Friday, February 1, 2013

Forgotten Women in Church History: Margaret Fell (1614-1702)

Margaret Fell is often called "the mother of Quakerism," and as such, she has not been forgotten by the Society of Friends.  As this site (run by her descendants) notes:

Most historians credit George Fox with founding Quakerism but it was Margaret who contributed her fortune and administered the finances of the young church, publicly defended the religion, visited meetings and took care of correspondence.  In addition to being a missionary, preacher, and teacher, Margaret wrote at least 16 books and 27 pamphlets discussing and defending her religion.

In spite of this, the Answers.com entry on the history of Quakerism doesn't mention Margaret Fell at all (though it does give her an entry in "Women of World History").  Neither does the online Encyclopedia Britannica's Quakerism entry.  And this historical overview of Quakerism from Ex Libris gives her only a passing mention, and then only in terms of being first the wife of Judge Fell (who actually never became a Quaker himself but is valued instead for the protection his influence gave the Quaker movement) and then later as George Fox's wife.  Margaret Fell's own theological and practical  leadership at the time when Quakerism was defining itself (and in many ways being defined by her teachings) is often downplayed or ignored.

Margaret Fell was born in 1614 in Lancashire, England.  In 1632 she married gentleman Thomas Fell, owner of Swarthmoor Hall, who became a justice of the peace for Lancashire and later a circuit-traveling judge of the court of assizes.  In 1652, while her husband was away on circuit, Lancashire was visited by George Fox, who was then near the beginning of his ministry.  Margaret and her children were convinced by his teachings, and when Judge Fell returned home, he was greeted by neighbors warning him that his family had converted to Fox's version of Christianity.  Judge Fell met with Fox himself and, though never fully embracing the Quaker way, was supportive of his wife's religious views and allowed Swarthmoor Hall to become a meeting place for the movement.

When Judge Fell died in 1658, Margaret inherited Swarthmoor Hall but lost the protection of the Judge's power and influence.  The Quakers meeting in her home began to suffer persecution, and George Fox was arrested and thrown in prison for treason in 1659.  Margaret left Swarthmoor to visit the King of England, securing Fox's release and obtaining a proclamation of freedom for Quakers.  Nevertheless, Parliament enacted a law stating that people who refused to take an oath of loyalty to the crown could be imprisoned.  This law was aimed at Quakers, who believed that taking oaths of any kind was against the teachings of Christ.  Margaret, however, publicly clarified that this belief was in no way an expression of disloyalty.  As Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states:

[Margaret Fell] was. . . one of the first writers to articulate the Quaker philosophy of peace and non-resistance. In a letter to Charles II, dated 1660, she declares that the Quakers aspire

"to live peaceably with all men, And not to Act any thing against the King nor the peace of the Nation, by any plotts, contrivances, insurrections, or carnall weapons to hurt or destroy either him or the Nation thereby, but to be obedient unto all just & lawfull Commands." (Glines 2003, 280)

Fell emphasizes that although Friends cannot in good conscience take an oath, “in Substance they perform that, which is true Allegiance to the King” (Fell 1710, 29–30).


In 1664 Margaret herself was imprisoned for refusing to take an oath of loyalty, and remained in prison for over four years, during which time she wrote many of her pamphlets and longer works.  In 1668 the king granted her release, even though her estate was forfeited to her son George Fell, who was not a Quaker.  He however, allowed his sisters (who were Quakers) to occupy Swarthmoor Hall, and Quaker meetings continued to be held there. In 1669 Margaret married George Fox, and together they continued building the Society of Friends.  Both spent additional time in prison for their beliefs (though not together), and were also separated from time to time by missionary journeys, but they dedicated the rest of their to the teaching of "Inner Light" from the Holy Spirit.

In 1686 the Act of Toleration signed by James II finally freed Quakers from imprisonment and persecution, and George and Margaret Fox were able to build a meeting house on the Swarthmoor property.  George Fox died in 1691, and Margaret in 1702.  Her last words were "I am at peace." 

The Stanford Encyclopedia summarizes Margaret Fell's life as follows:

Together with Fox and William Penn, Fell is now regarded as one of the founders of Quakerism. She helped to sustain the movement through her large correspondence with other Friends on a range of personal and religio-political topics. She travelled widely and spent extended periods in London petitioning the political authorities on behalf of persecuted Quakers (she personally addressed not only Oliver Cromwell but also Charles II and James II). And on at least three occasions, she spent periods in prison for holding Quaker meetings at her house and for refusing to take the Oath of Allegiance. Together [she and George Fox] were active organizers of the separate Quaker women's meetings, first officially begun in 1671. . . She was the author (or co-author) of at least 23 works in total, mostly in the form of short pamphlets.


 According to Daughters of the Church by Tucker and Liefeld:

The most enduring legacy that Fell left to the Quakers was her writing.  She was an outstanding apologist for the movement during the early years, and her policy positions became an integral part of Quaker belief.  In 1660, she wrote a "Declaration and an Information" that officially set forth the Quaker position on pacifism.  She also responded in print to critics of Quakerism, seeking to show that the movement was not a bizarre or seditious sect. . . p.230

Tucker and Liefeld also note the enduring legacy of Fell's work to advance the equality of women in ministry:

The writing that is most often associated with her is Women's Speaking Justified by the Scriptures, first published in 1666.  Here again her influence on Quaker belief was enormous.  Fox himself had written against restricting women in ministry a decade earlier, but "he had not fully developed the argument in favor of women preaching; that remained for Margaret Fell to do."
p. 230, quoting in part the Introduction to Women's Speaking Justified.

The website of the Tokyo Branch of the Society of Friends  describes this work as "a quite vigorous defense of women's spiritual equality and justifies women being active in the public ministry. It remains an important work today, when numerous churches continue to restrict the ministry of women. It is a very careful exegesis of scripture, highlighting the difference between women under the Law and women of the New Creation under Christ. Fell is a particularly appropriate person to write this tract, as her life and ministry ably demonstrates how powerfully the Lord can work in public ministry through a woman."

I can think of no better conclusion than to quote from it.

Mark this, you that despise and oppose the Message of the Lord God that he sends by Women; What had become of the Redemption of the whole Body of Mankind, if they had not cause to believe the Message that the Lord Jesus sent by these Women, of and concerning his Resurrection? And if these Women had not thus, out of their Tenderness, and Bowels of Love, who had received Mercy, and Grace, and Forgiveness of Sins, and Vertue, and Healing from him; which many Men also had received the like, if their Hearts had not been so united and knit unto him in Love, that they could not depart as the Men did; but sat watching, and waiting, and weeping about the Sepulchre until the time of his Resurrection, and so were ready to carry his Message, as is manifested, else how should his Disciples have known, who were not there?

Oh! Blessed and Glorified be the Glorious Lord; for this may all the whole Body of Mankind say, though the Wisdom of Man that never knew God, is always ready to except against the Weak; but the Weakness of God is stronger than Men, and the Foolishness of God is wiser than Men, 1 Cor. 1 25.

1 comment:

pnissila said...

Another brave, courageous, intelligent woman of God. Thank you for spotlighting her here.
Phyllis