Mennonites and Friends (Quakers) are different groups with different cultural and theological histories. Yet these groups have some shared concerns: a peace testimony, a refusal to swear oaths, a history of persecution and flight, and an understanding of plainness and simplicity. These similarities made it very easy for me to go to Mennonite schools as a child, and the commonalities also serve me well because I married a Mennonite. I’ve been thinking a lot about simplicity lately, and as a member of the Religious Society of Friends, I’d like to offer a few reflections on simplicity from a traditional Quaker perspective.
1. Simplicity begins on the inside.
As followers of Christ, we have been commanded to seek first the Kingdom of God. Simplicity is setting aside anything that gets in the way of seeking the Kingdom. The Book of Discipline of Ohio Yearly Meeting states: “The call … is to abandon those things that clutter [our lives] and to press toward the goal unhampered. This is true simplicity.” Simplicity can mean having fewer possessions, but it also means surrender to God. Catherine Whitmire, author of Plain Living: a Quaker Path to Simplicity, discovered that once God’s will for her life became clear, “the simplification process was not about ‘sacrifice’ but about choosing the life I really wanted.” For her, it meant reducing work hours, letting go of some possessions, and making her yard easier to take care of. As a result, she could spend more time with her family and more time in prayer. But the process started in conversation with God.
2. Simplicity is not the same as frugality.
My Lutheran grandparents lived through the Great Depression. As a result, they crimped the toothpaste tube to get out every last bit of paste—and I recall that my grandmother even once cut off the end so that she could scrape the inside of the tube with her brush. My grandfather told stories of eating pretzel soup for breakfast during the 1920s and 1930s. This was, well, crushed pretzels soaked in water. Circumstances forced my grandparents to frugality—and they continued toothpaste tube-crimping long after I was born (my grandmother even gave me a special toothpaste crimper as a gift). They also washed plastic sandwich bags and reused them. My grandparents did not feed me pretzel soup, I am thankful to say. But their continued sense of carefulness with resources does not strike me as a form of simplicity, but rather a survival technique born of economic trauma.
3. Simplicity will look different for different people.
One family in my yearly meeting (a Friends yearly meeting is equivalent to an annual Mennonite conference or convention) chose to live without electricity for several years; a member of that family even decided to give up driving. He returned his driver’s license to his state capital and walked over 100 miles to do it. Other Friends choose against television in their homes, and some plant gardens, not simply to save money, but also as a spiritual practice. Still others feel called to plain or simple dress. Not everyone feels called to do this. My yearly meeting acknowledges in the Discipline that “Simplicity does not mean all conform to uniform standards.” Margaret Fell Fox, an early Friend and the wife of George Fox, mentioned in 1700 that requiring everyone to be “in one dress and one color” was a “silly poor Gospel.” She added: “It is more fit for us, to be covered with God’s Eternal Spirit, and clothed with his Eternal Light, which leads us and guides us into righteousness.” (The irony is that many American Friends did have a more uniform plain dress for a while.) My yearly meeting now only requires dress to be simple and modest. This means that some Friends come to worship in long dresses and suspenders. Others come to worship wearing jeans. This is okay.
4. Simplicity can also unite us.
Friends’ practice of waiting in silence began during a time of religious and political turmoil in the 1600s. They felt the only way to find God in the turmoil was to strip away the structured worship service of the state church, so they began to wait upon God to hear from God directly. As a result of waiting, listening, and speaking only when God prompted, Friends developed a highly specific language of spiritual discernment, spiritual states, and spiritual labor. A gathered meeting refers to a time of worship when Friends are especially united by God in verbal and nonverbal ways. When a meeting is gathered, it is owned by God. More than once, I have sat in worship and meditated on Scripture only to have a Friend stand up and speak the very thing I was praying about. When we fully surrender our wills to God during waiting worship, we can sometimes find ourselves blessed with a gift of unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
5. Following God’s call to simplicity can be a form of witness.
John Woolman, an American Friend and storekeeper, felt that slavery was impeding his ability to seek first the Kingdom of God. He also felt it was hindering the ability of others to do so. He began to speak and act against slavery before Friends in the Philadelphia area prohibited the practice. He wore undyed clothing because dye was made by the labor of enslaved persons; this made him stand out among the other Friends who wore plain, but dyed, clothing. Woolman also had an opportunity to increase his retail goods business, but he “felt a stop” in his mind. “The increase of business became my burden,” he wrote. “I believed Truth required me to live more free from outward cumbers.” For John Woolman, stripping away distracting things meant looking different from the rest of his religious community—and declining a business opportunity.
In keeping with the Quakerly character of this writing, I will offer a few queries, or questions for examination and spiritual growth, for us all to consider:
- Is something blocking my search for the Kingdom of God?
- Have I felt a “stop” in my mind about something?
- How has following a call to simplicity enriched my walk with God and my community?