Posted on 23 March 2021
A founder of the Society of Friends, Margaret Fell (1614 – 1702) is affectionately known as the Mother of Quakerism.
Born Margaret Askew in Lancashire, England, Fell married the barrister Thomas Fell in 1632, upon which she became the lady of Swarthmoor Hall in neighbouring Cumbria. It would be 30 years later, in 1652, when George Fox arrived at the hall preaching his radical message.
What Canst Thou Say?
A day or two later, Fell heard Fox speaking at a nearby church. Before the sermon started he challenged those present by asking them:
“You will say Chirst saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?”
This call to speak directly from personal experience gives Fell her Convincement and in her published writings she recalls how his words transformed her, saying:
“This opened me so, that it cut me to the heart, and then I saw clearly we were all wrong. So I sat down in my pew again and cried bitterly: and I cried in my spirit to the Lord, ‘We are all thieves; we have taken the Scripture in words, and know nothing of them in ourselves.”
Fox soon leaves the area to continue his journey as a travelling preacher. Shortly after Fox’s departure, Judge Fell returns to the hall whereupon two more Quakers arrive, Richard Farnsworth and James Nayler. The two Quakers persuade Judge Fell that Fox’s radical message is a peaceful one.
As a result, Judge Fell allows Swarthmoor Hall to be a used as a safe haven for Friends to meet and organise the burgeoning movement. It is from here that the Valiant Sixty group of Quakers assemble to become travelling missionaries across Britain, Ireland and Europe. Margaret becomes a coordinator for the ‘sixty’, sending and receiving correspondence between them.
In 1658, Judge Fell dies and Margaret inherits Swarthmoor Hall. By now the hall is well known for its association with the dissenting Quakers and it is raided several times by the government. Despite the disruption from the authorities, the hall remains a hub of Quaker activity with Margaret at its centre.
Coming from the respected gentry of the English class system, Margaret has the influence to speak up on behalf Friends. In 1660 and 1662, she travels to London to petition the newly restored King Charles II and his parliament on religious freedom. As part of these two visits she presents the king with the Quaker Peace Declaration.
Despite Margaret Fell’s petition to the king, in 1664, she is arrested at Swarthmoor Hall for both holding Quaker Meetings and refusing to swear an oath. She defends herself by saying that, “As long as the Lord blessed her with a home, she would worship him in it.” Fell is subsequently imprisoned in Lancaster Gaol and has to forfeit her property.
Women’s Speaking Justified
Whilst in jail, Fell wrote several religious pamphlets and epistles. The best known of which is Women’s Speaking Justified (c. 1666). In this short pamphlet, Fell argues that as part of the Quaker’s Equality Testimony, women have the same Inner Light as men and therefore should have the same right to speak ministry as them.
The pamphlet becomes one of the major texts on women’s religious leadership in the 17th century and today is celebrated as a key document in the history of women’s rights.
Upon the orders of the King, Fell is released from prison in 1668. A year later, in 1669, Fell and Fox marry upon which and he writes:
“I had seen from the Lord a considerable time before that I should take Margaret Fell to be my wife. And when I first mentioned it to her, she felt the answer of life from God thereunto.”
Shortly after the marriage, Fox travels to the American Colonies to preach Quakerism. He returns in 1673, only to be arrested and imprisoned for his Quaker beliefs. Fell helps to secure his release in 1675. After this, the couple effectively led their lives apart from each other. Fox either travels abroad or stays in London and Fell remains at the hall.
After Fox’s death in 1691, except for one journey to London, Margaret Fell remained at Swarthmoor Hall where she continued to organise the affairs of the society well into her 80s. She died in 1702, with her last words being, “I am in peace.”
Fell was buried at the Quaker Meeting House near Swarthmoor Hall with no headstone.
Following her death, several of her works were collected together and published as A Brief Collection of Remarkable Passages and Occurrences (1710).
Images from en.wikipedia.org