Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The Elders at Balby

In 1656 there was a "general meeting of friends in truth" at Balby in Yorkshire, England. These Friends issued a remarkable 20 point document
"from the Spirit of truth to the children of light that all in order be kept in obedience, that he may be glorified who is worthy over all, God blessed for ever."
This document has a postscript:
"Dearly beloved Friends, these things we do not lay upon you as a rule or form to walk by; but that all, with a measure of the light, which is pure and holy, may be guided: and so in the light walking and abiding, these things may be fulfilled in the Spirit, not in the letter, for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life."
Somehow the postscript has come to be quoted far more often by succeeding generations of Friends than the document it was attached to. Thus modern Friends are often in the position of knowing that the "elders at Balby" (as we've come to call them) wanted their advices to be fulfilled in the spirit but of not knowing what their advices actually were. In fact, the postscript is often quoted in such a way as to suggest that Friends really have no guidelines or principles or that if we do we don't really expect anyone to follow them.

With that as a background, I invite you to read the advices themselves. I would be interested in any comment on them.

Rich Accetta-Evans



Blogger Martin Kelley said...

I know one of these days I'm going to snap and go on a shooting spree when some Quaker quotes that **?!*$@?** Balby postcript out of context. It's only a matter of time.

I call it the Quaker Ellipses syndrome: taking some historical Quaker quote completely out of context in such a way that it implies the complete opposite of what the person was saying.

Seriously, it would be great to actually get a group of Friends around to talk about the full epistle from the Balby elders. It's really the original mission statement and guidelines for monthly meetings. As such it's an interesting document, alterately fascinating and disturbing. You could almost build a whole six-week Quakerism 201 around it. But alas, Friends only know about that last sentence.

I've always wondered about it. Wouldn't you love to be able to go back and sit in that room. Some Friend probably said "gosh, don't you think it sounds a little harsh, why don't we just put a little PS on the end?"

4:33 PM, March 09, 2005  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

Here are some of my thoughts on the content of the epistle itself:

"The elders and brethren send unto the brethren in the north these necessary things following; to which, if in the light you wait, to be kept in obedience, you shall do well. Fare well."It would be interesting to know whether the "brethren in the north" asked for this advice, or brought some questions that elicited it, or simply seemed like a troublesome lot who needed it. In either case, it's instructive to see that the writers of the epistle thought "obedience" was a good thing. By this they apparently mean obedience to God and His light rather than to themselves as elders.

"1.-That the particular meetings by all the children of Light, be duly kept and observed, where they be already settled, every first-day of the week; except they be moved to other places. And that general meetings be kept in order and sweet in the life of God, on some other day of the week than on the First-day, unless there be a moving to the contrary: that so in the light and life, the meetings may be kept, to the praise of God."Keeping meetings going was evidently considered a very important duty of the community, and if they were kept this would be "to the praise of God". It's a different mindset than one which views meetings as optional and designed for the benefit of the worshippers. I'm not sure what "general meetings" means in this context: meetings for discipline?

"2.-That care be taken, that as any are brought into the truth, meetings be in such places amongst them, as may be for the most convenience of all, without respect of persons: and that hands be laid on none suddenly, lest the truth suffer."To join with Friends was, of course, to be "brought into the truth". Meetings should be set up for the new Friends in places convenient to them, even if they were not convenient for important existing Friends. The caution that "hands be laid on none suddenly lest the truth suffer." still survives among us in the form of a custom that people should attend at least a year before being admitted as members.

"3.-That if any person draw back from meetings, and walk disorderly, some go to speak to such as draw back; to exhort and admonish such with a tender, meek spirit, whom they find negligent or disorderly. And if any, after admonition, do persist in the thing not good, let them again be admonished and reproved before two or three witnesses; that by the mouth of two or three witnesses, every thing may be established. And if still they persevere in them, then let the thing be declared to the church: and when the church hath reproved them for their disorderly walking, and admonished them in the tender and meek spirit, and they do not reform, then let their names and the causes, and such as can justly testify the truth therein, and their answers, be sent in writing to some whom the Lord hath raised up in the power of his Spirit to be fathers, his children to gather in the light, that the thing may be known to the body; and with the consent of the whole body, the thing may be determined in the light."Here we get to the meat of the advices, with instructions on how to deal with Friends who "withdraw from meetings" or "walk disorderly". It's striking that no definition is offered of what it might mean to "walk disorderly". My guess is that Friends thought they would know disorderly walking when they saw it. Probably the disorderly walkers would know it, too, and that might explain why they might begin to "withdraw from meetings". I wish we could know more about exactly what kinds of situations prompted this advice. Was the primary effect of the advice to inaugarate a tighter discipline on Friends who were hitherto doing their own thing? Or was it to moderate and regularize the procedures for admonishing them, as an alternative to arbitrary harsh treatment by self-appointed disciplinarians?

A further point of interest is that the elders felt quite comfortable referring to the meeting community as "the church". They identified with the New Testament Church and did not feel in the least squeamish about using such language.

- - to be continued
Rich Accetta-Evans

5:27 PM, March 10, 2005  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

re Martin Kelley's comment: I share his frustration with misuses of the Balby postscript.

That said, I think there's room for doubt that going on a shooting spree would be the appropriate way to promote a better appreciation of good order. ;)

- - Rich Accetta-Evans

5:36 PM, March 10, 2005  
Blogger Liz Opp said...

Rich, I'm one of those Friends who had not taken a close look at this Epistle. In light of all that we Quaker bloggers share, I appreciate how you lift this document up and ask us to consider it, to weigh it as a whole, and to put the "postscript" back into its original context.

I have now bookmarked the Epistle and will consider sharing it with others, including my worship group, as Way opens.


6:33 PM, March 16, 2005  
Blogger kwattles said...

I'm coming into this discussion late, but I also regard this topic as one that deserves more careful consideration.

So, quick question: What part of the U.S. Constitution gets the most attention? Is it a mere postscript that gets quoted out of context too much of the time?

In fact, the Bill of Rights was an afterthought. It might not have been included at all, except that some people thought it would be helpful to add it. As the discussion got going, it turned out that it answered a concern that was deeply felt, enough so that the Constitution itself might not have been ratified without its "postscript."

There's obviously a tension between the particulars of the letter from Balby and the postscript, just as there is between the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I think that jibes with Martin's feeling that quoting the postscript "implies the complete opposite." Or, as Rich suggests, "that Friends really have no guidelines or principles or that if we do we don't really expect anyone to follow them."

But to me it seems a bit cynical to imagine that suggesting that "these things may be fulfilled in the Spirit, not in the letter" is a recipe for anarchy. Well, if you don't believe in the Spirit, maybe it is. If you don't take the writers at their word, when they say "these things we do not lay upon you as a rule or form to walk by," then it would be easy to think that they really did want to lay down the rules, because that is what the rest of the letter looks like.

So it's a tension. A necessary tension, just as much a part of our lives today as it was in the 1650s.

4:08 PM, March 31, 2005  

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