Sunday, April 27, 2008

Frugality and Christian Witness in America: Learning from Puritan and Quaker Christian Traditions

Ethics of frugality have long been part of the economic norm of most Christian traditions (Nash, 1995). Weber (1958) notes that frugality combined with the values of industry, equity, generosity, and solidarity formed the core of a “Protestant ethic” and went on to describe it as “worldly asceticism”. But within the current Western culture of “progressive plenty”, frugality has been portrayed as “unfashionable, unpalatable, and even unpatriotic” (Nash 1995:138). Two spiritual counter-movements that had its start in the seventeenth century (it could be argued that both were birthed in response the religious formalism and economic excesses of seventeenth century Anglicanism) had the ethics of frugality at part of its core, “inner” values (Callen, 2001).

George Fox (1624-1691), a laymen started a counter-movement (later known as the Quakers) centered in the belief that a new age of the Spirit has come and that the ultimate guide of faith was the indwelling presence of the Spirit. Fox encouraged voluntary simple living based on the guidance of the Spirit and did not allow any ministers to receive any form of monetary payment for ministry.

During this same time period another spiritual movement arose from the critique that the emphasis of “salvation by faith alone” of the Protestant churches resulted in little interest in serious spiritual formation. This counter-movement became known as the Puritan revival and soon sought to balance Protestant “faith-alone emphasis” with elements of patristic and medieval spiritualities, amongst those elements the disciplines of frugality and simplicity (Callen, 2001).

The genius of both the marginal counter-movements of Puritan and Quaker spiritualities is that they both “rediscovered the power of moving from speculation to experience, thereby providing verification of the reality of spiritual experience by the only evidence which is convincing, ‘the evidence of the changed lives’…” (Callen, 2001:140). In time, both these counter-movements became known for the radical commitments and stances their adherents embodied, such as resistance against slavery, complete commitment to non-violence and the values of frugality and experiential simplicity. It is important to note that the discipline of frugality and simplicity were not limited to economic and lifestyle choices, such as where to live, what the wear, what kind of work to do; but also intra-personal (such as worship, introspection, etc) and inter-personal dynamics. The contemporary Quaker author, Robert L. Smith (1998:63) summarizes the role of simplicity in Christian witness: “Simplicity helps us to live to the point, to clear the way to the best, to keep first things first.”

Puritan and Quaker spiritualities have long influenced Christian proponents and activists of a simpler lifestyle (Bittinger, 1978, Bush, 1999, and Fager, 1971). The Christian ethicist James A. Nash (1995:140-144), deeply inspired by Puritan and Quaker thought, argues that in order to bring a contemporary revival and reformation to contemporary Christian witness, that one needs to not only bring back the Puritan value of frugality, but also that frugality must be seen as a “subversive virtue”. There is a strong counter-cultural tone inherent to Nash’s language and proposals. Nash (1995:140-144) offers four characteristics of this revitalized virtue as it could operate within a spiritual counter-movement:

  • Frugality rejects the popular assumption that humans are insatiable creatures, ceaselessly acquisitive for economic gains and goods and egoistically committed to pleasure maximization.
  • Frugality resists the temptations of consumer promotionalism – particularly the ubiquitous advertising that pressures us through sophisticated techniques to want more, bigger, better, faster, newer, more attractive, or “state of the art.”
  • Frugality struggles against the various psychological and sociological dynamics, beyond promotionalism, that stimulates overconsumption.
  • Ethically conscious frugality rejects the prevailing ideology of indiscriminate, material economic growth.

The transformative, witness-facilitating, counter-cultural values of frugality and simplicity have started to make something of a comeback in larger Christianity. At the International Consultation on Simple Lifestyle, sponsored by the Lausanne Committee on World Evangelization’s Theology and Education Group (held at Hoddesdon, England, March 17-21, 1980) a statement was produced and endorsed, entitled, “An Evangelical Commitment to Simple Lifestyle”, which created a kind of Christian manifesto for downshifting. Amongst the many statements concerning the need and practice of simplicity, the following commitments regarding personal witness were expressed (Stott and Sider, 1980): “Our Christian obedience demands a simple lifestyle, irrespective of the needs of others….While some of us have been called to live among the poor, and others to open our homes to the needy, all of us are determined to develop a simpler lifestyle. We intend to reexamine our income and expenditure, in order to manage on less and give more away….Yet we resolve to renounce waste and oppose extravagance in personal living, clothing, and housing, travel and church buildings. We also accept the distinction between necessities and luxuries, creative hobbies and empty status symbols, modesty and vanity, occasional celebrations and normal routine, and between the service of God and slavery to fashion.”

The Puritan and Quaker expressions of simplicity and frugality have recently surfaced in unexpected blends with other Christian traditions. Olson (2005) reports that large communities blending Puritan simplicity and Pentecostal fervor are surfacing in rural Texas, joining their voices with those who offer “an alternative to the American Dream, a competing vision of the future - one that promises fullness of being in solidarity” (Nash 1995:159).

Downshifting in Puritan and Quaker spiritualities is integral to their missiological praxis. The Puritan and Quaker calls to simple living through the practice of the disciplines of frugality are counter-cultural calls to authentic Christian witness and sincere efforts to model the anti-materialism truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a world steeped in an ideology of “more, better and faster”.

"Two things I ask of you, O LORD; do not refuse me before I die:
Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, 'Who is the LORD ' or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.”
(Proverbs 30:7-9, NIV)


Bittinger, E.F. (1978). The simple life: a chapter in the evolution of a doctrine. Brethren Life and Thought 23.2, 104-114.

Bush, T. (1999). Plain Living: The Search for Simplicity. Christian Century 116:30, 676-681.

Callen, B.L. (2001). Authentic Spirituality. Rand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Fager, C. (1971). Experimenting with a simpler life style. Christian Century 88.1, 9-13.

Nash, J.A. (1995). Toward the revival and reform of the subversive virtue. Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics 15.1, 137-160.

Smith, R.L. (1998). A Quaker Book of Wisdom. London: Orion.

Stott, J.R.W. and Sider, R.J. (1980). An Evangelical Commitment to Simple Lifestyle. Occasional Bulletin of Missionary Research 4.4, 177-179.

Weber, M. (1958). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.