THE “HAT TESTIMONY”
PART of the testimony to “plainness of apparel” was a testimony against what was called “hat honour.” The Quakers felt that, since uncovering the head was the outward signification of their adoration towards God, it was not therefore right or fitting that it should be given to man. Barclay says, “He that uncovereth his head to the creature, what hath he reserved for the Creator?” Moreover, since it was considered a mark of especial respect to certain people or certain places to take off the hat, Friends, who believed that all people were equally worthy of respect because all were children of one Father, and all places were equally holy because God’s presence was everywhere, bore testimony to this belief by refusing to take off their hats to any person or in any place, except as comfort might require. Not even on entering a place of worship might this rule be relaxed, since to take off the hat under such circumstances would seem to imply that God was more present inside that house than outside in the open air, and this was entirely contrary to the most fundamental Quaker ideas.
Prof. Wm. James in his most valuable book, “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” speaking of the early Quakers and their peculiarities, says:—“Many of these peculiarities arose from their determination to have nothing to do with shams or pretences, but to be true and sincere in all their dealings with God and with their fellow-men.” (Note: “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” a study in human nature, by Wm. James, L.L.D., published by Longmans, Green, & Co.) George Fox believed that it was shown to him by the Lord that many of the conventional customs of society were a lie and a sham. He says:—“When the Lord sent me into the world, He forbade me to put off my hat to any, high or low; and I was required to ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ all men and women, without any respect to rich or poor, great or small. And as I travelled up and down, I was not to bid people ‘Good-morning’ or ‘Good-evening’; neither might I bow or scrape with my leg to any one. ... Oh! the scorn, heat, and fury that arose! Oh! the blows, punchings, beatings, and imprisonments, that we underwent for not putting off our hats to men! ... But blessed be the Lord, many came to see the vanity of that custom of putting off hats to men, and felt the weight of Truth’s testimony against it.”
The whole body of the followers of George Fox received these revelations as made to him for their guidance as well as for his own, and renounced the worldly customs he condemned, as a sacrifice to Truth, and as the means of making their actions more perfectly in accord with the spirit they professed; and, until my time, this renunciation still continued, although I dare say many who made it had very vague ideas as to the why and wherefore of such peculiarities.
Some Friends in my young days even went so far as to look upon wearing the hat on all possible occasions, even at meals, as a sort of religious duty. On one occasion a young man I knew was walking with an “Elder” along the streets of Wilmington, Delaware, and the “Elder” was speaking to him about the importance of supporting Friends’ testimonies on every occasion, and among other things spoke as follows:—“I have noticed, my dear young friend, with great satisfaction, that thou art careful not to take off thy hat when meeting thy friends in the street, nor to remove it when entering the meeting house until thou hast taken thy seat. But I see room for even greater faithfulness in this respect, and I feel free to tell thee that I believe it is right for me to wear my hat at all times, except when I am in bed. I put it on the first thing on rising in the morning, nor do I feel at liberty to remove it until I have clothed myself in my night garment the last thing before getting into my bed at night.”
This wearing of the hat was very often a source of much conflict and testing to such Quakers as were obliged, either socially or on account of business, to enter the presence of those who demanded this mark of respect. In the old Friends’ Journals there are many accounts of the suffering caused by this “hat testimony.” In the Journal of Thomas Ellwood, the friend of Milton, who became convinced of Friends’ views, he tells of his father’s violent antipathy to this “testimony,” and says:—“The sight of my hat upon my head when entering his presence made him so angry, that running upon me with both hands, he first violently snatched off my hat and threw it away; and then giving me some buffets on the head, he said, Sirrah, get you up to your chamber.”
Another day he tells how he went to the dinner table with his hat on:—“As soon as I came in, I observed by my father’s countenance that my hat was still an offence to him; but when I was sitten down, and before I had eaten anything, he made me understand it more fully by saying to me, ‘If you cannot content yourself to come to dinner without your Hise upon your head (so he called my hat) pray rise and go take your dinner somewhere else.’ Upon those words I arose from the table, and went into the kitchen, where I stayed until the servants went to dinner, and then sat down contentedly with them.”
Many years after Thomas Ellwood’s experience, a wealthy English Friend, Joseph John Gurney, relates his own experience in 1810. He says:—“I was engaged long beforehand to a dinner party. For three weeks before I was in agitation from the knowledge that I must enter the drawing-room with my hat on. From this sacrifice, strange and unaccountable as it may seem, I could not escape. In a Friend’s attire and with my hat on, I entered the drawing-room at the dreaded moment, shook hands with the mistress of the house, went back into the hall, deposited my hat and returned. I went home in some degree of peace. I had afterwards the same thing to do at the bishop’s. The result was that I found myself a decided Quaker, was perfectly understood to have assumed that character, and to dinner parties except in the family circle, I was asked no more.”
Later still our own dear father had also something to undergo in this respect. On one occasion when he was hoping to be made captain of an important ship, and was to make his application to the owners, he went through great conflict of mind because he felt it his duty to enter their presence with his hat on, and he feared that this would prejudice them against him. But he was steadfast to what he believed to be his religious duty, and had a firm faith that the Lord would prosper him in so doing. He says in his diary:—“Some of my friends thought my plain dress and language would stand in my way, but I told them to wait and see if I did not secure the position by the blessing of God, to whom I refer all my success in life. The ship ‘New Jersey’ was launched on the first of twelfth month, 1824, and, on the third, Whitton Evans, the owner, conferred on me the command.”
In reading a most interesting book lately called “The Testament of Ignatius Loyola,” I was much interested in finding that this old saint of the sixteenth century shared in many of these early Quaker scruples. He says of himself that his custom had been in addressing people to omit all titles such as “Your Lordship,” or “Your Reverence,” devoutly holding this simplicity to have been the usage of Christ and His Apostles. Also he tells how he was tempted, for fear of the consequences, to relax this rule in the case of a certain captain, and says that, directly he recognized this to be a temptation, he thought, “Since so it is, I will not call him your Lordship, nor make him any reverence, nor will I pull off the cap from my head.”
In fact in all ages of Christianity one of the ways in which an especial devotedness has manifested itself has been in peculiarities of dress and address, and, except in the especial form it took, the early Friends were not singular in this respect. But, contrary to many other bodies of Christians, they also had an especial testimony against all bright colours, which for some occult reason were considered to be worldly. Browns and drabs were unworldly, and most of our clothes rang the changes on these two colours. Sometimes a little green was allowed, and curiously enough a dark purple might now and then be indulged in, but red or blue or pink or yellow were entirely forbidden as being very gay. I even knew some very conscientious Friends who did not feel at liberty to have scarlet geraniums in their gardens, or a vase of scarlet flowers in their drawing-rooms.
After I had become an acknowledged religious teacher, people in spiritual trouble often came to me for help. Among the rest there was one young Friend with a very scrupulous conscience, who came one day greatly troubled about scarlet geraniums. It appeared that she lived in one side of a pair of semi-detached houses in the suburbs of Philadelphia, with a little garden in front of both houses, containing an oval flower bed belonging to both, which she and her neighbour in the other half took turns each spring in filling with flowers. This year it was her turn, and, wishing to please her neighbour, she had consulted her as to what flowers they should have. The neighbour expressed a preference for scarlet geraniums, and my friend was about to order them, when a sudden scruple seized her against allowing such gay flowers to adorn the garden in front of her house. She struggled and prayed about it, and the more she prayed the louder seemed the inward voice telling her it would not be right for her to have scarlet geraniums. But how to explain the matter to her neighbour, who knew nothing about Friends, she could not tell, and she was in great distress, and came to me for help.
I have always found that there is nothing more difficult to combat than scruples, and, although I tried very hard to convince my poor perplexed friend that there might be other matters in the Christian life more important than the colour of the flowers in our gardens, and that perhaps the Lord would be more pleased by courtesy and kindness to her neighbour, than by any rigid rule as to the colour of flowers, which colour after all was of His own creation, and could not therefore be displeasing to Him, it was all in vain; and at last I was obliged to give her a piece of advice, to which I rather objected, and this was to “ask Josiah.” Josiah was her husband, and I knew he had a fair amount of good common sense, and, although I did not as a general thing approve of letting husbands decide things for their wives, I felt it was in this case almost a necessity. And my opinion was justified, for “Josiah” wisely said he would take the burden of the scarlet geraniums on his shoulders, and he felt sure the Lord would not be displeased to see in front of their house flowers which He Himself had made.
Of course in the very nature of things, modifications of these extreme views were bound to creep in, and I have seen in my lifetime gradual changes, which as a child I should have thought it blasphemy even to imagine. As the young people of my generation, to whom these old testimonies were nothing more than mere “traditions of the elders,” and not at all personal convictions of their own, grew to maturity, they insensibly dropped them, and the different Yearly Meetings gradually grew accustomed to changes that would once have bowed them to the earth with shame and sorrow.
English Friends, as far as I can recollect, were the first to yield; but the different American Yearly Meetings, all except ours in Philadelphia, were not far behind. We in Philadelphia held fast to our old customs as long as it was possible, but even we had to give way at last.
One of my sisters had married and settled in Baltimore Yearly Meeting, which was a Meeting that had accepted these changes far more rapidly than we had, and was considered by us in Philadelphia to be lamentably “gay.” My sister had however taken with her the Philadelphia spirit, and, as her large family of daughters grew up, she tried hard to keep them to the Philadelphia standard of plainness. But it was all in vain, one innovation after another crept in, and she found herself powerless to prevent it. Fortunately she was blessed with a delicious sense of humour, and even in the midst of her struggles after plainness, she could not help seeing the funny side. She came to me one day to tell me of her difficulties, and to ask advice, and when she had laid it all before me, she suddenly jumped up with a roguish twinkle in her eye, and, holding up one foot in the air, she said, “Now, Hannah, please to tell me where it will be safe for me to put my foot down. At one time I put it down at overskirts, but had to take it up again; then I put it down at artificial flowers in the children’s hats, and again I had to lift it; then I put it down at rings on their fingers, and again it had to be lifted; and now I do not want to put it down again until I can be sure that I will not have to take it up. Does thee think, Hannah,” she asked with a comically sober countenance, “that I might safely venture to put it down at nose rings?” This was too much for my gravity, and I burst into a laugh which my sister could not help joining, and somehow the air seemed cleared, and she decided that she could no longer engage in the fruitless effort to impart Philadelphia ideas into Baltimore, but would accept the inevitable modifications that could not fail to come, even in such a conservative body as Friends.
The simple truth was, as I have shown, that the aim of the Quakers was to avoid following the “vain fashions of the world,” and they only adopted a new style when it had become old and was passing away, and Baltimore Friends got ready to do this a little sooner than Philadelphia Friends. One of my nieces from Baltimore tells me that she can remember well going to Philadelphia once to attend a party of her Philadelphia first cousins, and feeling horribly worldly and wicked because her dress was made more in the fashion than theirs.
How little all this can be understood by the young Quakers of the present day! But how tremendously real it all was to us.
Table of Contents Chapter 11 Home The Writings of Hannah Whitall Smith