Margaret Askew was born at Marsh Grange, near Dalton in Furness, Lancashire, in 1614. She was the eldest of two daughters of John Askew, landowner, of Marsh Grange. Her father was a man of "considerable estate which had been in his name and family for several generations". (1) Askew insisted that Margaret and her sister were taught to read and write. Her social standing and education made her an excellent prospect for marriage. (2)
In 1632, at the age of seventeen, Margaret married the thirty-three year old Thomas Fell. He was a barrister,who owned Swarthmoor Hall. In 1641, Thomas became a Justice of the Peace for Lancashire, and in 1645 a member of the House of Commons for Lancaster and a close ally of Oliver Cromwell, although he later became critical of the way he ruled the country. (3)
In 1649 Thomas Fell became vice-chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and an attorney at Gray's Inn, and a judge of assize for the Chester and North Wales circuit. With her husband rarely at home Margaret "as a literate woman - a rare phenomenon in the period" she oversaw the family estates and businesses, that included the mining of iron ore. (4)
It has been claimed that the "isolation of the north and the dearth of places for lodging brought out Margaret's hospitality. She received the rich and poor alike; her open table brought a variety of interesting, notable, and oftentimes garrulous conversationalists. Everyone in Lancashire knew of this and passed on what they knew of it to strangers." (5)
In late June 1652, George Fox interrupted a service at a church in Ulverston. His words had an impact on Margaret Fell, who was in the congregation. She gave him refuge and by the time he left Swarthmoor Hall he had converted Margaret and her daughters, and most of her household to Quakerism. (6) Margaret's husband was in London at the time. Margaret was unsure of what her absent husband's reaction would be to these happenings, was, as she put it, "stricken with such sadness that I knew not what to do." (7)
As Bonnelyn Young Kunze has pointed out: "Upon his return Judge Fell was troubled by his wife's sudden conversion to this new dissenting sect, but Margaret convinced her husband of her new-found faith and introduced Fox to him. After her conversion to Quakerism she ceased to attend St Mary's, Ulverston, although her husband continued to attend regularly without her, and never converted to the sect. However, his sympathy towards Quakers was important, especially given his judicial position, and he allowed the Friends to hold their meetings at Swarthmoor Hall free from persecution." (8)
Margaret Fell was one of the most important converts to Quakerism. Her name and connections, practical organizational abilities and energies, as well as her husband's influence, were all assets Fell brought to the effort. She wrote to her husband "the truth will stand when all other things shall be as stubble". (9) Margaret was described by informers that she was the "chief maintainer" of the sect in the region. (10)
At first Quaker meetings were in people's homes, barns or by the roadside. The Quakers built "Meeting Houses" only when their own homes became too small. Given the idea of spiritual equality, anyone could speak when prompted by God. Prayer involved the speaker kneeling and everyone else standing and removing their hats, the only time Quakers did so. "Quakers also performed signs, such as 'going naked', as part of their public witness to the new covenant they had established with God and the apostasy of the old ways of believing." (11)
In 1653 Fox was arrested in Carlisle after he said he considered himself God's son, that he had seen God's face, and that God was the original word and that the Scriptures were mere human writings. He was accused of blasphemy and heresy and remanded in the city dungeon. He was beaten with a cudgel by his jailer after he refused to buy the food his keepers sold. He was released after Margaret Fell wrote a letter for general circulation attacking those in government who professed to favour reformation and liberty of conscience while imprisoning people like Fox. (12)
Fox always insisted that God called women to be preachers and evangelists just as he had traditionally called men. It has been estimated that ministry of women, made up 45% of the early Quaker movement. (13) Margaret Fell and Elizabeth Hooton, became two of the Quakers most respected leaders. These women also raised important questions about overturning other traditional relationship between the sexes. Men began to argue that women preachers would lead to immorality. One critic complained that even conversing with women seduced and drew them away from their husbands. One observer claimed that the Quakers "hold a community of women and other men's wives and practice living upon one another too much." (14)
As Jacqueline Broad pointed out: "Margaret Fell is not an advocate of an egalitarian concept of reason or a supporter of equal educational opportunities for women. Her arguments in favour of female preaching rest on a principle of spiritual equality, or the idea that both men and women have the supernatural light of Christ within them. But for Fell, the ability to hearken to that light implicitly requires that women possess a natural capacity to discern the truth for themselves, to exercise strength of will, and to exhibit moral virtue or excellence of character. In these respects, Fell's arguments for female preaching contain an implicit feminist challenge to negative perceptions about women's moral and intellectual abilities in her time." (15)
It was important for Margaret Fell to explain to Charles II that despite her anti-authoritarian beliefs she was not an advocate of active resistance to political authority. In a letter to the king she was one of the first writers to articulate the Quaker philosophy of peace and non-resistance she declared 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 plots, contrivances, insurrections, or carnal weapons to hurt or destroy either him or the Nation thereby, but to be obedient unto all just & lawful Commands". (16)
In Fell's 1660 publication, A Declaration and an Information from Us, the People Called Quakers, we have the first official public statement affirming pacifism as a tenet of Quaker belief and practice. She delivered her peace testimony on horseback to King Charles II on the event of her new husband George Fox's arrest while worshipping at Swarthmoor Hall: "Wherein have we offended any man any otherwise then in that we worship God in the Spirit...and for this must we be made the object of merciless men's cruelty... We are a people that follow after the things that make for peace, love and unity. It is our desire that others' feet walk in the same. We do deny and bear our testimony against all strife, wars, and contentions that come from the lusts that war in their members, that war against the soul, which we wait for, and watch for in all people. We love and desire the good of all." (17)
On 6 January, 1661, Thomas Venner and a group of fifty members of the Fifth Monarchists, attempted to overthrow the the seven-month-old regime of Charles II, by taking over St. Paul's Cathedral. A combined group of volunteers and regular forces had little difficulty in dealing with the rebels and they were either killed or captured. Venner and thirteen others were hanged, drawn and quartered for high treason. Their heads were stuck up on London Bridge as a warning to others who might attempt similar rebellious acts. (18)
Two days after Venner's execution Fox and eleven other Quakers issued what latter became known as the "Peace Testimony". The signers did not include militants such as Edward Burrough and Thomas Salthouse. The statement said it wanted to remove "the ground of jealously and suspicion" regarding "the harmless and innocent people of God, called Quakers." It then went on to argue: "We utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretence whatsoever; and this is our testimony to the whole world. The spirit of Christ, by which we are guided, is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil and again to move unto it; and we do certainly know, and so testify to the world, that the spirit of Christ, which leads us into all Truth, will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ, nor for the kingdoms of this world." (19)
Despite this statement the Venner's Rising led to repressive legislation to suppress non-conformist sects. This included the Quakers. George Fox and other leaders were taking into custody. Margaret Fell wrote to the king asking for Fox to be released. She warned that "the people of God, called Quakers," had limited patience; they would "love, own, and honor the king, and these our present governors, so far as they do rule for God and his truth and do not impose anything upon people's consciences." (20)
Thomas Fell died in 1658. This deprived the Quakers of a judicial protector. Margaret Fell was left a widow, aged forty-four, with eight unmarried children. She later wrote of her husband that he had been "a tender loving husband to me, and a tender father to his children", and had "left a good and competent estate for them". (21) Margaret was left Swarthmoor Hall and 50 adjacent acres (she had already inherited the Askew estate at Marsh Grange from her father). Fell's death allowed Margaret to become an active Quaker minister who wrote and travelled and who became a political spokeswoman of the movement. She emerged as in effect a co-leader of early Quakerism with Fox. (22)
Fox often described Margaret as the "nursing mother" of the movement. Her status and experience gave her self-assurance in her dealings with powerful men. This included communicating with Charles II over the persecution of Quakers. It was claimed that within the Society of Friends she "doled out assignments like a Quaker bishop". She was also extremely loyal to Fox and gave him her full support in his conflicts with James Nayler, John Perrot and Isaac Penington. Despite her own strong opinions she always deferred to Fox about issues within the movement. (23)
In May 1669 Fox aged 35 and Margaret aged 45 agreed to marry. In mid-October 1669 the couple duly informed the Bristol meeting of their intentions, first to the men's meeting and then to a joint meeting of men and women. They married on 27 October with Margaret's daughters and their husbands present. Margaret's only son, George Fell, who disapproved of the match, did not attend. Fox signed a contract waiving his rights to Margaret's property, and her daughters, who were to inherit Swarthmoor Hall should she remarry, agreed to allow her to live there. A few days after the wedding Fox continued on his missionary visits while Margaret returned to Swarthmoor. (24)
It has been argued that there "were no passionate feelings on either side" and that Fox expressed "all the excitement of someone completing a business deal". (25) In an explanatory letter addressed to all Quakers Fox said he had been "commanded" to take Margaret as his wife and added that the marriage testified to "the church coming out of the wilderness, and the marriage of the Lamb before the foundation of the world". (26) Fox wanted it to be understood that his was an "honorable marriage and in an undefiled bed" in an effort to undermine the rumours of sexual misconduct between the two by anti-Quaker authors such as John Harwood. (27)
Although she was 55 years old Margaret told friends that she hoped to give birth to another child. The couple spent ten days together before Fox continued his missionary work. In April 1670, Margaret was arrested and detained at Lancaster jail. She claimed that she was pregnant and this news was welcomed by other Quakers. However, no baby was born and it has been suggested that Margaret had convinced herself that she was carrying a child, a condition known as pseudocyesis (imaginary or false pregnancy). (28)
In September 1662 Charles II had announced the Declaration of Indulgence that suspending laws against dissenters. This resulted in the release of 491 Quakers from prison. An angry House of Commons forced the king to withdraw the declaration and implement, in its place, the Test Act (1673). Although aimed at Catholics, Fox saw that this law could be applied to them because of their testimony against oaths and protested vigorously against it. William Penn was the main figure in Parliament who argued against this legislation. (29)
On 17th December, 1673, Fox was arrested and sent to Worcester Jail. He was twice freed briefly on writs of habeas corpus and allowed to go to London. However, he was unwilling to accept a pardon and returned to prison. Fox fell ill, and for a time became so weak he could hardly utter a word and needed fresh air in his closed dungeon. He spent fourteen months in prison until his final release in February 1675. (30)
Fox now concentrated on sorting out the conflict that emerged between men and women in Bristol. Isabel Yeamans, the daughter of Margaret Fell, had upset men in the city by setting up a monthly meetings for women. This was in response to her mother's call for women's rights in Quaker meetings in Women's Speaking Justified (1666) where she argued: "Let this Word of the Lord, which was from the beginning, stop the Mouths of all that oppose Women's Speaking in the Power of the Lord; for he hath put Enmity between the Woman and the Serpent; and if the Seed of the Woman speak not, the Seed of the Serpent speaks; for God hath put Enmity between the two Seeds; and it is manifest, that those that speak against the Woman and her Seed's Speaking, speak out of the Envy of the old Serpent's Seed." (31)
William Rogers, a leading Quaker in the city, demanded to know why the women had proceeded on their own. A committee of six, including some of the most powerful Quakers in Bristol, was instructed to attend the next women's meeting to discuss the matter. The women eventually agreed to defer "to the wisdom of God in the Friends of the men's meeting". At a meeting of thirty male Quakers it was agreed that in future women had a "duty to mind only those things that tend to peace." The Bristol women acquiesced to this demand. (32)
Fox, who had been in America at the time of this dispute, published details of new rights for women in the movement. He instructed that couples seeking to be married must have their proposed union examined twice by both men's and women's meetings. This was confirmed in a letter to his wife in May 1674. (33) In an epistle the following year Fox defended women's meetings in general terms, rebuking those who called them into question, but it neglected to address what many male Quakers considered the demeaning requirement that men seek approval for marriage from women. (34)
At a meeting in May 1675, Quaker leaders in London, including William Penn, Thomas Salthouse. Alexander Parker and George Whitehead, published a document concerning the role of women in the movement. It stated that all marriages be cleared twice by women's and men's meetings, to make sure that "all foolish and unbridled affections" be speedily brought under God's judgment. It also reminded Quakers that women's meetings, just like men's meetings, had been set up with God's counsel and sharply admonished those who sneered at them as "synods" and "Popish impositions". Violators of these instructions - "disorderly walkers" - should have their names recorded. (35)
It has been claimed by one Quaker historian "Separate men's and women's Business Meetings were recommended at all levels of the structure, each with their own areas of responsibility. Fox argued this was necessary for women to have their own voice, although their areas of influence were highly gendered and limited to pastoral duties such as marriage arrangements and poor relief. It seems that whilst the ideal of spiritual equality persisted, political equality did not." (36)
In his final years Fox lived in London. Margaret continued to live in Swarthmoor Hall. However, in April, 1690, aged seventy-six, did visit her husband. On 11 January 1691, Fox attended the Gracechurch Street meeting and, as usual, preached. At the end of the meeting he complained of a "coldness near his heart" and went to bed at the nearby house of Henry Gouldney, a local Quaker with whom Fox had stayed several times before. He died of congestive heart failure two days later. (37)
After the death of her husband Margaret remained at Swarthmoor, apart from one trip to London in 1697. In June 1698 she wrote a letter to William III to commend him on his "Gentle Government and Clemency, and Gracious Acts". In an epistle to Quakers, written in April 1700, she criticized the emerging interest in Quaker conformity of dress. She called the grey costume that was becoming popular a 'silly poor gospel'. The new style of dress was setting Quakers apart from the world as God's special people, and it was not an indicator of their interior spiritual religion and purity. (38)
Margaret Fox, aged eighty-eight, died at Swarthmoor Hall on 23rd April 1702.
Friends, whom the Lord God hath called unto the light which is eternal, which the Lord God has sent, to bring His seed out of bondage, and out of the house of darkness, from under Pharaoh, and his task-masters, which has so long been held under the dark power and mystery of iniquity. The Lord God of life and power hath visited you, and sent His servants to awaken you, and to raise you from the dead, that Christ might give you life, who is now come and coming to redeem Israel, and to divide the Red Sea, and to overturn Pharaoh and his host. Stand, still (I say unto you) and see the salvation of God, and in the fear of the living God wait low in your own measure of grace, and harken diligently unto that, that your souls may live. And this you must do, if ever you witness the living God; so in the name and power of the Lord Jesus Christ, at whose name every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess, beware how you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which perisheth; it is the diligent hand that maketh rich, but the idle, slothful and negligent, suffer want. and beware of going from you Guide, which keepeth you low and tender, and prize the love of God that ever He should visit you; and beware that you do not requite Him evil for good, for He is a jealous God, and will not clear the guilty; it is the low, and the meek, and the humble that the Lord God teacheth, it is the broken and contrite spirit, that God will not despise. And He, who is the high and lofty one, that inhabiteth eternity, dwelleth in the hearts of the humble.
But all who are got up in their imaginations, the Lord God will scatter, and the proud, the high, and the lofty, the Lord doth resist; and tis you shall witness, the Lord feeds the hungry, but the rich is sent empty away. And they who thirst and breathe after righteousness, such the Lord satisfieth. So read, and with the eternal light examine and search, and try what it is that you thirst after; whether it be righteousness, purity and holiness, for these will the Lord satisfy; and whoever is not thus seeking, shall never receive satisfaction form the Lord God; but wrath, and terror, and horror, shall fall upon that which is contrary to this. So, as you love your eternal peace, and the redemption of your souls, keep low in your measure of the living testimony which cometh from the living God, which is one in all, in its measure one; there is no division, no rent, but all one. And this gathers your hearts together, and this knits and united unto the body, where the unity is; and who gathers not here, scatters abroad and he that is not with us here, is against us. So examine, and try whether you are gathering now or scattering abroad, with the Light which is eternal, which is one in all. Examine and try your own selves, I charge you, as you will answer it before the Lord God; come down and stoop to the yoke of Christ, which is easy, and take His yoke upon you, and His burden, which is light; and beware of starting from under the yoke of obedience, or pulling away the shoulder; for the God required not only sacrifice, but obedience, which is better, And the mind that looks outward, from the measure enjoyed, and joins to anything without, contrary to the freedom of the spirit within, that mind is for judgment. The eternal spirit of God is one in all, and that which divides one from another, is for judgment, for where division is, that is of the kingdom that cannot stand. So read where you are, for it you are in that which is divided, you cannot stand. So in love and tenderness to your souls, I warn and charge you from the Lord, keep in the light, which is one, and in the power, which is one, and in the measure of life made manifest in you, which is one. and here is no division, nor separation, but a gathering and a knitting. And if you love the light, then you come to the light to be proved, and tried whether your works be wrought in God. But that which hates the light, turns from the light, and that shall be condemned by the light forever. And though you may turn from the light, where the unity is, and you may turn fro the eternal truth; but from the witness of God in your consciences, (which he hath places in you, which beareth witness for the living God,) you can never fly; that shall pursue you wherever you go. And they who turn out from the light, their resurrection is condemnation, and on the left hand they are put among the goats, and shall have their portion with hypocrites and unbelievers; and this shall be witnessed forever.
And this I was moved of the Lord, to write to you, in love and tenderness to the measure of God in you, with which I have unity, which will witness for me forever; and this is in love to your souls. So the Lord God of life and power keep you alive in that, which He hath placed in you, to His everlasting glory: for a sweet savour we are unto God, both in them that are saved, and in them that perish. And beware how you draw back from the everlasting truth, which the Lord God hath tendered to you, which you shall eternally witness to be of God: for he that draweth back, my soul hath no pleasure in him , saith God. That which we have heard, and have seen, and felt, and our hands have handled, even the word of life which hath been declared unto you.
From one who desires the good of all souls.
Dear Friends, brethren and sisters, in the eternal Light, by which we are gathered, which is our teacher and leader; which Light comes from our Lord Jesus Christ, the captain of our salvation, in whom is life, and this life is the Light of all men; who has laid down his life for his sheep, and who gives unto his sheep eternal Life; and this life is in his Son. Your righteousness is of me, said the Lord; and this is the heritage of the saints. This you are made partakers of, who walk in the Light, and dwell in the Light, shall have the Light of life, and come to know the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom he has sent, who has come a Light into the world. He that believes in him, shall not walk in darkness, nor shall not perish, but have everlasting Life. And this is the Father's free love, to send his only begotten son into the world, who is hated and rejected of men, but chosen of God and precious, who is become the head of our corner, glory eternal be to the living God! On him are we built, in him are we rooted and grounded. He is our foundation and root, we his offspring, on whom we stand fast, unmovable. This is the cornerstone, which all the builders refuse and disallow. But on this rock is the whole Church built, which is made of living stones, elect and precious, the spiritual temple, whose maker and builder is God. And now we, having an high priest over the household of God, let us draw near with a true heart, in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water, [she is speaking of spiritual water, from above which must be witnessed, not the water baptism of the earth's water; just as we must witness the fire of baptism that burns away all impurity, leaving us pure]. Wherefore return to the shepherd of your souls, and unchangeable priest, which is made with an oath forever, after the order of Melchizedek, who is made surety of a better testament, who needs not daily to offer sacrifice, but he has offered one sacrifice, and forever has sat down at the right hand of God, from henceforth expecting, until his enemies be made his footstool. For by his own offering has he perfected forever those who are sanctified; and of this the Holy Ghost is a witness to us, in the fulfilling of the everlasting promise of the Lord God, who has said, I will put my laws in their hearts, and in their minds will I write them.
Now, dear brethren, of this bear witness, [witness as in experience or observe and feel , not as in go and tell others], and of the truth and faithfulness of the Lord God, you may set to your seals, all who abide in the Light, and depart from iniquity, who name this name, which is better than other names; to which every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess. And now, that you are made partakers of a living, pure, eternal, immortal principle, which come from the living God, by which you may enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by this new and living way, which he has consecrated for us through the veil, (that is to say), his flesh. Therefore hold fast the profession of your faith without wavering, for faithful is he that has promised. In the strait and narrow way that leads to life pass on, that through the strait gate you may enter, which few there are who find. Oh! in the eternal Light, (which is one in all), which leads up to the Father of Light; and in the measure of Light received from the Father and fountain of Light and life, all wait and all dwell; and to the life, raised by the immortal word of life, join your minds; and pass from the death to the life, that so you may come to know and witness the true love that is to the brethren, where the unity is, whereby you all may know that you are true disciples; in that you love one another; and here you fulfill the whole law, and keep the new commandment, which your Lord and master has commanded.
Therefore, dearly beloved brethren, consider what you are called to, and what you are made to partake of, even of a living, and pure, and holy priesthood, a peculiar people you are, and of the holy nation, and of the royal seed. Now, with the Light, which is eternal, which searches, and tries, and examines, and weighs, and makes all things manifest, of what sort it is. Let this search and try you, how you grow up in the eternal and immortal birth, and do not deceive your souls. For except you are born again, of water [heavenly water, not earthly water baptism] and of the Spirit, you cannot enter. Now see whether you can read this in the Light; and whether you know, and see, and witness this in your own particulars, yes or no; and see whether you are not like Nicodemus, who said, How can these things be? and whether you are not ignorant of this.
Therefore, all come down to the witness of God, and deal plainly with your own souls; and let the judge, which stands at the door, pass sentence upon you. Let the time past suffice, that you have hidden the talent in the earth, which you have received from the Lord to benefit all. And let the earth give up her dead, and the sea give up her dead, and hell give up her dead, and let all come to judgment. Let death and hell be cast into the lake; and freely give up that which is for the sword, to the sword; and that which is for the fire, to the fire; so that those who are dead in sin, may arise. For of what benefit is it for you to take the profession and form of the living truth? For if the dead do not rise, [she is speaking of us rising from death now, not after being physically buried] you are still in your sins, and your faith is vain. Therefore see what you are doing. For it is not the talker who is saved, but he that does the will of my Father; and many shall be called, and few chosen. Now see with the Light, which is eternal, that you are not only of the many which are called, but of the few which are chosen. Give all diligence, not to make only your calling, but your election sure. Friends, your day of calling has come; you are called out of the world, and separated from the world, by the call of the living God. The Light calls out of Sodom and Egypt, where the many are. Therefore do not deceive yourselves, for you are some of the many that are called; and you are made partakers of that which calls continually, the voice behind, which cries: This is the Way, walk in it; why will you die? Now consider, how you respond to this holy call, and how you are obedient to it, and how you are subject, and how you are taught and guided, by the measure of God's Spirit. For all the children of the Lord are taught of the Lord, and in righteousness are they established. Now, search with the Light, which is eternal, whether you are established in righteousness and purity. If you are not, then mind the teachings of the Lord. For he that walks in the Light, as he is in the Light, the blood of Jesus cleanses from all sin. Now examine, whether you are cleansed, whether you are purged, whether you are washed. For if you walk in the Light, then you witness [observe and experience] cleansing and washing.
And beware of betraying the just and the innocent in you, with a form and profession of the truth, without the life, and so betray your own souls (I warn you, and charge you, as you will answer it to the Lord). But to the pure eternal principle of the Lord God all turn, and keep your minds unto this, which is given unto you, for the redeeming and ransoming of your souls from the captivity and bondage of sin and corruption. Respond diligently to that of God, that your souls may live; and that you may see your saviour, who saves his people from their sins, and so witness the salvation of your souls. You are made partakers of the free grace of God, which brings salvation; so let it be your teacher and leader. Beware of turning this grace into a lack of restraint, which is able to save your souls. But receive with meekness the engrafted Word, that the milk thereof you may witness, and as newborn babes, desire that you may grow thereby. We declare unto you the Word that is near, in the heart, which is the Word of faith which we preach; which Word was in the beginning, (by which Word the heaven and the earth was made), which we have heard, which we have seen, which our hands have handled. To the measure of this in you, am I made manifest; and my joy and life is, that you would take heed to your own measures received, and be true and faithful to that which is able to save your souls; that eternal pure redemption you may come to witness, and the unity of the faith, … and so joining to the body, which holds the head, from which the living virtue is received. So that you may grow up as lively plants in the garden of God, which now he is dressing, and watering, and pruning. That to him fruit may be brought forth, who is the Lord of the vineyard, and the husbandman, who purges every plant that bears fruit, that it may bring forth more fruit. Every branch that does not bear not fruit, he takes away. Now see with the eternal Light, whether you bring forth fruit unto God. For every tree is known by its fruit; and every branch, which the Lord plants, brings forth fruit, (not only leaves, but fruit). Now search, whether you bring forth fruit, or leaves. For that tree, that is in the garden, and brings forth nothing but leaves, is to be cut down.
Now, Friends, deal plainly with yourselves, and let the eternal Light search you, and try you, for the good of your souls. For this will deal plainly with you. It will rip you up, and lay you open, and make all manifest which lodges in you; the secret subtlety of the enemy of your souls, this eternal searcher and trier will make manifest. Therefore all to this come, and by this be searched, and judged, and led and guided. For to this you must stand or fall. And if you turn from this, this is a swift witness against the adulterer and sorcerer, and from this you cannot flee. In this I have cleared my conscience; and for the good of your souls I have written this, who desires that you might all be where I am, that so we might all be one. So the Lord God of life and power keep you all in his fear, that the Lord God you may serve and honor, that your hearts may be kept clean, and the secrets of the Lord you may come to know, which none shall ever know, but those that fear him; and this you shall eternally witness. Therefore, I say again, fear the Lord God, so that the pure wisdom you may come to learn. For dreadful and terrible is the Lord God; and the day of the vengeance of our God has come, in which he renders to everyone according to his deeds. The backslider, and the revolter, and the disobedient ones, and the careless, and the slothful, and those whose minds are at liberty, and will not abide in the cross of Christ; all these shall receive according to their deeds.
Therefore, dear Friends, abide in the cross, and keep your minds to that which is pure; so that you may come to witness the enmity slain, and the handwriting of ordinances blotted out, and nailed to the cross, and you crucified to the world, and the world to you. Consider one another, and provoke one another to Love and to good works, not forsaking the Assembling of yourselves, but exhorting one another, and so much the more, as you see the day approaching. Dwell in love and unity, in the pure eternal Light; there is your fellowship, there is your cleansing and washing. Here is the mystery to all the disobedient ones. The everlasting God, of everlasting Light, and everlasting life and power, keep you all here faithful to your own measure; that so the resurrection and the life you may witness, and the living bread you may feed on, which, whosoever eats of, shall never die. So God Almighty be with you, and preserve you all faithful in Christ Jesus.
From your dear sister in the unchangeable love of Christ, who desires, the good of all your souls.
We who are the People of God called Quakers, who are hated and despised, and every where spoken against, as people not fit to live, as they were that went before us, who were of the same spirit, power, & life and were as we are, in that they were accounted as the off-scouring of all things, by that Spirit and Nature that is of the world, and so the Scripture is fulfilled, he that is born of the flesh persecuteth him that is born of the Spirit; We have been a suffering people, under every Power & Change, and under every profession of Religion that hath been, & born the outward power in the Nation these 12 years, since we were a People, and being that throw the old Enemy which hath continually appeared against us, not only in the profane people of the Nation, but also in the highest profession of sorts and sects of Religion, we have suffered under, and been persecuted by them all; Even some persecuted & prisoned till death; others their bodies bruised till death, stigmatized, bored thorow the tongue, gagged in the mouth, stocked and whipted thorough towns & cities, our goods spoiled, our bodies two or three years imprisoned, with much more that might be said, which is well known to the actors thereof; and this done not for the wronging of any man , nor for the breach of any just Law of the Nation, nor for evil doing, nor desiring any evil, or wishing any hurt to any man, but for Conscience sake towards God, because we could not bow to their worship, and because we could not maintain a Ministry, which Ministry we could not join with nor own; so we look upon it to be unjust to maintain them, we receive nothing from, nor cannot trust our Souls under their Teaching, who Teach for hire, and Divine for money , which the Prophets of the Lord cryed wo against ; And Christ said a hireling was a Thief and a Robber, and would fly because he was an hireling; And they are maintained by Tithes, contrary to Christ and the Apostles Doctrine, who said the Priesthood was changed that took Tithes, and the Law also that gave them, and who witnessed CHRIST JESUS to be the Everlasting Offering once for all, who saith, such an High-Priest hath become us which is holy, harmlesse, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher then the Heavens, who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications, with strong cries and tears, unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared, though he was a Son yet learned he obedience, by the things which he suffered, and being made perfect became the Author of Eternal Salvation unto all them that obey him.
We are a People that follow after those things that make for Peace, Love and Unity , it is our desire that others feet may walk in the same, and do deny and beare our Testimony against all Strife, and Wars, and Contentions that come from the Lusts that war in the members, that war against the Soul, which we wait for and watch for in all People, and love and desire the good of all; for no other cause but love to the Souls of all People, have our sufferings been, and therefore have we been numbered amongst the Transgressers, and been accounted as sheep for the slaughter , as our Lord and Master was, who is the Captain of our Salvation who is gone before us, who though he was a Son, yet learned he Obedience, by the things that he suffered , who said my Kingdom is not of this World, if my Kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, but my Kingdom is not from hence; This is he that comes to save mens lives, and not to destroy them, and this is he that is our Lord & Master , whose Testimony we must seal with our blood, if it be required of us; And our Weapons are not Carnal but Spiritual who have given our Backs, our Cheeks, and our Hair to all professions, out of the Life and Power to be smitten, who have done it to purpose, which the Lord hath overturned, who were often warned by us, under whom we have undergone cruel sufferings...
Wherein have we offended any man any otherwise then in that we worship God in the Spirit...and for this must we be made the object of merciless men's cruelty... We are a people that follow after the things that make for peace, love and unity. It is our desire that others' feet walk in the same. We do deny and bear our testimony against all strife, wars, and contentions that come from the lusts that war in their members, that war against the soul, which we wait for, and watch for in all people. We love and desire the good of all.
Margaret Fell's long life spanned the reigns of six English monarchs and some of the most dramatic political events in English history, including the Civil Wars of 1642–51 and the Glorious Revolution of 1688–89. Fell (née Askew) was born at Marsh Grange, Dalton-in-Furness, in Lancashire, England, in 1614, and she died in 1702. At the age of seventeen, she married the barrister Thomas Fell (c. 1598–1658) and together they had nine children. In 1652, upon his return home, Thomas Fell was greeted by neighbors who warned him that his wife had been bewitched by a travelling preacher. This preacher was George Fox (1624–91), a charismatic religious dissenter and first-generation leader of the Society of Friends (also known as Quakers). Upon hearing Fox speak at her local church, Margaret Fell testified that "It pleased the Lord so to open my understanding Immediately in the time of G Fs (George Fox's) declaration. That I saw perfectly Just then that wee were all wrong, & that we were but Thieves, that had stolen the scriptures. which caused me to shed many tears. And I sat down in my pew & wept all the while".
From that day forward, Margaret Fell was a convert to Quakerism. Despite his initial reservations, Thomas Fell was supportive of his wife's conversion, and the Fell family home of Swarthmoor Hall became a popular meeting place for Friends. In these early years, while Thomas Fell was chief magistrate of the area, the northern Quakers seem to have avoided persecution. Though Margaret Fell eventually suffered imprisonment for her beliefs, she remained a woman of considerable wealth and social status throughout her life.
Together with Fox and William Penn (1644–1718), 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. Fell married George Fox in 1669, eleven years after her first husband's death, and she was subsequently known as Margaret Fox. Together they were active organizers of the separate Quaker women's meetings, first officially begun in 1671...
Fell's views about female spiritual authority are best understood in the context of her wider religious beliefs. Above all, Fell embraces the Quaker notion that every human being has the "Light of Christ" within them and that this light is the Second Coming of Christ in the flesh. According to the Quaker philosophy, all human beings are capable of attaining salvation provided that they turn their minds to the divine light. This universalism concerning salvation, and the Quaker view that everyone is capable of discerning fundamental religious truths for themselves, had notable implications for early Quaker practice. The Quakers believe that Christ is equally manifest in everyone and that God is "no respecter of persons" (Acts 10:34). From early on, the Quakers enacted this belief by taking a collaborative approach to prayer meetings. They did not appoint a single authoritarian preacher, "set up to teach them, it may be thirty or forty years together" (Fell 1667b, 86), but rather members would wait in silence till someone felt the light stir within. A guiding principle, Fell says, was that no-one should "strive for Mastery" but everyone should "esteem others better than themselves" (Fell 1710, 55). In their day-to-day interactions with social superiors, Quaker men would not remove their hats, and Quaker women would not curtsey. They refused to take oaths (such as the Oaths of Allegiance and Supremacy) and they did not use deferential titles. This lack of outward submission led some critics to accuse Quakers of "levelling all conditions" and ignoring social hierarchies between magistrates and people, husbands and wives, and masters and servants...
Margaret Fell is not an advocate of an egalitarian concept of reason or a supporter of equal educational opportunities for women. Her arguments in favour of female preaching rest on a principle of spiritual equality, or the idea that both men and women have the supernatural light of Christ within them. But for Fell, the ability to hearken to that light implicitly requires that women possess a natural capacity to discern the truth for themselves, to exercise strength of will, and to exhibit moral virtue or excellence of character. In these respects, Fell's arguments for female preaching contain an implicit feminist challenge to negative perceptions about women's moral and intellectual abilities in her time. On these grounds, we might conclude that her writings constitute something of a bridge between the querelle des femmes of the late-medieval period and the later feminist arguments of figures such as Astell and Masham.
Margaret Fell was a woman of high social station, deep spirituality and strong convictions, and these qualities carried her from obscurity in the north of England to audiences with kings. She was one of the first to be convinced by Quakerism - the movement now known as The Religious Society of Friends, or simply "Friends." Appreciated early on for her theological perception and her willingness to defend their cause, it was she who wrote the first Quaker Peace Testimony in England. Her home at Swarthmoor Hall became the center for northern Friends, and from there she headed worship and organized rescue efforts for the many Quakers throughout England who were beaten, imprisoned and/or stripped of their property due to their affiliation with the movement. She wrote numerous works explaining Quaker beliefs and defending them against their many opponents.
Margaret Askew Fell Fox (1614–1702) was born in the north of England to a family of landed, lower gentry. Though her home in the north was somewhat isolated, her father saw that she and her sister were taught to read and write. Her social standing and education made her an excellent prospect for marriage, so at age 18 she became the wife of a wealthy lawyer, Thomas Fell (1598-1658). He too was a member of England's landed gentry, and they became a close and affectionate couple. Together they had eight children. In the years of their marriage he climbed the ranks of Judges, served as a Member of Parliament, and was appointed Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. His ambition left Margaret to raise the family and oversee their property holdings. The isolation of the north and the dearth of places for lodging brought out Margaret's hospitality. She received the rich and poor alike; her open table brought a variety of interesting, notable, and oftentimes garrulous conversationalists. Everyone in Lancashire knew of this and passed on what they knew of it to strangers.
Those whom Margaret Fell welcomed most at her door were the visitors interested in spiritual things, for Margaret Fell was an earnest Seeker with an enduring desire to know God and to be instructed in the better way. And so it was that one day during one of Thomas Fells' frequent absences, Quaker founder George Fox (1629-1669) walked quietly up to her door and asked if he might stay and talk with her, for he had heard in the town that she was a woman who would know the truth of Scripture. He came and stayed a few days, hoping to meet her husband as well. This was not to be, but when Thomas returned he found that his wife was a changed woman, as were his children. Somehow she had found her way back to the confident faith of her youth.
Though Thomas Fell did not share her persuasion, he respected her intellect, he trusted the long years of her leadership at Swarthmoor Hall, and he knew well her deep longing to be close to God in all things. Most of all he was taken by the power of her newfound fire. To his credit, he understood the power of God to change the human condition. He was a devout man or Margaret would never have had him. As head of the local Manor he would have lost standing if his family were not present Sundays at the manor Church. For reasons both personal and practical, she agreed to continue attending the local church as always. This was their compromise, with something given on both sides. To be honest, he found George Fox a bit unsophisticated in some things and dangerous in others, but Fox knew his scripture far better than any man, including the local rector the Reverend Lampett. And so it was that despite his misgivings, Thomas Fell allowed him occasional visits and likewise gave his nod to her ongoing Meetings for Clarity and for Worship.
The backdrop for this compromise between husband and wife occurred during the upheaval of the English Civil war, the beheading of Charles the First, the rise of Oliver Cromwell, and the re-establishment of Kings. During all this, persecution of every variety was heaped upon the Quakers and other non-conformist religious and political groups in an attempt to establish order. Through her husband she had learned a great deal about the Law, and with Thomas she arranged defense for many imprisoned Quakers. Her home at Swarthmoor Manor became the hub of Quakerism in the north of England. From there she carried on a vast amount of correspondence and organized the "Meetings" that gathered them together for worship in silence and reverence before Christ. From there they spread out in evangelistic travels, carrying the word that Christ's death was a divine gift intended for all. In this she and the rest of the early "Valiant Sixty" ran afoul of local magistrates, who regularly wrote inflammatory libelous letters to their superiors...
Ultimately though, not even her many audiences with the men in power could stem the tide of hatred against the Friends. Thomas Fell had been dead for years, and his mantle of protection passed from their shoulders. Margaret would ultimately share the fate of her beloved Quakers with periods of long imprisonment in the notorious Lancaster Jail. She used these periods to write correspondence, legal appeals on behalf of herself and others as well as books. Given the limits of space, I will mention just one more of her most important works. Her 1666 book Women's Speaking Justified remains a hallmark in the defense of women's right to teach and preach. When she was free again, she rode across England in a coach. In her more than two-hundred-mile journey she returned to the south to see for herself what might still be done for those who survived the persecution with their lives. Her last piece of extant correspondence ends two years before her death in her beloved Swarthmoor Hall. At her death, her longtime friend Thomas Camm wrote: "I know and have seen a great deal thereof, as well as her constancy, valor, and undaunted firm zeal for God and Truth, without any shrinking, and so greatly exemplary to others, to her commendation, God's honor and glory, as ought not to be buried in oblivion, but to be recorded for posterity."