Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Advices 10 & 11 From the Elders at Balby

I now return to the continuing series on the advices contained in what was effectively the first book of discipline (nowadays known as Faith and Practice) in the Religious Society of Friends - a letter containing 20 "advices" to Friends from some elders who met in Balby, England, in 1656. You can view this document in its entirety at this website

I've already commented on Advices 1 - 9 from that letter in earlier posts. Now we proceed to Advices 10 and 11.

10.-That servants be obedient to them that are their masters in the flesh, in things that are good, in singleness of heart as unto Christ; not with eye-service, as men-pleasers, but as the servants of Christ; doing the will of God from the heart; with good-will doing service, as to the Lord and not to men; knowing whatsoever good thing any man doth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free. And that masters give to their servants that which is just and equal; forbearing threatening, knowing that their Master is also in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him.

11.- That care be taken that none who are servants depart from their masters, but as they both do see in the light: or any master to put away his servant, but by the like consent of the servant: and if any master or servant in their wills do otherwise it is to be judged by Friends in the light.


Comment: I am handicapped here in that I know very little about the social and economic life of England in 1656. In view of Friends later testimony against slavery both of these advices may seem rather suprising since they seem not to question that there can be "masters" and "servants" in the church and that the latter owe the former their "obedience". What can we make of these advices? Is there anything in them that speaks to our condition today?

First, it should be observed that the word "servants" in this passage does not necessarily mean "slaves" though it would include slaves as well as others. It is my impression (I would welcome documentation from a more competent historian) that many Friends were employed as personal household servants, were indentured servants working off debts, or were apprentices to craftsmen. Any of these might have been referred to as "servants". Those to whom they were indentured or apprenticed were called "masters". In some cases these servants were Friends though their masters were not, because they had been convinced independently. In other cases both servants and "masters" in the same household became Friends at the same time (the most famous example being that of the Fell household in which both Margaret and her servants were convinced by the testimony of George Fox). In still others, Friends who were looking for placement as apprentices or servants preferred to be placed with other Friends. The Journal of John Richardson was from a slightly later period (the 18th century rather than the 17th), but it illustrates this phenomenon. Richardson became apprenticed to a Friend after being disowned by hiw own stepfather. I do not believe that many Friends (if any) were slaves in 1656. Very few would have been slave-holders either at that period, especially in England, though slave-holding was not yet seen clearly as against God's will.

With all this in mind I think it's useful to think about how this advice could be applied to the relationship in our lives most like that of master-servant in 17th century England - namely the relationship of employer to employee or supervisor to staff-member. The first advice could then be paraphrased as


That workers comply with their supervisors in things that are good, in singleness of heart as unto Christ; not with eye-service, as men-pleasers, but as workers for Christ; doing the will of God from the heart; with good-will doing service, as to the Lord and not to men; knowing whatever good thing anyone does, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be worker or boss. And that supervisors give to their employees that which is just and equal; forbearing threatening, knowing that their Master is also in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him.


How does this advice, as paraphrased, speak to us? One thing that strikes me is that the servant/employee is not instructed to do whatever she or he is told, but to obey "in things that are good", which in many jobs is a significant qualification. One could even say that there is a subversive tendency in this part of the advice, since it implicitly requires each of us to make an independent judgement of which are the "things that are good" when our bosses give us orders. Second, the servant is not to do these good things only for show or to please the master / employer / supervisor but to do them as if for Christ. On the one hand, this advice if followed would probably make the employee a better employee from the boss's point of view. But even if the boss were not truly concerned with a job well done but only, for example, meeting certain production quotas, the employee who followed this advice would be zealous to do a truly good job anyway. It seems to me that this is good spiritual advice, and not just a convenient rule from the point of view of those in power.

Speaking of the "subversive tendency" in these advices: surely the advice to masters that they "give to their servants that which is just and equal, forbearing threatening..." would be such a tendency. The phrase "just and equal" is not defined. Presumably the elders thought that there was some way for a master craftsman to be just and equal in dealing with an apprentice, or a householder with a household servant. But how could this possibly have been applied once some Friends started to have slaves? The seeds of John Woolman's quiet radicalism may have been planted right there in 1656 by the elders at Balby.

Advice number 11 is harder for me to accept, even if modernized and contextualized. I understand that I may have an obligation to "give notice" when I decide to change jobs, but surely not to wait until my employer agrees that it's ok for me to leave. The idea that my employer would have to ask my permission before firing me seems more reasonable, but that is no doubt my class bias. ;-)

While there is a surprising mutuality in the wording of the advice (neither master nor servant is to sever the master/servant relationship without the other's consent) it still seems highly inconsistent with our modern (and praiseworthy) ideals of freedom. One wonders why the advice was felt necessary. One wonders, too, whether the elders themselves were people who had been masters in their lifetimes or servants? Or were there some of both? I know that there were some prominent Quakers whose station in life was far from exalted, but I don't know whether they were among the elders at Balby.

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Blogger HappySam said...

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6:22 PM, May 17, 2005  
Anonymous Robin Mohr said...

One might not have to wait for permission to leave, but one should be open to discussing why one wants to leave a job with one's employer before just giving notice. This is mutual respect and opening the door to a better solution than just take it or leave it. Also, it offers the furhter advice that if master or servant does end the contract without the other's consent, then Friends are to judge that based on the Light in each situation - not a strict condemnation, no matter what. I think this is also about upholding the harmony in the community - not to just quit or fire someone in a huff but to try to work things out, since both will still be in the same community long after this contract is severed.

I think it is incredibly powerful that Friends in 1656 chose advices based on mutual responsibility, in marriage, in childraising, in employment. Are there any pieces of these advices where they didn't follow that trend?

3:20 PM, May 19, 2005  

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