Many years ago I observed several aspects of Christian practice among the people called Quakers. I particularly noticed their plainness of speech and plainness of dress. I willingly adopted a form of both, but especially plainness of dress. I recommended the same to you when God first called you out of the world; and now, after more than twenty years of experience, I recommend it to you still.
But I ask you, in the name of God, to remain open to conviction. Whatever prejudices you have acquired from education, custom, or example, lay them aside as far as possible. Be willing to receive light either from God or man. Be glad to see more than you did before; to “have the eyes of your understanding opened.” Receive the truth, out of love for the truth, and you will have a reason to thank God forever.
It is not that I would advise you to imitate the Quakers in those peculiarities of dress which serve no purpose other than to distinguish them from all other people. To be different only for difference’s sake is not the responsibility of a Christian. I do not, therefore, advise you to wear a hat of certain dimensions, or a coat of a particular form. Rather, in things that are of no consequence at all, humility and courtesy require you to conform to the customs of your country.
But I advise you to imitate them, first, in the neatness of their clothing. This is most appropriate to your Christian calling. Let all your clothing be as clean as your situation in life will allow. Certainly the poor cannot be as clean as they would like, wearing the same clothes day after day. But let even these be as clean as proper care and diligence can keep them. In fact, they have a particular need for this; because cleanliness is a part of good stewardship. It is also better for one’s health than is generally realized. Let the poor, then, try especially to be clean.
Second, I advise you to imitate them in the plainness of their clothing. Two things are implied in this:
(1.) That your clothing be inexpensive, far more inexpensive than others in your circumstances wear, or than you would wear if you did not know God;
(2.) That it be serious, not colorful, airy, or showy; not conforming to the latest fashions. These simple rules may be applied both to the materials of which it is made, and the manner in which it is worn.
Would you like a further rule to govern these two? Then, “do everything with a single motive;” and this will guide you in every circumstance. Let a single intention to please God determine both what clothing you buy, and how you wear it. In other words, let all you do be done so that you may offer it to God as a sacrifice acceptable through Christ Jesus; so that it may increase your reward and brighten your crown in heaven. And it will do so, if it is consistent with Christian humility, seriousness, and love.
Should I be even more specific? Then I urge all those who want me to watch over their souls to wear no gold, no pearls, or precious stones; avoid curled hair, or expensive clothing. I advise those who are able to accept this to buy no velvet, no silk, no fine linen, no mere ornaments, even though they are in fashion. Wear nothing of a glaring color, or in any way bright, glittering, or showy; nothing made in the very height of fashion, nothing intended to attract the eyes of bystanders. I do not advise women to wear rings, earrings, necklaces, lace, or ruffles. Neither do I advise men to wear colored waistcoats, shining stockings, glittering or expensive buckles or buttons, either on their coats or on their sleeves. It is true that these are very little things, none of which are worth defending; therefore, give them up, for fear that a little needle may cause much pain in your flesh, and a little self-indulgence may do much harm to your soul.
For this I have the authority of God, in the clearest terms: “I will that women” (and logically, men too) “adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broidered [curled] hair, or gold, or pearls, [one kind of precious stones representing all] or costly apparel; but (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works” (1 Timothy 2:9, 10). Again, “Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting [curling] the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel. But let it be the ornament of a meet and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price” (1 Peter 3:3, 4). Nothing can be more obvious; the wearing of gold, of precious stones, and of expensive clothing, together with the curling of hair, is forbidden here by name. Nor is there any exception allowed, either here, or in any other verse of Scripture. Therefore, whoever says, “There is no harm in these things,” may as well say, “There is no harm in stealing or adultery.”
Let “them adorn themselves,” says St. Paul, “not with curling of hair, or with gold, pearls, or costly apparel; but (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works.” The last clause is added for clear and significant reasons. For:
(1.) The forbidden adornment cannot spring from godliness; from either love for or fear of God; from a desire to conform to His will, or from the mind which was in Christ Jesus;
(2.) It does not tend to increase godliness; it does not lead toward any holy passion; Instead,
(3.) It tends to destroy the attitudes which are most essential to godliness. It has no positive influence on humility; whether we aim at pleasing others or ourselves by it. Either way, it will increase pride rather than lowliness of heart.
Furthermore, because they are unnecessary expenses, they take the place of spending for good works. Consequently, they destroy the love which is fed by good works, hardening our hearts to the cries of the poor and needy.
Unnecessary expenses of this kind, whether large or small, are senseless and foolish. We challenge every living man to overcome this, if he agrees that there is a world beyond this one. For there is no reward in heaven for spending your money for ornaments or expensive clothing; but you may have an eternal reward for whatever you give on earth.
Consider this more closely. Here are two possible ways of spending a certain amount of money. I may spend it on expensive clothing for myself, or on necessary clothing for my neighbor. The former will please my own eye, or that of others; the latter will please God. Now even if there were no more harm in one than in the other; is there as much good in it? If they were equally innocent, are they also equally wise? By the one, I gratify the desire of the eye, and gain a pleasure that fades; by the other I gain a larger share of those pleasures that are at God’s right hand for eternity. By the former, I obtain the applause of men; by the latter, the praise of God. In one way, I am admired by fools; in the other, I hear from the Judge of all, “Well done, good and faithful servant; enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.”
But we may be sure that the wisdom of the world will offer many objections to this. It is argued, first, “If God has given us great fortunes, if we are placed in a higher class of life, we ought to dress according to our rank; that is, in gold and expensive clothing.” But where is this written? Bring me clear, scriptural proof for your assertion, or I cannot allow it.
“But did God not give a direct command by Moses, that some among His chosen people should be adorned with gold and precious stones, and the finest garments?” Yes, He did; He specifically commanded this for Aaron and his successors in the High Priesthood. But this direction which God gave for the Jewish high priest has no effect on anyone in England. Second, the Jews were under a different dispensation. The glory of that Mosaic dispensation was chiefly visible and external; but the glory of the present Christian dispensation is of an invisible and spiritual nature.
“But what then are gold and precious stones for? Why were they created?” What if I say I do not know? There are many things in creation which have no obvious, necessary purpose. What are crocodiles, lions, tigers, and scorpions for? Why are there so many poisons in creation? Whatever they are for, they are certainly not to be used in a way that God has forbidden.
“But we cannot carry on our business without dressing like other people.” If you only mean conforming to those styles of your countrymen that are neither showy nor expensive, why should you not dress like other people? I really think you should. Let an Englishman dress like other Englishmen, not like a Turk or a Tartar. Let an English woman dress like other English women, not like a French woman or a German. But if you mean conforming to them in a way that God has forbidden, the answer is obvious. If you cannot carry on your business without breaking God’s command, you must not continue in it. But I know of no business which cannot be carried on by one who dresses plainly and modestly. I fear that you love these things so much that you have come to think they are necessary. Your heart confuses your judgment; if you were not fond of them, you would never dream of needing them.
In one particular case these things may be unavoidable: the case of women who are under the rule of self-willed, unreasonable husbands or parents. These may be forced into doing what they otherwise would not. And they are blameless in this if they use every possible argument, asking to be excused from it; and, when they see they cannot win, submit to it only as far as they are forced.
And now, brothers, what remains for me is to ask you who are not under anyone’s rule, who are, under God, the directors of your actions, to set prejudice, stubbornness, and fashion aside, and yield to Scripture, to reason, and to truth.
And why should my advice, based on Scripture and reason, not carry enough weight with you? I will tell you why:
(1.) You are surrounded with saints of the world, those who are religious in a fashionable way. These constantly oppose all who would go farther in religion than themselves. These are continually warning you against going to extremes, and trying to mask the simplicity of the Gospel.
(2.) You have closeby even more dangerous enemies than these: the antinomians, who, when any specific Christian practice is taught, come in like the cuckoo, “The law, the law!” and while they glory in their shame, they make you ashamed of what should be your glory.
(3.) You have suffered by false teachers in our own ranks, who undermined the doctrine you had received, by not publicly insisting on it, by not urging you to dress as persons professing godliness (because not to speak for a Christian duty is, in effect, to speak against it). They have joked privately about your preciseness in observing the rule of Scripture, or made personal remarks which, even though you did not mind them then, afterward weakened your soul.
(4.) You have been in danger among false brothers. And I do not mean only those of other congregations, who consider strictness the same as bondage, but even many of our own who were once clearly convinced of the truth; but have since fallen away from it, and now try to harden others against it (at least by example) by returning again to the foolishness from which they had once escaped. But of what value is anyone’s example when it contradicts Scripture and reason? I have warned you a thousand times to disregard any example which contradicts reason or Scripture. If it should ever be that I or my brother, my wife or his, or all of us together, set an example which is contrary to Scripture and reason, I beg of you to disregard it completely; let Scripture and reason prevail.
You who have passed the morning, or even the noon of life, and who find the shadows of the evening approaching, should set a better example for the generation that is now dawning. For you the day of life is nearly spent; the night of death is almost here. You have no time to lose; see that you use every moment that remains. Remove everything out of the way, even if it is small (though showy or expensive clothing is not small), that might in any way obstruct your holiness and meekness, your seriousness of spirit, your single intention to glorify God in all your thoughts and words and actions. Let no unnecessary expense keep you from being, to the highest degree possible, “rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate,” until you are clothed with glory and immortality. Our bodies will soon fall into the dust; then let the survivors adorn them with flowers. In the meantime, let us value only those ornaments that will accompany us into eternity.
You that are in the morning of your days, do not make your appearance noticeable; rather let it lie hidden in plain clothing. If you want to speak highly of yourself by your dress, is anything better than plain neatness? What kind of people will you please with showy or expensive clothing? Probably none that will make you happy; this kind of dress pleases only the silliest and worst of men. At best, it pleases only the silliest and worst motives in those who are of a better character.
Let us walk more generously and more wisely in the future! Let us now throw aside whatever is not appropriate for men and women professing godliness; whatever does not spring from and serve our love for and fear of God. Let all who see us know that we are not of this world. Let our adorning be that which does not fade away; which is righteousness and true holiness. Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God. Do you ask, “But what should I do with the showy or expensive clothing and the ornaments that I already have? Should they be wasted? Should I not wear them, now that I have them?” Wearing them is the greatest loss of all. But what then should you do with them? Burn them, rather than wear them; throw them into the sea. Or, if you can with a clear conscience, sell them and give the money to those who are in need; but buy no more at the risk of your soul. Be a faithful steward. After providing those in your own household with the things they need for life and godliness, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the sick, the prisoner, and the stranger with all that you have. Then will God clothe you with glory and honor in the presence of men and angels, and you will shine “as the stars for ever and ever.”
This excerpt from John Wesley, edited for conciseness and readability, was originally published in A Timeless Faith: John Wesley for the 21st Century, edited by Stephen Gibson.