NEXT in importance to the impression made upon my young mind by this teaching regarding the perceptible guidance of the Holy Spirit, was the one made by “Friends’ testimonies,” as they were called, and the “Queries” that were founded upon them. These “Queries” were a series of questions in regard to the practice of Quakerism, which were solemnly asked and answered once a month in Monthly Meetings, appointed for the purpose of transacting the business of the society. There were eight of these “Queries,” and they contained a splendid code of morals, calculated to develop a people of unflinching uprightness and honesty in all their dealings with their fellow-men, and of a grand self-restraint and self-denial in their private lives; and, much as I chafed at them as a child, I have never been able to forget the lessons they taught, and often to this day find myself guided by their precepts.
With such a monthly probing of conduct as these Queries compelled, it was almost a necessity that a high standard of righteousness should have become an integral part of a Quaker’s life; and I feel it to have been an invaluable element of my own religious training.
Back of these Queries there was a body of “Friends’ testimonies” from which the Queries had arisen, which although unwritten, except so far as they were expressed in the Queries, were absolutely binding upon every true Friend. I have often thought that they were in reality, though no one said so, our Quaker Ten Commandments, which we had put in the place of the Jewish ones. I certainly believed as a child that they were in fact the especial commandments that had been given to us as Quakers, which differentiated us from all the Christians around us, and made us the “peculiar people” we were proud to call ourselves. They were many of them very strict and severe, and to an outsider must often have seemed rather painful; but, as all the Quakers I knew had been brought up on them from infancy, they did not press as heavily upon us as might have been supposed. But they certainly did serve to keep Quaker feet walking in a narrow way, which way we believed to be the actual “strait gate and narrow way” spoken of in the Bible as the only path that “leadeth unto life.” Every one of these “testimonies” had been, we were devoutly convinced, directly revealed by the Holy Spirit to the “early Friends”; and consequently, however unreasonable they might otherwise have seemed to us, we young Friends in my day reverenced them as the very oracles of God.
As these Queries seem to have almost entirely fallen into the background among the Quakers of late years, I will record them here, as a true exposition of the Quakerism of my young days.“First Query.—Are all our religious meetings for worship and discipline duly attended; is the hour observed; and are Friends clear of sleeping, and of all other unbecoming behaviour therein?
“Second Query.—Are love and unity maintained amongst you? Are tale-bearing and detraction discouraged? And where any differences arise, are endeavours used speedily to end them?
“Third Query.—Are Friends careful to bring up those under their direction, in plainness of speech, behaviour and apparel; in frequently reading the Holy Scriptures, and to restrain them from reading pernicious books, and from the corrupt conversation of the world? And are they good examples in these respects themselves?
“Fourth Query.—Are Friends careful to discourage the unnecessary distillation and use of spirituous liquors, and the frequenting of taverns; to avoid places of diversion; and to keep in true moderation and temperance on the account of marriages, burials and all other occasions.
“Fifth Query.—Are poor Friends’ necessities duly inspected, and they relieved or assisted in such business as they are capable of? Do their children freely partake of learning to fit them for business; and are they and other Friends’ children placed among Friends?
“Sixth Query.—Do you maintain a faithful testimony against oaths; an hireling ministry; bearing arms, training, and other military services; being concerned in any fraudulent or clandestine trade; buying or vending goods so imported; or prize goods; and against encouraging lotteries of any kind?
“Seventh Query.—Are Friends careful to live within the bounds of their circumstances, and to keep to moderation in their trade or business? Are they punctual to their promises, and just in the payment of their debts; and are such as give reasonable grounds for fear on these accounts, timely laboured with for their preservation or recovery?
“Eighth Query.—Do you take due care regularly to deal with all offenders in the spirit of meekness, without partiality or unnecessary delay, in order for their help; and where such labour is ineffectual, to place judgment upon them, in the authority of truth?”
The reading of these Queries in our Monthly Meetings constituted a sort of monthly confessional for the whole society, and were seasons of solemn self-examination for both old and young. Each separate Meeting belonging to the “Monthly Meeting” sent in its own set of answers for this public confessional, and the consideration of these answers was called the “consideration of the state of society.”
“Our meetings have all been duly attended by most of our members, but some Friends have not observed the hour.”—“Mostly clear of unbecoming behaviour, but some sleeping has been observed.”—“Friends generally are careful to bring up their children in plainness of speech, behaviour, and apparel, but more faithfulness in this respect is desirable.”—“Our testimony against oaths and a hireling ministry, bearing arms, being concerned in any clandestine trade, and against encouraging lotteries, has been faithfully maintained by all our members.” Such were some of the answers that linger in my memory.
It was the custom after each Query and answer had been read, for a time of silence to be observed in order to give Friends an opportunity to “relieve their minds” of any message that might have been given them concerning that especial Query; and these opportunities were generally times of great searchings of heart with all who were present.
As I remember it, the one Query that was preached about the most frequently and the most fervently was the Third, concerning the testimony for “plainness of speech, behaviour, and apparel, and against the vain fashions of the world.” It was this testimony that did the most to make Quakers a “peculiar people,” and that caused us young Quakers the worst of our heart burnings. I remember to this day the sufferings I used to undergo each month as I sat beside my mother and heard this Query read and preached about. My constant fear was lest it should make her more strict in trying to keep us from the “vain fashions of the world,” which, in spite of our training, possessed a fascination we could not wholly conquer. As the Friend who was appointed to read the Queries approached this especial one, I used to do my best to abstract my mind, and would even surreptitiously stop my ears, trying to cheat myself into thinking that, if I did not notice it, my mother would not either. But alas! as I recall those days, I must acknowledge that I was always doomed to disappointment, for, as I have said, the preaching about this particular Query was the most frequent and the most fervent, and in the end I, as well as my mother was always obliged to listen.
Two incidents of my childhood, connected with this Query, come up very vividly before me.
Our mother had bought us some white china crape shawls with lovely long fringes that seemed to us too beautiful for words, and we wore them with the greatest pride. But one day she came home from a meeting where the Queries had been read and answered, and told us she had felt in meeting that our long fringes were too “gay” for “Friends’ children,” and she believed it was her duty to cut them shorter. I can see it all to-day, as she carefully spread the shawls out on a large table, and laid a yardstick along the fringe at what she considered was the right length, and proceeded to cut off all the lovely beautiful extra lengths. It was like cutting into our very vitals, and I remember well how we pleaded and pleaded that the fatal yardstick might be slipped down just a little further. Our great fear was that our fringes would be cut shorter than the fringes of similar shawls that had been purchased at the same time for our most intimate friends, Hannah and Jane Scull, who were a little gayer than ourselves. To have their fringes, even so much as the tenth of an inch longer than ours, seemed to us a catastrophe not to be borne. I do not remember how it turned out in the end, but I shall never forget to my dying day the agonies of mind we went through in the process.
Another experience about dress left an indelible impression on my mind. The shape of sleeve that was considered “plain” in my day was what are called leg-of-mutton sleeves, and the sleeves of all our dresses were of this orthodox leg-of-mutton shape. But some benign influence, what it was we never understood, induced our mother one spring to let us have our sleeves made a little in the fashion, which happened at that time to be what was called Bishop sleeves, full at both the shoulder and the wrist. The fashion was for very large and full “Bishops” and ours were tiny little ones, but they were real “Bishops” and our pride in them was immense. The dresses were our new spring school dresses, of a brown and white striped print, calico, we called it. They were finished while the weather was still very wintry-like, but so great was our desire to show off our fashionable sleeves to the astonished world, that nothing would do but we must put them on and go for a long walk without any coats; and no two prouder little girls were abroad in the whole world that morning than Hannah and Sally Whitall, as they walked along the streets of Philadelphia in their fashionable attire. I remember our younger sister Mary wanted to go with us, but her sleeves were still leg-of-mutton, and we felt it would take from the full effect, if one member of our party should display the despised sleeves, and we made her walk on the opposite side of the way. I can see her longing glances across the street now, as she admired our glory from afar. However, she had her revenge not long after, for ruffled panties (as we called drawers then) coming down to the feet, had come into fashion, and as our mother was making her a new set, they were made long and ruffled, while we still had to wear our plain hemmed ones, not showing below our dresses. And this time she also went out to walk to show her new panties, but, kinder than we had been, she invited us to accompany her. I am sorry to say, however, that the old Adam in us resented her favoured condition so strongly, that we refused to walk on the same side of the street with her, and scornfully crossed over to the other side, leaving her to walk alone, with all the glory taken out of her beautiful ruffled “panties” by our cruel scorn and unkindness.
The early Friends, in order to testify against the foolish changes of fashion among the “world’s people” had, as far as possible, adhered to the style of dress that was being worn when they took their rise, and in a very few years this naturally grew peculiar, and finally became a sort of Quaker uniform, which all good Friends felt “led” to adopt. I say they adhered to the first style as far as possible, because moderate changes were inevitable from the fact that certain styles, when they ceased to be fashionable, dropped sooner or later out of the market, and could no longer be easily procured; and also because the views, even of the strictest, could not help being more or less modified by time and use.
The fact was that their “testimony” as to “plainness of apparel” was not a testimony against or for any special style of dress, but it was simply a testimony against following the “vain fashions of the world”; and by the time a style had become old-fashioned, and was going out, the Quakers would be prepared to adopt it.
I met lately in some extracts from an old diary the following curious illustration of this. In the time of Queen Elizabeth, before Quakers arose, it was the general fashion to wear green aprons as a part of a lady’s church-going dress; but by the time the Quakers came on the scene this fashion had begun to die out, and starched white aprons were taking the place of green in the fashionable world. In order not to follow the changing fashions, Friends held on to the green aprons for their go-to-meeting dress, and their preachers preached against the fashionable white aprons as being of a “gay and polluting colour.” One old preacher, it is recorded, declared in one of his sermons, that the starch water used to stiffen these aprons was the “devil’s water with which they needed to be sprinkled,” and warned his hearers against its polluting use.
Curiously enough, this rooted Quaker objection to following the vain fashions of the world extended even to many useful inventions of which one would have supposed the practical good sense of the Friends would have seen the value. I remember that when sewing machines first came into vogue they were considered by the Friends exceedingly worldly. And, when I had made up my mind to buy one, I was obliged to make my purchase in secret, and to hide the machine in the most inaccessible room in my house, in order that no one might be grieved with my worldliness. Of course later on, when the Friends had got used to the innovation, sewing machines were to be seen in every well-ordered Quaker household; but for a long time I went about with a haunting sense of having fallen from grace, because of the worldly thing I had purchased.
The standard of plainness, therefore, necessarily varied from one generation to another. But whatever the standard might be, the “testimony” against the vain fashions of the world continued the same, and each generation felt that the established costume of their day was of the nature of a Divine ordinance, especially patterned in Heaven itself.
This conviction of the sanctity of the “plain dress” arose largely, I believe, from the fact that all their own personal religion had come to them through this channel. The newly awakened Friend, whether young or old, was invariably confronted with the question of “becoming plain;” and the surrender of will involved in giving up to adopt the Quaker uniform always brought such peace and rest of soul, that it was almost inevitable they should consider the putting on of the “plain dress” as being the procuring cause of the blessing. This was especially the case with our own dear father. In his diary, under date of 1823 when he was just twenty-three years old, he writes:—“While at home from my fifth voyage I believed it right to adopt the plain dress and language of Friends. While under the conviction of its being right, and fearing I should lose my situation if I did so, I met with Samuel Bettle, Sr., who, without knowing the distressed state of my mind, told me, if I was faithful to what I felt to be right, the Lord would make a way for me where there seemed no way; which indeed He did, giving me favour in the sight of my employer much to my comfort. Hearing of a ship as needing a chief mate, I borrowed a plain coat of my friend, James Cox, my own not being ready, and called to see the captain, telling him I could not “Mr.” and “Sir” him as was common. To which he replied kindly that it would only be a nine days’ wonder, and at once engaged me as first mate. Thus my prayer was answered and a way made for me where I saw no way. Praised forever be the name of the Lord.”
This was the turning point in his religious life, and it was followed by such an uplifting of soul, and such a sense of the love of God, that he was never able to dissociate them, and all his life believed, that, if any one else would adopt the same dress, the same blessing would follow. I believe he would freely have bestowed a “plain coat” as a gift upon anybody who would wear one; and nothing ever seemed to disturb his profound conviction that “plain coats” and “plain bonnets” had been shaped and patterned in Heaven. He even assured us once that he fully believed that the armies in Heaven, spoken of in Rev. 19:14, who followed the King of kings on white horses, all had on “plain coats!” He was a member of the Board of a Quaker college near Philadelphia, which required all its students to wear the “plain” straight collared coats. But in hot summer weather, when the students were obliged to wear linen or seersucker coats on account of the heat, their thin straight collars refused to stand up, and wilted down with the heat. The question came before the Board as to whether, under such circumstances, they might not be allowed to wear turned down collars. Some of the Board were for yielding, but our dear father would not listen to this for a moment, but declared that, if there were no other way of making their collars stand, they must put whalebone in to stiffen them, for “stand they must.” I believe however that the summer heats were too much for even his stalwart principles, and he was at last forced reluctantly to consent to the turned over collars.
I have no doubt the same thing occurs in other Denominations besides Friends. They have their own especial forms and ceremonies, which are more or less incumbent upon their members, submission to which very often results in blessings of peace and rest of soul similar to those the Friends experienced when putting on the “plain dress;” and, like the Friends, many of them have no doubt supposed these forms or ceremonies to be the procuring cause of the blessings, and have in consequence exalted them into a place of sanctity, and have even believed them to have been ordained and patterned in heaven. I realized this very strongly not long ago when attending a Roman Catholic Mass in Italy. I was inclined to be critical over the gorgeous robes of the priests, saying to myself that the Lord could not possibly care for such things, when it flashed into my mind that after all there was no radical difference between a robe of crimson and gold, and a black coat with a straight collar, or between a Sister of Charity’s quaint costume, and a sugar-scoop bonnet and a dove-coloured shawl; and I saw that just as the Quakers of my childhood had been sure that their “plain” clothes were pleasing to God, so also these devoted priests were sure that their gorgeous robes were acceptable in the Divine sight. Each party believed they were obeying the Lord in regard to their dress, and their obedience to what they believed to be right was after all the essential point.
I have had no difficulty since then in feeling absolute Christian charity towards every honest form or ceremony, let it be as contrary to my own ideas as it may, for I realize that it is true that “the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.”
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