Simplicity and Quaker Plainness

Friends’ testimony on simplicity has manifested itself in many ways throughout our history.  Aside from avoidance of lavish lifestyles or flashy adornments, simplicity is a witness to the world that the inward state is more important than the outward.

Early Friends were concerned to stay clear of fancy dress, speech, and material possessions.   (See Barclay’s Apology Revised page, proposition 15.)  In the 18th and 19th centuries this testimony set Friends apart as “a peculiar people” with their plain dress and speech.

When one visualizes Quaker plain dress we usually picture the classic black, white, and gray unadorned garb, with women wearing sugar scoop bonnets and men broad-rimed hats.  Plain dress varied however from region to region.  For example some Friends wore green or blue.  Not all bonnets and hats were alike either.  John Woolman wore undyed cloth as a witness against slavery.

There never has been total agreement about what constitutes a simple or even plain life.  Margaret Fell (the “mother of Quakerism”) was concerned that Friends in her day were already too concerned with the outward appearance of their clothing and she called this trend towards uniformity a “silly and poor gospel.”  She liked to wear fine fabrics and George Fox indulged her in this regard.  She chastised Friends by say­ing that we should be “cov­ered with God’s eter­nal Spirit, and clothed with his eter­nal Light.”

Today there are a few Friends who feel called to wear plain dress, including some on the Big Island.  The Ohio Conservative Yearly Meeting was the last to recommend plain dress for their members.  I’ve known a few plain dressed Friends over the years have admired them for their special witness, even as I find the custom antiquated.  I’ve also known Friends who were raised in the plain tradition who react negatively when they see modern Friends reclaiming plain dress.  To rework a famous Quaker saying, “Wear it as long as thou canst Friend.”

Most Friends these days are not concerned with plainness per se; yet the legacy of this tradition lives with us still.  We often use that part of plain speech that includes the numbering of months and days of the week when we speak of “First Day School” or date Business Meeting minutes.  This was originally meant to avoid honoring pagan gods.  (See below for more details on the origins of these names.)  Simplicity of speech has meant that Friends tend to avoid the use of titles, such as Mr., Mrs., Dr., etcetera.  The use of “thee” and “thy,” is largely historical, yet Friends commonly use this vestige of plain speech when talking to those who are dear to us.  Part of plain speech (also integrity) is Friends’ refusal to take oaths, because we are expected to speak truthfully in all circumstances.  (Also, the Bible says in Mat 5: 34-35 “But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne; Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King.”)

In every age I suppose simplicity has been a challenge but in this technologically dependent time, when Quaker Elders are no longer dictating our behavior, simplicity seems a special challenge.  What does it mean to live a simple life in the modern world?  Our testimony on simplicity has real world consequences.  We examine ourselves for how our lifestyles affect the environment around us.  Simplicity for thee Friend may not be simplicity for me.  There is nothing simple about this important testimony.

Origin of Days of the week

The First Day: Sunday was named after the Sun god.

The second Day: Monday was named after the moon goddess.

The Third Day: Tuesday was named after the god Tyr.

The Fourth Day: Wednesday was named after the god Odin.

The Fifth Day: Thursday was named after the god Thor.

The Sixth Day: Friday was named after the goddess Frigga.

The Seventh Day: Saturday was named after the god Saturn.

Origin of Months

JANUARY: Named for Janus, the Roman mighty one of portals and patron of beginnings and endings, to whom this month was sacred. He is shown as having two faces, one in front, the other at the back of his head, supposedly to symbolize his powers.

FEBRUARY: This name is derived from Februa, a Roman festival of purification. It was originally the month of expiation.

MARCH: It is named for Mars, the Roman mighty one of war.

APRIL: This name comes from the Latin APRILIS, indicating a time of Fertility. It was believed that this month is the month when the earth was supposed to open up for the plants to grow.

MAY: This month was named for Maia, the Roman female deity of growth or increase.

JUNE: This name is sometimes attributed to June, the female mighty one of the marriage, the wife of Jupiter in Roman mythology. She was also called the “Queen of heaven” and ” Queen of mighty ones.” The name of this month is also attributed to Junius Brutus, but originally it most probably referred to the month in which crops grow to ripeness.

JULY: Named for the Roman emperor Julius Caesar, this is the seventh month of the Gregorian year.

AUGUST: Named for Octavius Augustus Caesar, emperor of Rome; the name was originally from augure, which means, “to increase.”

SEPTEMBER: This name is derived from the Latin septem, meaning “seven.”

OCTOBER This name comes from the Latin root octo, meaning “eight.”

NOVEMBER: This name is derived from Latin novem, meaning “ninth.”

DECEMBER: This name comes from the Latin decem, meaning ‘ten’.


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