Minimalists in History: The Quakers

Pillars of Rome, Oregon

“Neither be cumbred not surfeited with the Riches of this World.”

– George Fox

Not long after the Puritans came to the New World, another Protestant group that had broken off from the Church of England arrived. Like the Puritans, many Quakers (also known as Friends) moved to New England to avoid religious persecution.

The colony of Pennsylvania, founded by William Penn, was governed by Quakers, and its laws were based on Quaker ideals. Also like Puritans, Quakers valued simplicity. Friends believed that, by living simply, they would be free to devote themselves to spiritual pursuits and social service.

The Quakers knew of the Puritans’ experiences in America, and Penn wanted to make sure that the Quakers didn’t have the same problems the Puritans had had with declining piety and rising materialism.

“Once the care of luxurious heathen is now the practice of, and which is worse, the study of, pretended Christians.”

– William Penn

Like the Puritans, the Quakers tried to avoid these issues by enacting wage and price controls, as well as sumptuary laws. Also, meetings warned Friends to avoid “useless and superfluous” and “vain needless” things.

Unfortunately, these measures didn’t work. Following in the footsteps of the Puritans after all, Quakers found it difficult to live simply. They, too, thrived economically, and it wasn’t long before Philadelphia’s merchants were flaunting their wealth.

Some wealthy Friends renounced Quakerism and joined the Anglican Church. Others interpreted “simple” to mean unadorned. They could, they believe, buy the most expensive goods so long as the style was plain.

“I cannot look upon the love of the world & giving way to desire for riches, as many do, as a pardonable frailty; but rather esteem it a departure from the divine life.”

– Anthony Benezet

Beginning in the 1740s, concerned Quakers began to return to their old values. John Woolman and other reformers traveled to Friends’ meetings throughout the colonies preaching a return to a “plain, simple way of living.”

Leaders of the religious revival criticized those who “delighted in the pursuit of worldly treasures” as being “of the church of antichrist.” Some Friends went house to house, urging others to restore simplicity to their lives. Quaker meetings began enforcing strict disciplinary codes, expelling Friends for violating the principle of plainness and for supporting military action.

“Quakers believe in simple living….Friends try to live lives in which activities and possessions do not get in the way of open communication with others and with one’s own spirituality.”

– San Francisco Friends School

Thanks to the dedication of Quaker reformers, Quakerism survived with many of its original ideals intact. In fact, the Religious Society of Friends continues to espouse the simple life.

If you’re interested in learning more about modern-day Quakers, visit the Cape Cod Quakers’ website. If you’d like to attend a Friends meeting, check out the Quaker Finder. Most (if not all) groups welcome everyone to their meetings.

If you’re a Friend, I’d love to hear about how your faith has helped you simplify your life. Please share in the comments or email me.

More historical information is available in The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture, by David E. Shi.