp’s seventeenth-century experience mentioned earlier. These persons whose experiences Elgin surveyed also spoke in a variety of ways about feeling enabled, and more positive about the effectiveness of their lives.
  5. Both in Elgin’s concept of voluntary simplicity and in Quaker experience, the level of consumption suggested as appropriate is one which takes into account the needs of humanity as a whole; which adequately meets the physical and other needs of persons; and which does not prescribe a uniform standard of material wealth and possessions for everyone.
  6. Both contemporary voluntary simplicity and Quaker convictions about it say something about one’s means of livelihood. Elgin reports that persons practicing voluntary simplicity prefer work which provides a “contributory livelihood,” that is, work which gives “opportunity to support others by producing goods and services that support a workable world.” Woolman’s concern was that the manner in which he earned his living and acquired his possessions be entirely consistent with “that use of things which is agreeable to universal righteousness.”
  7. Classic Quaker simplicity has, in common with present-day voluntary simplicity, a connection with directness and honesty in personal communication. Elgin finds that contemporary persons practicing voluntary simplicity are led not only to a concern for plain honesty and for “letting go of idle gossip and wasteful speech” and for
    “respecting the value of silence,” which have Quaker echoes, but also for “greater eye contact with others,” and for “greater openness to nonsexual, physical contact”.
  8. Another common characteristic of these two streams of simplicity is that both tend to lead to a spiritually-based activism. Elgin finds such activism to be an almost universal characteristic among the persons he surveyed, saying that “an ecologically oriented, nonviolent activism seems to characterize” their political orientation.
  9. In both of these streams of experience, the development of congruence between one’s inner and outer life involving a practice of simplicity has led to joy and to a sense of contentment with life. One contemporary practitioner of voluntary simplicity wrote that the “Dissatisfactions of V.S. are minute, not because they don’t exist, but because they are part of the process-not obstacles but humps on a road that I choose to follow.” Another declared that “Satisfactions are the fulfillment of the heart; dissatisfactions are the rumblings of the mind.” Mary Penington, you will recall, after her struggle about joining the life of Friends, reported a long-sought and long-remembered joy.

It is clear that Quakers are involved in the contemporary movement toward voluntary simplicity which Duane Elgin describes. It also seems clear that few of us are in the forefront of it, and that it is a challenge to our faithfulness to our own vision. It is also a challenge to that vision in another way. Elgin sees in the movement towards voluntary simplicity our strongest hope for the revitalization of civilization. He asserts that “the emergence of voluntary simplicity as a widespread way of life seems crucial to the birth of some form of peaceful global civilization.” He sees in this movement the hope, at last, for making the ethic of love normative on a world scale as well as in personal relations. Elgin’s bold statements are both humbling and exciting to a Quaker struggling with the specifics and the implications of the testimony on simplicity.

Our Personal Encounter with Simplicity

It does not seem necessary to go into detail about ways in which a concern for simplicity can affect our lives. For most of us the question is not what those ways are. The struggle is rather how we can personally move one step at a time into such a reality. That is an intensely personal journey, and also an immensely hopeful one, both personally and for our planet. As we approach that journey, we must remember that it goes on by a constant movement between our inner and outer lives, and that it may not be possible to tell in which place it begins.

Thomas Kelly in his essay on the simplification of life, in A Testament of Devotion, does not talk about food as testimony or about our attitude towards cultural elaborations. Rather, he speaks insistently of the inner core of devotion in our lives and of how the effects of that seep out through the texture of our days, rather like water from a hidden spring. In his words, “The life with God is the center of life and all else is remodeled and integrated by it. It gives the singleness of eye.” He is aware that the greatest complexity many of us now face is one of schedule and feels that a solution to that lives in a clear understanding of the Quaker idea of concern. He writes:

I wish I might emphasize how a life becomes simplified when dominated by faithfulness to a few concerns. Too many of us have too many irons in the fire. …Quaker simplicity needs to be expressed not merely in dress and architecture and the height of tombstones but also in the structure of a relatively simplified and co-ordinated life-program of social responsibilities. And I am persuaded that concerns introduce that simplification, and along with it that intensification which we need in opposition to the hurried, superficial tendencies of our age.

Through the beautiful confessions of an unnamed Friend, Mildred Young also recognized that there exists a spiritual center, in which all the hard choices involved in the journey toward simplicity are clarified and made easy. She recalls in “Another Will Gird You” that

During a recent discussion, one Friend said very humbly that some time ago he had found himself brought into that perpetual sense of the presence of God which is simplicity. In this Presence, he knew what work or travel he had to undertake, and what to lay down or leave for others; and when called on to do work beyond his strength, he found the strength to do it.

We live in a difficult era for simplicity. It is difficult because we live in such a very pluralistic society, and, therefore, there are a great many choices to make. If our lives are to have any sense of simplicity at all, we have to live in constant awareness of our primary goals and very consciously make our choices in the light of them. As we approach closer to simplicity, however, it can become our window into reality, our clarifier of murky places, the opener of our blind eyes. Simplicity can become our discipline, our preparer, our stone for sharpening the tool of the self. Simplicity can itself be the tool without which our other testimonies will falter and fail.

Some Suggested Readings

  • Elgin, Duane. Voluntary Simplicity. New York: Morrow, 1981.
  • Foster, Richard. Freedom of Simplicity. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981.
  • Prevallet, Elaine. Reflections on Simplicity. Pendle Hill pamphlet 244.
  • Ryberg, Sven. Return to Simple Living. Friends World Committee: European and Near East Section, 1973.
  • Smith-Durland, Eugenia. Voluntary Simplicity Study-Action Guide. Portland, OR: Alternatives, 1978.
  • Young, Mildred. Another Will Gird You: A Message to the Society of Friends. Pendle Hill pamphlet #109, 1960. 
  • Young, Mildred. Insured by Hope. Pendle Hill pamphlet #90, 1956. 
  • Young, Mildred. A Standard of Living. Pendle Hill pamphlet #12, 1941. 

Some Questions for Discussion

  1. Has there been a situation in my own life experience in which I struggled to put into practice what I believed and found that after doing so my spiritual understanding and insight was set free to grow?
  2. Does my understanding and use of the Quaker idea of concern simplify or complicate the direction of my energies? How?
  3. Is there an area in my life about which I feel a sense of uneasiness? What might this sense of uneasiness be telling me about a conflict between my values and the way I live, or about a work I am called to? What is hindering me from responding?
  4. How could we, as members of the Meeting, support each other in our efforts toward simplicity? Could we share the use of possessions? the care of children or of elderly parents? How could we take responsibility for each other in emergencies? What circumstances, such as where we live, might need to be changed to facilitate such mutual support?
  5. What difficulties sometimes arise for children when their parents decide to change their previous practices in favor of a more simplified lifestyle?

Frances Taber grew up in Iowa and Ohio Conservative Yearly Meetings. She was educated at Olney Friends School, William Penn and Earlham Colleges, graduated from Brown University, and had a student year at Pendle Hill. As a young Friend, she spent a summer traveling among Friends in Germany. She and her husband, William Taber, co-directed the Friends China Camp in New England Yearly Meeting. She spent twenty-one years at Olney Friends School as a faculty wife and in various positions, including seven years as manager of the kitchen. While on the cooking staff at Pendle Hill, she also helped initiate a personal retreat program there. She has taught Quakerism for the Quaker Studies Program of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and in the fall of 1985 at Pendle Hill. The Tabers had two grown daughters.

This essay is Chapter 5 of Friends Face the World: Some Continuing and Current Quaker Concerns, edited by Leonard S. Kenworthy