Street Corner Society

Skip to site-wide links.

Historical texts  >  Friends in the Truth at Balby

The elders and brethren sendeth 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. Farewell.

Dearly beloved friends, these things we do not lay upon you as a rule or form to walk by, but that all with the measure of light which is pure and holy may be guided, and so in the light walking and abiding these may be fulfilled in the Spirit, – not from the letter, for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life. 

William C. Braithwaite's summary of the letter, from his book, The Beginnings of Quakerism (pp. 310-13):

The elders and brethren sendeth 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. Farewell.

  1. The settled meetings to be kept each first-day. General Meetings, as a rule to be on some other day of the week.
  2. As any are brought in to the Truth new meetings are to be arranged to suit the general convenience, without respect of persons.
  3. Persons ceasing to attend meetings are to be spoken to. Persons who walk disorderly are to be spoken to in private, then before two or three witnesses; then, if necessary, the matter is to be reported to the Church. The Church is to reprove them for their disorderly walking, and, if they do not reform, the case is to be sent in writing "to some whom the Lord hath raised up in the power of the Spirit of the Lord to be fathers, — His children to gather in the light" so that the thing may be known to the body and be determined in the light.
  4. Ministers to speak the word of the Lord from the mouth of the Lord, without adding or diminishing. If anything is spoken out of the light so that "the seed of God" comes to be burdened, it is to be dealt with in private and not in the public meetings, "except there be a special moving so to do."
  5. Collections to be made for the poor, the relief of prisoners, and other necessary uses, the moneys to be carefully accounted for, and applied as made known by the overseers in each meeting.
  6. Care to be taken "for the families and goods of such as are called forth in the ministry, or are imprisoned for the Truth's sake; that no creature be lost for want of caretakers."
  7. Intentions of marriage to be made known to the Children of Light, especially those of the meeting where the parties are members. The marriage to be solemnized in the fear of the Lord, and before many witnesses, after the example of scripture, and a record to be made in writing, to which the witnesses may subscribe their names.
  8. Every meeting to keep records of births, and of burials of the dead that die in the Lord. Burials to be conducted according to scripture, and not after customs of "heathen."
  9. Advice to husbands and wives, as in I Pet. III. 7. Advice to parents and children, as in Eph. vi. 1, 4.
  10. Advice to servants and masters, as in Eph. vi. 5-9.
  11. Care to be taken "that none who are servants depart from their masters, but as they do see in the light: nor any master put away his servant but by the like consent of the servant; and if any master or servant do otherwise in their wills, it is to be judged by Friends in the light."
  12. Needs of widows and fatherless to be supplied: -- such as can work and do not to be admonished, and if they refuse to work, neither let them eat. The children of needy parents to be put to honest employment.
  13. Any called before outward powers of the nation are to obey.
  14. "That if any be called to serve the Commonwealth in any public service which is for the public wealth and good, that with cheerfulness it be undertaken and in faithfulness discharged unto God, that thereom patterns and examples in the thing that is righteous ye may be to those that are without."
  15. Friends in callings and trades are to be faithful and upright, and keep to yea and nay. Debts to be punctually paid, that nothing they may owe to any man but love one to another.
  16. None to speak evil of another, nor grudge against another, nor put a stumbling-block in his brother's way.
  17. None to be busybodies in other's matters.
  18. Christian moderation to be used towards all men.
  19. The elders made by the Holy Ghost are to feed the flock, taking the oversight willingly, not as lords, but as examples to the flock (see I Pet. v. 2, 3).
  20. Closing words out of I Pet. v. 5.

Given forth at a General Meeting of Friends in the Truth at Balby in Yorkshire, in the ninth month 1656, from the Spirit of Truth to the Children of Light in the light to walk, that all in order may be kept in obedience, that He may be glorified, who is worthy over all, God blessed for ever. Amen.

From The Beginnings of Quakerism: A Volume of Essays. By William C. Braithwaite. (MacMillan & Co., 1912) Pages 310-13.

Notes and Links

Braithwaite's commentary:
George Fox desired for Friends, especially in the North of England, where there were fully settled Churches, some action respecting disorderly conduct which should proceed from the united mind of the whole community. We find from a letter of Richard Farnsworth's (to Howgill and Burrough from Swarthmore, 4th Oct. 1656) that a meeting of Elders was arranged at Balby in Yorkshire, in November 1656, to give effect to this desire. To this meeting one approved member from each Church in Yorkshire, Lincoln, Derby, and Nottingham was to come to consider of such things as might in the Truth's behalf be propounded.
The document issued by this general meeting of elders and approved Friends is still extant. (The full letter is to be found in the records of Marsden Monthly Meeting. I have used a copy made by the late Josiah Foster.) It bears evidence of being modelled on the apostolic letter to the Gentile disciples in Acts xv.
The letter is signed by Richard Farnsworth, William Dewsbury, and other Friends. A postscript follows [included near the top, above], which is not the least noteworthy part of the document.
I have elsewhere pointed out (Spiritual Guidance in Quaker Experience, 1909) that this letter shows that the first Quaker leaders did not invoke their personal authority, but based their claim to give guidance upon their own possession of the Spirit of truth and upon the witness to the Spirit in the hearts of those they addressed. They took the positon of inspired leaders, not of spiritual superiors.
Such is the oldest church advice on Christian practice issued by any general body of Friends. The church organization is still of the simplest, consisting of congregational life under the leadership of local elders, and, in the last resort, of the "fathers" of the Church. No Monthly Meetings are referred to. There is as yet no appeal to any authority except that of the light: the central experience of the indwelling life of Christ, which had gathered Friends out of the world into fellowship, was still so generally the living possession of Friends that its vital control held the body together as one organism. But, at the same time, sporadic cases of backsliding and of disorderly life had to be dealt with, and marriages required to be regulated, and the poor to be provided for. To suggest wise lines of action in respect to these matters, and to exhort Friends in their various relations of life to walk worthily of their calling, was all that seemed of urgent necessity to the framers of this document. There is, on the one hand, a tacit acceptance of the main body of Quaker experience and practice, which is assumed to be a ground of union common to all; and, on the other, a refusal to multiply regulations beyond what seemed practically necessary. And, though Friends were at this time incurring the hostility of the State, there is no sign as yet of that indifference to publich life which persecution and nonconformity with the practices of the world gradually fostered: on the contrary, the duty of serving the Commonwealth so far as possible is inculcated.
1 Pet. v. 5.
The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed:
Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away.
Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders. Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for

"God resists the proud,
But gives grace to the humble."

Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.
Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Resist him, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world. But may the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you.
To Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.
The "postscript"
The so-called "postscript" to the letter is the most well-known part of the letter from the elders at Balby. As Braithwaite writes above, it "is not the least noteworthy part of the document." It is regularly cited in books such as Faith and Practice produced by various Yearly Meetings.
Some Friends, however, feel that because it came at the end of the original document, it wasn't much more than an afterthought. (One Friend calls it "that **?!*$@?** Balby postcript.")
It seems to me (-KW) that discounting this passage is like calling the Bill of Rights an afterthought to the U.S. Constitution. (You may suppose that at this site, the Bill of Rights is considered important; similarly, the Balby postscript.)
There are several relevant parallels.
  1. The Bill of Rights is literally a "postscript" to the Constitution.
  2. When the Constitution was first drafted, some argued that adding a Bill of Rights would be stating the obvious, putting too much emphasis on aspects and limitations of government that ought to be taken for granted.
  3. On the other hand, the Constitution itself probably would not have been ratified without the reassurances incorporated into the Bill of Rights.
  4. We don't know what the elders of Balby were thinking when they assembled the document, but it seems they probably looked at an early draft and realized it ought to include something more about the spirit in which it was accepted.
Coming soon: a quote from Rosemary Anne Moore, By the Light of their Consciences. Her transcript of the Balby letter is posted at the website of Quaker Heritage Press (link).
[P.S. Apparently, this topic is somewhat sensitive. A few years ago I was summarily ejected from a moderated Quaker email list when I expressed my views (as above). Maybe it seemed I had "outed" myself as one of those liberal Quakers who quote the Balby postscript without acknowleging or accepting the rest of the document. My appreciation for the quote probably differs from that of those knee-jerk sloganeering liberals. But I do think the postscript is the "best" part of the document for what it reveals about the early Friends and what it can say about us, by extension. - KW]