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Hat Honour, Self-Identity and Commitment in Early Quakerism

From: Quaker History
Volume 103, Number 1, Spring 2014
pp. 1-16 | 10.1353/qkh.2014.0004

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“[T]he … artificial, feigned, and strained art of compliment, consisting in bundles of fopperies, fond ceremonies, foolish windings, … and cringings with their bodies, uncovering their heads, [and] using multitudes of frothy … words…,” permeated all levels of English society in mid-seventeenth century England. Today we might view such foppish etiquette as quaint or old fashioned. But to the early Quakers the code of hat honour was seen as far more than mere etiquette. Hat honour went against the word of God as expressed in scripture, and impinged on religious and social freedoms, reinforced status and subordination in a sharply differentiated hierarchical society, and struck against foundational Quaker testimonies to the Light Within, truth, equality and personal simplicity. Opposing hat honour was “The first and most pressing motive upon our spirits,” wrote the Quaker leader William Penn in 1682, a “hidden treasure,” while Joseph Besse, who catalogued the “sufferings” of seventeenth century Quakers 50 years later, also noted the “great Weight and Consequence” the “Principal Point” hat honour meant to this first generation of converts.

Over the years Puritan writers had targeted the “sinne of excess in Apparell,” and many people relinquished the prideful pursuit of fashion, instead seeking deeper inner values. George Fox, who is generally considered to be the founding organizer of the Society of Friends, and other Quaker leaders, and many who adopted the Quaker message, were deeply influenced by Puritanism. Like others who preceded them, new members to Quakerism sought to wean themselves from “the Things that are below” and move to a simpler more spiritual life, setting their goal on “Things that are above.” But more importantly for the Quakers, their witness against hat honour was part of the Lamb’s War—their fight against the forces of Satan and the false teachings of the world so as to prepare themselves and the world for the return of Christ. Their principled resistance to worldly honorifics was widespread in spite of their understanding of the social and political implications refusing to bear hat honour would entail, and many Quaker men were imprisoned, fined, or beaten, several dying from their injuries. Years of political, religious and social disorder after the turmoil of civil war heightened sensitivities surrounding law and order issues, and Quaker refusal of honorifics seemed to threaten the social order and undermine the basis of control. Adopting the “plain” attitude to hat honour and its associated etiquette, not just to clothing and language, soon became associated with Quakerism, and as the early converts strove to internalize the Quaker message this testimony helped forge their identity as members of this new faith. However, writing of his personal Quaker convincement as a young man, Thomas Ellwood testified that this was not easy for them to do. By 1660 public testimony against the vanity of hat honour was a visible indicator of “membership” in the fast growing movement. Although viewed by the wider community as a contemptuous discourtesy and a threat to the stability of their localities, for the new Quaker convert opposition to the code of hat honour explicitly declared his faith to the world and was an integral part of his spiritual journey to self-identity and commitment.

Because of the current minimal etiquette surrounding hat wearing, understanding the vitality and urgency associated with Quaker opposition to hat honour in mid-seventeenth century England has been lost in the mists of time with only occasional brief references appearing in modern literature. This review of the Quaker testimony against hat honour and the entrenched protocol of the period, seeks to give a deeper understanding of its major role in nascent Quakerism.

Hats, History and Hat Honour

A large hat-making industry supplied the annual demand for three million hats in a populace of just over five million. Hats, often made of expensive materials, were worn by most men in this period, with the style and visibility of the hat identifying the wearer’s status. Far more than a head covering for warmth or as a fashion statement, hats were an integral part of social communication and deference.

The rituals associated with hat honour percolated through all levels of society: within the royal court, parliament, law courts, churches, and...

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