the friend online
02 October 2009

Testimony to Simplicity

From plain clothes and straight talking, Friends have always liked the simple life. But Jan Arriens and Marion McNaughton think that simplicity on its own misses the point

Many Quakers find simplicity an attractive testimony, but it also raises some awkward and uncomfortable questions for us. In what ways is it a positive part of our spiritual journey? What does it actually mean in practice? Is it the same as simple living? Are we going to have to change our whole lifestyle? Is simplicity really relevant in today’s complex technological society?

The testimony to simplicity was originally called plainness and it was about returning to the truth. It questioned and rejected false values and practices. In 1688 George Fox warned Friends ‘keep your testimony against the world’s vain fashions’. The ‘world’s vain fashions’ at that time were patterns of speech, dress and behaviour that were designed to keep people in their social place. For Quakers to keep this testimony meant refusing to use the deferential ‘you’ when speaking to those of high status, using instead the plain ‘thou’ to all people. It meant avoiding costly clothes and furnishings and avoiding courtly manners, because these things reinforced unequal social divisions and denied our true equality. The witness to simplicity was therefore radically linked to the other testimonies to equality, truth and peace.

The form of our witness to simplicity has changed as the world’s fashions have changed. At various times Friends got carried away and became overly obsessed with the details. In Scotland in 1692 a minute condemned men’s ‘broad ribbons or hatbands, all cocking up the side of their hats, all their bushy and long cravats, fringed or speckled’. By 1700 Margaret Fell, the ‘mother of Quakerism’, felt this had gone far enough and reminded Friends bluntly that concentrating on specific details was a ‘silly poor gospel’, what mattered was to let the spirit guide us to understand what was true.

Simplicity like all the testimonies is essentially a spiritual discipline. We simplify our lives in order to come closer to the truth. We reject those things that are unnecessary and superficial, because we know they are what John Woolman called ‘cumber’ – things that clog up our life and divert us from what really matters. So the testimony is both a moving away from the things of the world and a moving towards the things of God.

Simplicity is bound up with truth; in the absence of simplicity the truth becomes obscured. The American Quaker Rufus Jones said: ‘The fountain must be right if we want the water to be clear. Unclouded honesty at the heart and centre of a man is the true basis of simplicity!’ So our challenge is to hold on to that basis, to see in what ways it is threatened in our days, and to affirm it.

Simplicity also involves peace and sustainability. A simple life takes us away from the greed that is the root of war. John Woolman raised the difficult question of the connection between wealth and conflict: ‘May we look upon our treasures, and the furniture of our houses, and the garments in which we array ourselves, and try whether the seeds of war have any nourishment in these our possessions or not.’ Today we may be more ready to understand how simplicity challenges us to see the dominant world order through the prism of faith. Perceived worldly wisdom asserts that the free market works; on its own terms it does. But it is based on the need for ever greater production, consumption and appeals to greed. It tends strongly to the promotion of inequality. It seeks short-term gain at the expense of the continued ability of the planet to cope with the resources and waste products that the system requires.

Simplicity is not about ‘simple living’, but about appropriate living. It brings out positive values. It can be a source of witness even if we do not intend it to be. It is a testimony to be embraced with joy and love.

Jan Arriens and Marion McNaughton


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A testimony to Love
Judy Kirby, Editor
Circles of silence
Gerard Benson
A view of Quakers
David Wood
Testimony to peace
Helen Steven
Middle East witness
Ann Wright
Peace for all
Stephen Hanvey
Living the testimonies
Helen Drewery
Harvey Gillman
Testimony to Equality
Jonathan Dale
Committed relationships
Phil Lucas
Quaker thought in literature
Marina Lewycka
Quaker thought in poetry
Gerard Benson
Ros Smith
Marian Liebmann
Equality and social justice
Belinda Hopkins
Testimony to Simplicity
Jan Arriens and Marion McNaughton
Laurie Michaelis
Testimony to Truth
Linda Pegler
Integrity in public life
Tony Stoller

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