New meanings of simplicity

Long before the Foundations were approved, Quaker books of discipline included the quotation from William Penn: “The trimmings of the vain world would clothe the naked one” (quoted in an epistle of 1798). Quakers were urged to live a life of simplicity, avoiding “vain” luxury in clothing, lifestyle and possessions in order not to be drawn into pride, “conformity to the world” or the love of material goods. They were also encouraged to give the wealth they did not need, for the benefit of others.

This Quaker tradition of simple living – being “free from the bondage of material things and mere conventions” and not making “superfluous demands” – gains a different meaning in the Foundations. The Foundations make a direct connection between one person’s excessive consumption and another person’s “excessive burden of labour”. The new insight is that simplicity matters, not just because of how it affects a person’s spiritual state, but because of its contribution to a true social order. It’s a distinctively Quaker emphasis that is not found in similar statements from churches or political groups from the same period.

Where did the War and Social Order Committee get the idea from? The key Quaker influence in the background is John Woolman, whose work became newly popular in Britain at the turn of the twentieth century. Woolman’s interconnected vision of simplicity, peace, and economic and social justice appealed to the socialist Fabian Society, who published some of his writings in 1897 (it was one of their best-selling publications at the time – probably because so many Quakers bought it).

Woolman’s insights on how the “seeds of war” might lie in economic conditions, and how unnecessary luxury was linked to suffering and oppression, were often quoted in the process that led to the Foundations.