William Penn & Vanity by Kelly White

  • July 2, 2024
  • Posted By: Pennsbury Manor

In a 1695 letter to then-fiancée Hannah Callowhill, Governor Penn discusses his faith. Plainness, or simple living, is an important principle within The Society of Friends, and Penn explains, “I am determined to keep my old plainness, that [I] have kept only 9 or 10 [coaches] in my time..” Penn’s wealth seemingly contradicts his supposed modesty. However, Penn’s conception of vanity is nuanced. Quakers value divine revelation, often called the “inner light,” over biblical scripture. Such emphasis on individuality often led to theological discourse.  For example, the 1704 Book of Discipline forbids friends from wearing wigs, unless “necessary.” The next paragraph states that wigs were to be kept short, and reminiscent of the wearer’s natural hair color. However, there is no explanation of the outside factors that would render a wig necessary. The Book of Discipline also discourages Friends from wearing fashionable or trendy clothing, as it wastes God’s given resources.

Furthermore, a Quaker’s plainness extended beyond his physical appearance and into a person’s character. The Book of Discipline also discouraged members from using the pronoun “you.” During the early modern period, wealthy landowners referred to working class people as “you.” This term was meant pejoratively as a second person plural similar to “you people.” Quakers like Penn considered this practice vain and worldly because it creates artificial distinctions contrary to the inner light.  

Penn’s personal definition of vanity extends more towards social interaction than material possessions. According to that same 1695 letter, Penn rarely travels by personal carriage, instead lending out to family members. Perhaps Penn calls attention to his 10 carriages not to highlight his wealth but his generosity. There is a line between hypocrisy and nuance. Many people of faith today struggle to adapt their convictions to an ever-changing world. Spiritual ambiguity remains, and vanity, much like beauty, is ultimately left in the eye of the beholder.  


Works Cited  

Bejan, Teresa. “What Quakers Can Teach Us about the Politics of Pronouns.” The New York Times. Com, November 16, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/16/opinion/sunday/pronouns-quakers.html.  

Diethorn, Karie. “What’s Real? Quaker Material Culture and Historic Site Interpretation.” Essay. In Quaker Aesthetics: Reflections on a Quaker Ethic in American Design and Consumption  288–99. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.  

Hayburn, Tim. “WORDS TO LIVE BY: SOCIETY OF FRIENDS, BOOKS OF DISCIPLINE, 1704–1747.” 369–85. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27778685. 

Penn, William. “New Beginnings 1694-1696.” Chapter. In The Papers of William Penn 1685-1700 3, edited by Richard S. Dunn and Mary Maples Dunn, 3:393–436. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986.  


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