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Ask Tom: How did early Friends become a congregation? How did they care for each other?

By Thomas Hamm

The following account, recorded three centuries ago, of how Quakerism came to the town of Settle in the north of England, is typical of how the first Friends congregations came to be:

“And in Process of time, in or about ye years 1652 or 1653, it was so ordered that one of the servants and messengers of Jesus Christ, namely William Dewsbury, came to a town called Settle, in ye west part of Yorkshire, on a market day, and stood upon the [market] cross and proclaimed ye terrible day of ye Lord, that was hastening and coming upon ye ungodly and workers of iniquity, but he was soon pulled down. And a great tumult was made, and he was much beaten and abused, but after some time, being taken notice of by a young man, whose name was John Armistead, who is yet living, was invited to go with him to his mother’s house, . . . . And in ye evening, diverse people were gathered to that house.”

“Now these Servants of the Lord did not go away without leaving some impressions upon ye souls and spirits of some of ye inhabitants of ye said town, . . .so that there was a people gathered from the worlds ways and worships to worship God in Spirit, who for that end and purpose met often together for divers years from house to house; and many were convinced of ye blessed Truth . . . . And in process of time a public meeting house was builded by ye said people in ye town of Settle, where a meeting is settled and kept, known by ye Name of Settle Meeting at this Day.”

The normal process was this: a public Friend appeared to declare the Quaker message. It spoke to the condition of some, and they withdrew from their old churches to worship together. But they also recognized a responsibility to care for each other. Thus as early as 1656 a gathering of “elders” at Balby in Yorkshire offered advices on Friends’ responsibilities to each other. My favorite is the warning against “busybodies.” But most revealing is the last advice, addressed to the leaders of the congregation: “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.”

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