Whether inspired by religious devotion or just frustration with modernity, some people feel drawn to simple living.
Since at least the middle of the 19th century, when Henry Thoreau described his solitary two years in a hut on the shores of Walden Pond, the allure of the simple life has animated the imagination of generations of Americans seeking alternatives to relentless materialism.
By the mid-20th century, Mother Earth News brought imagination to life with its 99 Ways to a Simple Lifestyle. Although out of print, the book continues to instruct yearners after a less-cluttered, environmentally friendly existence with advice on gardening, repairing leaky faucets, making and mending clothing and — perhaps less helpfully — how to build a yurt, a portable wood-frame shelter used by Central Asian nomads.
For Christians, simple living — however beneficial to health and environment — has held special appeal in imitating the life of Jesus Christ and adopting the imperatives of the gospel, important themes during Lent, the contemplative season which began Feb. 13 and continues until just before Easter.
For me the witness of simplicity is a recognition that we ultimately trust in God,” said Greg Jarrell, a Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond graduate and member of Hyaets, a Christian community in a low-income Charlotte neighborhood.
“Another way to say that is we trust one another to provide what we need. God provides us with what we need through one another. We learn to trust God and learn to trust our brothers and sisters by simplicity rather than by learning to trust ourselves and becoming our own gods.”
Jarrell’s commitment to simplicity is motivated in part by his association with Hyaets — “tree of life” in Hebrew — where, along with his wife and another couple, he ministers in the economically depressed Enderly Park neighborhood as an intentional Christian community seeking to build bridges between the poor and the affluent.
“I think that ultimately you can live more deeply into the world with less stuff,” he said. “Attachment to a particular place and people, and to the small things that you actually need — being attached to those things enables to live in a deeper way. The cultural norm is to be detached. Anything that comes along that’s new, just by virtue of being new, is better and we throw away the old
Jarrell’s is an uncommon response among Baptists, whose commitment to biblical lifestyles isn’t historically associated with simplicity. But Baptists don’t need to look far to find models of a simple way of life, a hallmark of their close theological cousins, the Mennonites.
“That’s what centers them,” said Bill Leonard, the James and Marilyn Dunn Professor of Church History and Baptist Studies at Wake Forest University School of Divinity.
“A simplified lifestyle is closely related to Mennonites’ understanding of conscience and responsibility. The gospel requires a new set of glasses to look at the world, at government, at authority and at the environment.”
For Mennonites, living a simple life is part of a “broader package” inspired by the gospel, one that includes a passion for peacemaking, nonresistance, compassion for the poor and care of the environment, he said. A simple lifestyle both shapes and is shaped by those additional concerns, he said — a theology succinctly expressed in a quote attributed to Ghandi and displayed on bumper stickers: “Live simply so that others may simply live.
“It raises the question: In what ways should a response to, say, the environment be a part of what centers Baptists?” Leonard asked.
Mennonites — named for Menno Simons, a 16th-century reformer — are part of the Anabaptist movement that emerged in central Europe during the Reformation. While their relationship to the first Baptists who appeared at about the same time in England is disputed, they have a “spiritual kinship,” said Leonard.
“They began first and their understanding of a believer’s church was very close to that of early Baptists,” he said. “There were contacts that reflected communication and influence. Many historians see the two as theological and historical cousins rather than one having a direct lineage to the other.”
A worldwide 400th anniversary service of the Baptist movement in Amsterdam in 2008 was held in the Singelkerk, a 17th-century Mennonite church not far from the site of a bakery where the first Baptist meeting is thought to have been organized by John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, who may have worshipped at the Singelkerk.
Close spiritual ties with those “cousins” could offer models for Baptists eager to shed a consumerist mentality. But Mennonites are widely diverse, ranging from “plain people” — including the Amish — to those whose dress and practices are indistinguishable from surrounding society.
Some Mennonites have adapted so successfully to prevailing cultural norms that they no longer regard simple living as a top faith commitment. In a 2006 profile of the Mennonite Church USA, “living a simple lifestyle” ranked last, with 27 percent, among 14 statements respondents were asked to choose from as important to their faith commitments.
“Granted, one could argue that the top-ranked statement, ‘following Jesus in daily life,’ encompasses living simply,” the Mennonite World Review editorialized in 2010. “However, if this information indicates that most members of one Mennonite group don’t see living simply as an essential part of following Jesus, that is troubling.
“Living simply is a source of Anabaptist distinction all of us can embrace, plain or not,” the newsjournal concluded — an indication that Mennonites could continue to be models for Baptists exploring ways to adopt simple living.
For some pursuers of a simple life, the biggest obstacle is technology — or an assumption they’ll need to live without it. Rejection of technical devices, however, isn’t at the heart of simplified living, practitioners insist.
John Peters, a Mennonite pastor in Seminole, Texas, told the Avalanche-Journal in nearby Lubbock he remembers riding in a horse-drawn buggy while growing up. Today, he drives a car and watches DirectTV. As a pastor, Peters deals with change nearly every day, he said. Some of it he embraces, and some of it he battles.
Jarrell’s experience at Hyaets has taught him to treat technology with care but not to discard it — an attitude he saw displayed among friends in the Bruderhof, a 20th-century movement inspired by Anabaptists.
“They are wary of technology, but they will utilize it,” he said. “One of the guiding principles is to know what the important convictions are in your life and to allow technology to facilitate those in places where it can.”
But he added: “The thing about technology is that its instant gratification feeds into our brains and we get addicted. You have to have someone you trust who is willing to tell you the truth (about one’s addiction to technology). You don’t always have enough insight on your own to know when you have started to serve it, rather than the other way around.”