On Dress

“Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; “But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which in not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price.” (1 Peter 3:3, 4.)

St. Paul urges all those who desire to be “transformed by the renewal of their minds,” and to approve “that good and acceptable and perfect will of God,” not to be “conformed to this world,” This message applies especially to the wisdom of the world, which is opposed to God’s “good and acceptable and perfect will.” But it also refers to the customs of the world, which naturally flow from its wisdom and spirit, and are consistent with them.

Some of these directions apply even to the way Christians dress. Both this text and the parallel one of St. Paul are as clear as possible. St. Paul’s words are, “I will that women adorn themselves in modest apparel; not with gold, or pearls, or costly array; but (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works” (1 Timothy. 2:9, 10).

“But is it not strange,” some say, “that God should bother to notice such trivial things? For what does it matter, if we care for our souls, what the body is covered with, whether with silk or sackcloth? What harm can there be in wearing gold, or silver, or precious stones, or any of the other beautiful things God has provided? May we not apply to this what St. Paul has said on another occasion, that ‘every creature of God is good, and nothing to be rejected?’”

It is certain that many who sincerely fear God have embraced this opinion. And their practice is consistent with it. They place no restrictions on conformity to the world.  They put on, as often as they have occasion, either gold, or pearls, or expensive clothing. And they are not pleased with those that reject these things; since they consider using them to be part of Christian liberty. Some have gone so far as to influence those who had stopped using them to use them again, assuring them that it was only superstition to think there was any harm in them. It is therefore worthwhile to ask whether there is any harm in putting on gold, or jewels, or expensive clothing.

But before we begin the subject, let us observe that sloppiness has no part in religion; and no text of Scripture condemns neatness. Certainly neatness is a duty, not a sin. Everyone should give attention to this, so that the good in him is not spoken of as evil.

The question is, “What harm does it do to adorn ourselves with gold, or pearls, or expensive garments, assuming that you can afford it; that is, it does not hurt or impoverish your family?” The first harm it does is to cause and increase pride. Whoever closely observes what happens in his own heart will clearly see this. Nothing is more natural than to think of ourselves as better because we are dressed in better clothes; and it is nearly impossible for a man to wear expensive clothing without, to some degree, valuing himself because of it. One of the old heathens realized this, so that, when he wanted to harm to a poor man, he first distorted the man’s thinking by giving him a suit of fine clothes. The man would then imagine himself to be better than his neighbor because he was so fashionable. How many thousands, and not only men of nobility and wealth, but also honest merchants, reason the same way, assuming the superior value of a person from the value of his clothes!

“Cannot a person dressed in sackcloth,” you ask, “be as proud as one who is dressed in gold?” He certainly may. I suppose no one doubts it. But what conclusion can you draw from this? Think of it this way. One man that drinks a cup of wholesome wine may become as sick as another that drinks poison. But does this prove that the poison has no greater tendency to harm a man than the wine? Or does it excuse any man for drinking that which has a natural tendency to make him sick? Now, experience shows that fine clothes have a natural tendency to make a man sick with pride; plain clothes do not. Although it is true that you may be sick with pride in these also, it remains that they have no natural tendency either to cause or increase this sickness. Therefore, all who desire to be clothed with humility, stay away from that poison.

Second, wearing colorful or expensive clothing naturally tends to cause and increase vanity. By vanity I mean the desire to be admired and praised. Every one of you that is fond of dress has a sense of this in your heart. Whether you confess it or not, you know in your heart that you adorn yourself in order to be admired; and that you would not if no one could see you but God and His holy angels. Make it your goal to please God alone, and all these ornaments will fall away.

Third, wearing colorful and expensive clothing naturally tends toward anger, and every violent passion.  This is why the Apostle shows this “outward adorning” to be the direct opposite of the “ornament of a meek and quiet spirit.” No one can easily imagine, except by experience, the difference between the “outward adorning,” and this “quietness of spirit.” You can never truly enjoy this sense of inward peace, while you are still fond of external appearances. It is only when you place little value on that “outward adorning,” that you can in “patience possess your soul.” Only when you have abandoned your fondness for dress will the peace of God reign in your hearts.

Fourth, colorful and expensive clothing tends to create and inflame lust. The fact is obvious; it has this effect both on the wearer and the beholder. To the wearer, our poet, Cowley, addresses these lines:

The’ adorning yourself with so much art
Is only a barbarous skill;
It’s like the poisoning of a dart,
Already too able to kill.

That is, you poison the beholder with far more of this fleshly desire than he would otherwise feel. Did you not know that this would be the natural result of your elegant adorning?  Did you not intend for this to happen? Meanwhile, you cannot escape the trap which you have set for others. The dart flies back, and you are infected with the same poison. You kindle a flame which consumes both you and your admirers. And we can only hope that it will not plunge both you and them into the flames of hell!

Fifth, wearing expensive garments is directly opposed to being adorned with good works. The more you spend on your own clothing, the less you have left to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, to shelter the strangers, to comfort those that are sick and in prison, and to lessen the countless afflictions which we suffer in this valley of tears. Every penny you save on your own clothing you can spend in meeting the needs of the poor. Therefore, every penny which you spend needlessly on clothing is, in effect, stolen from God and the poor! How many precious opportunities of doing good you have missed! How often you have prevented yourself from doing good by purchasing what you did not need! For what purpose did you buy these ornaments? To please God? No; only to please yourself, or to gain the approval of those who were no wiser than you. How much good you might have done with that money, and what an irretrievable loss it is, if it is true that “every man shall receive his own reward, according to his own labor!”

I pray that you consider this well. Perhaps you have not seen it in this light before. When you spend that money on expensive clothing which you could have used to help the poor, you deprive them of what God, the owner of all, has put into your hands for them. If so, the clothes which you put on, you are, in effect tearing from the back of the naked; and the expensive and delicate food which you eat, you are snatching from the mouth of the hungry. Out of mercy, out of pity, for Christ’s sake, and for the honor of His Gospel, do not throw this money away! Do not spend on that which means nothing, or worse than nothing, that which could clothe your poor, naked, shivering fellow-creature!

Many years ago, when I was at Oxford, on a cold winter’s day, one of the young maids who worked at the school visited me. I said, “You seem half-starved. Do you have nothing to cover you but that thin linen gown?” She said, “Sir, this is all I have!” I put my hand in my pocket; but found I had almost no money left, having just spent what I had. It immediately struck me, “Will your Master say, ‘Well done, good and faithful steward?’ You have decorated your walls with the money which might have sheltered this poor creature from the cold! Are these pictures not the blood of this poor maid?” See your expensive clothing in the same light; your gown, hat, or wig! Everything around you which cost more than Christian duty required you to spend is the blood of the poor! Be wise in the future! Be more merciful! Be more faithful to God and man! Be more richly adorned like men and women who profess godliness with good works!

Perhaps you argue, “But I can afford it.” Lay aside that nonsensical word once and for all! No Christian can afford to waste any part of what God has entrusted to him. May you not tomorrow, or even tonight, be called to give an account of this and every one of your talents to the Judge of the living and dead?

Why is it that after so many warnings you persist in the same foolishness? Is it not because there are still some among you that do not benefit from what they hear, and are not willing that others should either?  And these, if you become convinced that you should dress as a Christian, argue and ridicule you out of it. You foolish ones, I urge you to stop doing the devil’s work! Whatever you yourselves do, do not harden the hearts of others. And you that know better, carefully avoid these tempters.

Then why does not everyone that either loves or fears God, run from it, as from a snake? Why do you still conform to the irrational, sinful customs of a frantic world? Why do you still reject the clear commandment of God? You see the light. Why do you not follow the light of your own mind? Your conscience tells you the truth. Why do you not obey your own conscience?

You answer, “Universal custom is against me, and I do not know how to resist it.” I realize that not only the secular but the religious world, runs violently in the opposite direction. Look not only in the theaters, but in the churches, and in the meetings of every denomination (except a few old-fashioned Quakers, or the people called Moravians); look into the congregations, in London or elsewhere, of those that are called “gospel ministers;” look at the people that sit near the pulpit. Are those that can afford it not as fashionably dressed as those of the same class in other places?

This is a sad truth. I am ashamed of it. But I call heaven and earth to witness that it is not my fault! For nearly fifty years, God knows I have given a clear and faithful testimony.  In print, in preaching, and in meetings with the believers, I have declared the whole counsel of God. I am therefore innocent of the blood of those who will not hear.

I warn you again, in the name and in the presence of God, that the great number of those that rebel against Him is no excuse for your rebellion. He has told us, “Thou shalt not follow the multitude to do evil.” Who among you wants to share in the glorious character of those who are willing to stand against an entire world? If millions condemn you, it will be enough that you are found innocent by God and your own conscience.

Some say, “I am able to endure any contempt except that of my own family, and especially that of the members of my own household. My father, my mother, my brothers and sisters, ridicule me continually.” This is a trial, to be sure; one that is hard to understand except by those who have it.  But there is strength set aside for you. God’s grace is sufficient for you; and He is ready to give it you. In the meantime, remember His declaration regarding those who love man more than God: “He that loves father or mother, brother or sister, husband or wife, more than Me, is not worthy of Me.”

I urge all of you who have any regard for me, show me, before I am gone, that I have not labored in vain for nearly half a century. Let me see, before I die, a Methodist congregation as plainly dressed as a Quaker congregation. Only be consistent with yourselves. Let your clothing be inexpensive as well as plain; otherwise, you merely play with God and your own souls. I ask, let there be no expensive silken garments among you, even if they have the appearance of plainness. Be fully consistent, dressed from head to foot as those who profess godliness; professing to do all things, great and small, with the one purpose of pleasing God.

I urge you, every man that is present here before God, every woman, every child that knows good from evil, take this truth to heart. Take the Apostle’s advice; or, at the very least, do not prevent others from taking it. I urge you, parents, do not keep your children from following their own convictions, even though you might think they would look prettier if they had such ornaments as other children wear! I urge you, husbands, do not hinder your wives! Wives, do not hinder your husbands, either in words or actions, from doing as they are persuaded in their own minds! In a little while we will not need these meager coverings; for our mortal bodies will be clothed in immortality. In the meantime, let this be our only concern, to “put on, as the elect of God, a heart of mercy, kindness, gentleness, longsuffering.” In a word, let us “put on Christ;” that “when He shall appear we may appear with Him in glory.”