Proposition 15 - Simplicity
The entire chapter can be found here. The text of the proposition alone can be found here. The following is my paraphrase of the proposition:
The chief purpose of religion is to redeem people from the spirit and vain manner of living of this world and to lead them to inward communion with God. If we always have reverence for God, we will be considered happy. Therefore all of the vain customs and habits of the world are to be rejected by all who have come to this reverence before God. Taking off ones hat to a man and bowing and cringing before another and similar customs and formalities were invented by man to feed his pride and vanity. Plays, frivolous recreations, sorts and games were invented to pass away our precious time and divert the mind from the witness of God in our heart. The spirit that Christians should live in leads to sobriety, gravity and reverence. As we live in this spirit, God will bless our actions taken to provide for the sustenance of our outward person.
Barclay goes on to say that there are a number of things which other Christians may claim to be lawful but which Quakers have found that God has ordered them to lay aside. These things make it obvious that one is a Quaker so we cannot hide ourselves without being unfaithful to our testimony.
In later periods, the Quaker distinctives came to be seen as part of the hedge that separated and protected Friends from the world. But originally they were a testimony against the spirit of the world. They served to mark Friends so that they could not hide from persecution. Quite the opposite of being a hedge against the world, they often served to provoke the world. They also marked Friends so that any failing of theirs would reflect badly on the entire movement. There was no opportunity to go off somewhere and engage in some anonymous carousing or blowing off steam.
Barclay identifies six things that Friends considered unlawful for them.
1)It is not lawful for Christians to give men flattering titles like “Your Excellency” or to use those flattering words commonly called compliments.
2)It is not lawful for a Christian to kneel or bow or uncover the head to any man.
3)It is not lawful for a Christian to use superfluities in dress as they serve no purpose but ornament and vanity.
4)It is not lawful to use games, sports, plays or comedies among Christians under the the guise of recreation. All activities that do not agree with Christian silence, gravity and sobriety should be avoided.
5)It is not lawful for Christians to swear, either vainly or in a court of law.
6)It is not lawful for Christians to resist evil or to war or fight in any case.
I will look at the specifics of these in later posts.
Barclay then goes on to some general points. The first is that these ideas do not mean that they intend to destroy relationships in which there is unequal power. In Barclay's words, “I would not have any judge, that hereby we intend to destroy the mutual relation, that either is betwixt prince and people, master and servants, parents and children, nay not at all.” When Margaret Fell and her household converted to Quakerism, she remained the mistress of the house and the servants remained the servants. Quakerism might bring us to a new relationship with God but it did not change our social relationships. What Friends objected to were those customs which implied that people in more powerful positions were in some way better than those with less power.
Likewise he made it clear that they were not economic levellers. Their vision of primitive Christianity revived did not include the communalism of the Jerusalem church where all things were held in common. In part this was to distinguish themselves from groups like the Diggers. Gerard Winstanley, one of the leaders of the Diggers, or the True Levellers, maintained that private property was a result of the Fall of Adam. He claimed that by renouncing private property he had come into the state of Adam before the Fall. One will note that this is exactly the same language that George Fox used to describe his spiritual condition. (A good source of information on the radical movements of the 17'th century can be found here.). Quakers managed to get themselves into enough trouble without being confused with other troublemaking groups with similar language.
Barclay says “Our principle leaves every man to enjoy that peaceably, which either his own industry or parents have purchased to him, only he is thereby instructed to use it aright, both for his own good and that of his brethren, and all to the glory of God.” He recognized that God had chosen to distribute his creation unequally, allowing some to use more and giving some less. He notes that, due to the accident of our birth and station, that some things may be lawful or helpful to one and not another. For instance, a man born to wealth could wear better clothes and eat well and, if he was not squandering his money and was moderate in what he did, he would be doing no wrong. In fact, if after being accustomed to this life, if he were to dress and eat as a peasant, he might damage his own physical health and gain no benefit for his soul. On the other hand, a person of limited means who spent beyond his means to the detriment of his family to have the same food and clothing as the richer man would be going against the dictates of God. He called the person of high degree to watch over themselves that they use their wealth moderately and avoid superfluities so they can better help those in need. Those of a lesser estate he encouraged them to be content with their station and not envy those with more. Rather they should recognize the abundance that they are receiving inwardly. By living simply they would walk more closely the path followed by the disciples of Christ and would become better examples to the world. By following this path, Friends would be drawn away from the love and cares of this world, even while active in it, as effectively as those who had shut themselves up in cloisters and monasteries.
Simplicity serves two purposes. First it is a witness against pride and vanity in the world. But more importantly, the process of outward simplification also helps draw the inward person away from the cares of the world and towards an inner life more focused on God.