Try to live simply. A simple lifestyle freely chosen is a source of strength. Do not be persuaded into buying what you do not need or cannot afford. Do you keep yourself informed about the effects your style of living is having on the global economy and environment?
– Advices and Queries #41, Quaker Faith & Practice
Other than the peace testimony, no other value tends to identify Quakers in the popular mind as much as simplicity. In some people’s minds, one is not a real Quaker unless dressed in basic grey with a bonnet or broad brim hat, pinching a penny until it screams, and looking altogether like the Amish.
Indeed, up until a certain time in Quaker history, one could pick a Quaker out of a police lineup by the way s/he dressed. While never actually wearing a “uniform” the way Hutterites or Amish do, Friends were advised to distinguish themselves from “the world’s people” by avoiding the changing fads and fashions of popular culture. The dress of one generation became standard for succeeding ones, and plainness was measured, literally, in the width of lapels and collars or in the color of one’s clothes. That fell out of custom by the late 1800s, and few Friends today dress distinctively plainly, although most still avoid ostentation.
The real roots of simplicity, however, do not lie in saving money or avoiding a display of wealth—as beneficial as those virtues may be. Fundamentally, the testimony of simplicity is a spiritual one. If the primary focus of a Quaker’s life is to harmonize that life around the promptings of the Inward Light, then all that distracts from that focus needs to be pruned away. As Caroline Stephen said in 1890, “In life, as in art, whatever does not help, hinders. All that is superfluous to the main object of life must be cleared away, if that object is to be fully attained.” (Quaker Strongholds, 110)
Friends also recognize the interconnection of lifestyle and the impact on others and the environment. If the resources of the world are to be shared equitably, can I continue to consume more than my fair share? If each child is a child of God, and “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” then “living simply so others may simply live” is a spiritual mandate.
One of the linguistic mistakes often made is to say, “Quakers practice a simplistic way of life.” To paraphrase the quintessential plain Friend, John Woolman, simple living is not simplistic; it requires a clear understanding of priorities and the discipline to place the proper boundaries on our desires so that all we do and possess may be turned into instruments of betterment for ourselves and the world.
Expressions of this testimony at Guilford College
Plainness of buildings and grounds; environmental concerns. While Guilford’s campus is among the most delightful in academia, care is taken not to pour money into making a “show” of the grounds and buildings. There are no soaring Gothic structures, no “putting green” lawns, no excessive architecture. Sustainable practices are encouraged to lessen our “footprint” on the earth.
Faculty and student appearance. Some may decry the fact that members of the Guilford community don’t tend to “spruce up,” to put it mildly, but rather than emphasizing “vain and outward appearances,” the College has nurtured an environment that emphasizes inward beauty and qualities of mind and spirit rather than artificially enhanced physical appearance.