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Young Adult Quaker Ministers: Mary Fisher and Elizabeth Fletcher

“I believe that some young people have old souls and that these young people become seasoned spiritual leaders at an early age if they follow their Guide and have oversight.”
—Deborah Fisch

Having Quaker children of my own who are in their teen and young adult years, I began in the winter of 2000 to research the stories of youth and young adults who lived in England at a time when the Religious Society of Friends was in its youth itself. I found short descriptions of young people who accomplished remarkable things compared to others of their age as well as to the adults of the time. Yet I realized that seldom was age mentioned, let alone emphasized, in the recounting of Quaker history, even though George Fox and many of those he attracted were young and living in the homes of their parents when they began to seek or became “convinced” to join this new religious sect.

The first story I found was about a 17th‐century youth named Elizabeth Fletcher. I didn’t record the source and have since not been able to locate it; however, the few lines I read touched me deeply and filled me with questions. Why would such a young woman be moved to travel and endure extreme pain and misery for her religious beliefs? How did Fletcher’s 17th‐century faith compare with mine of today?

I continued to gather stories of remarkable Quaker youth in the 17th century and wrote a book about them. It is one book in a planned series of stories from the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. I hope that the stories I share here will encourage Friends to hold me in the Light as I continue this project.

Mary Fisher

In 1651, when George Fox was 27 years old, he traveled and preached throughout Yorkshire in the central part of England. In late December he visited the large home of Richard Tomlinson in the town of Selby and met an indentured maid of unusual character, Mary Fisher, who was a year or so older than Fox.

All the members of the Tomlinson home, including the servants, were convinced during that visit by Fox. They had been taxed all their lives, paying ministers and priests for religious guidance. Now as they talked with Fox they realized that they did not need another to interpret God’s word, but instead could communicate directly with the Divine Spirit. Fox was on fire with this truth, and Fisher, led to preach as well, was released from service with the Tomlinsons to do so.

To heed the call and travel in 17th‐century England as a Quaker minister, especially for women, was difficult. The courage she demonstrated might be likened to a woman appearing in public uncovered in Afghanistan today. No one had ever entrusted leadership responsibilities of any kind to Fisher. She was uneducated and certainly unaccustomed to public speaking. According to Phyllis Mack in Visionary Women, that Fisher found a public voice was the fruit of her own intelligence and political activism, displaying an understanding of the economic and political issues of the day and turning language into a form of political resistance. In an early letter to a judge she wrote with conviction, “Let the oppressed go free!”

Now freed herself, but without property or political status, Fisher was able to experience a self‐realization as she traveled. In a world where female freedom was carefully curbed, the liberty to believe what she willed was the first step to personal independence.

How exciting it was for others to witness servants and free people alike being called to travel and preach as Friends. The message in the action was clear: the Spirit was available to everyone, equally. It was not only the ruling class that could enjoy a personal relationship with the Divine Spirit, as most of Fisher’s peers believed, but everyone, rich or poor, man or woman, noble or servant. All persons could listen to the Spirit in their hearts and live a life in accord with the spiritual messages they heard. Thus, they could experience baptism with each challenge to right living, and salvation with each courageous action taken.

Fisher now understood that it was possible for her to experience the pure nature Fox described, as it was for all who were willing to sit quietly and wait upon God. Especially when she was traveling and preaching, Fisher rose above gender and class distinctions and through tests of faith she gained a spiritual identity more real than simply that of a daughter or servant. As Phyllis Mack writes of Fisher, “The soul of the prophet was as one touched by the magic wand of Divine Light.” It was an empowering message that George Fox and the other Friends were preaching!

William Braithwaite, in The Beginnings of Quakerism, notes that group life among the early Quakers began inevitably from the first young Friends’ finding fellowship with Fox. Fox was fun to be with; he exercised no authority and was loving and compassionate. Fox was ready to forgive; he was an excellent spirit among them; he ate little and slept less. “The inwardness and weight of his spirit, the reverence and solemnity of his address and behavior, the fewness and fullness of his words, have often struck even strangers with admiration,” wrote William Penn in his preface to George Fox’s Journal.

The constables, justices, priests, and ministers were not pleased with Fox and his followers. How could the authorities allow Fisher and others to stand in the market and preach as men were paid to do in churches? And Mary Fisher wore plain clothes for goodness sake! Unlike other women prophets of the time, she was void of buttons, lace, and trimming. How dare she tell nobles, merchants, and farmers they shouldn’t pay taxes to the clergy, that to pay for religious guidance was not a practice based on Scripture.

The authorities weren’t accustomed to having women, indeed servant girls, judging their behavior. It must be, thought most, that visionary women who would stand in the market cross and speak so boldly were witches or whores.

Young Dorothy Waugh, for example, had tried to preach in Carlisle. Magistrates there had put a bridle on her head and a stone weight in her mouth as punishment for speaking out in public. The bridle included a tongue plate and gag. There was a three‐inch bit with a bulb at one end and nine pins—three facing up, three facing down, and three facing back. The rusted prongs spiked through the tender tongues of women considered outspoken by the men in community positions of authority. The justices tied Waugh in the market cross, mocking her as villagers shopped and shared opinions of the day. What perhaps saved her life, according to Phyllis Mack, was her persuasive argument that she wasn’t purposely acting assertively, but was, in fact, “preaching against her will.” Feeling called by God, she could avoid the scrutiny of no one, speaking in church yards, private houses, and before the doors of Parliament. She sought to trigger the audience and propel herself into self‐reflection and inward repentance, proving the authenticity of her message by withstanding being punched, bludgeoned, whipped, and jailed.

Given the harsh punishment for women deemed a threat to the social order, it’s not surprising that Fisher was arrested for arguing with the minister of Selby shortly after her convincement by Fox. Fisher believed herself to be a human transmitter of divine knowledge. She had heard the Spirit’s command and she had to obey. The personal risk Fisher took in preaching, as well as the conditions she endured in York Castle after her arrest, are signs of the strength of her convincement. Her civil disobedience did not go unnoticed by many commoners. They saw that her inspiration was genuine and they hungered to know more about the Friends.

A year later, in 1653, Fisher traveled with Elizabeth Williams, an older woman who may have taught her to read and write. Quakerism made these women peers, no matter their previous status. Although it is unknown how the women traveled, Stevie Davies, in Impassioned Clay, suggested that it probably was on foot, down paths strewn with leaves that could hardly be considered roads. They slept in barns, pig‐troughs, and ditches; washed in streams; and ate dark bread and whimberries. Sometimes they had to break pond ice to get drinking water. They wore their hair loose, up under the wide hats of men. They wore men’s clothing as well, so they wouldn’t be beaten or raped along the roadside.

The two women walked to Cambridge, England, to argue with the young theologians at the Sidney‐Sussex College gate, although people in urban areas did not want to hear women preachers. Fisher and Fox had discussed his disdain for those educated to be ministers at Cambridge and Oxford, who thought themselves closer to the Spirit and more likely to go to heaven because of their degrees.

Fisher’s trip was probably financed by Margaret Fell with the fund she established for traveling Quakers at Swarthmoor Hall. The freedom to travel, enjoying both financial and spiritual independence, would have been new to Fisher. She and the other traveling Quaker ministers could not have made their journeys without such support. As importantly, Fisher had the spiritual endorsement of Fox and the other Quaker males. “Indeed,” wrote Phyllis Mack, “no woman presuming to address a mixed audience on political issues could have survived without male allies.”

Fisher encouraged those in her audiences to avoid ministers and priests and sit quietly instead, seeking the Spirit in their hearts. The Cambridge students rioted against her anarchy! The mayor ordered that the revolutionaries be stripped to the waist and whipped until blood ran down their backs. Sometimes female Friends were put in the stocks with their legs spread apart in an attempt to further humiliate them. Fisher and Williams were the first Friends to be publicly flogged. As they were taken to the stocks they called upon God to strengthen their faith, and in the midst of it all, they sang and rejoiced. Although their skin was badly torn, the spiritual strength Fisher and Williams demonstrated under barbarous conditions astonished and impressed those who watched.

The Cambridge beating did not stop Fisher; she continued a life of adventure and excitement as a traveling Quaker minister. In 1655 she went to Barbados and then to New England. In Boston she was held prisoner on a ship as hundreds of her books were burned and her body was searched for signs of witchcraft; she was imprisoned for six weeks. Given little opportunity to communicate with those outside the jail, she spent her time convincing her fellow inmates of Quaker beliefs! Finally Fisher was released but forced to leave.

Two years later, Fisher traveled alone to Turkey and reached Adrianople where she preached before Sultan Mohammed IV and his court. Appearing in plain dress, she told the sultan that he was the man in Europe most in need of her message. She was honorably received and departed without incident.

By 1659 Fisher was back in England, working to stop the practice of tithing. Fisher married a few years later and had three children. Eventually she sailed again to the U.S. and settled in South Carolina. According to Mack, her children and grandchildren remained Friends, and when she died her estate “included some modest property and one black slave.”

Elizabeth Fletcher

Elizabeth Fletcher was but 14 years of age when she became convinced by Fox in 1653 and began to travel as an itinerant preacher in the First Publishers of Truth. Around this time, a number of men and women were ready to leave their homes and make long journeys as Quaker ministers. They were ordinary people, not ministers with any special training, who wanted to share their new awareness. They became the heroic pioneers of the new movement, overcoming oppressors and persecutors by their invincible faith.

The youth among them (and many of them were young) had not chosen the religious paths of their parents; nor did they align themselves with one of the numerous radical sects flourishing during the 17th century—the Brownists, Independents, Baptists, Millenarians, Familists, Diggers, and Ranters. Instead, weary of doctrines, fortified with ideals and vision, and ready for the leadership opportunities and independence that early Quakerism offered, the young Friends of the 17th century joined the Quakers, taking action in their faith. An example, so common today, is their idea, novel at the time, of meeting in private homes and open fields.

This group of traveling ministers were first called Publishers of Truth and, later, the Valiant Sixty. They were a closely‐knit group united in the Spirit and possessing great confidence. Yet, according to Mack, their “desire for unity cannot be understood as that of total surrender to a charismatic leader… ; rather, it was a desire to belong to a family that was both spiritual and material, universal and concrete.” The draw was the opportunity to live an authentic life, and they took it.

“Spiritual utopia,” Phyllis Mack comments, is “a condition in which the individual had succeeded in moving beyond personal concerns and political relationships and toward a conviction of divine knowledge and a divinely sanctioned union of friends. Power, for these earliest Friends, was everywhere and nowhere. No individual or group ‘owned’ power; on the contrary, one was ‘in’ the power only insofar as one had transcended individual identity or class loyalty. The word ‘freedom,’ for them, meant freedom from self and from the bonds between the self and society.”

Early Friends were very loyal to each other. They had a profound sense of community. Arrest records mention Friends who were jailed even though they didn’t speak but because they accompanied another and stood beside a traveling Quaker minister while he or she worked. Women who traveled together were often from the same villages and remained together for years.

The lives of early Friends, writes Phyllis Mack, “were conducted in a sort of gravity‐free zone, in which personal relationships attained a fluidity impossible to achieve ‘in the flesh.’ ” William Braithwaite, in The Beginnings of Quakerism, describes their friendships as “intense” as they spoke of a “fresh truth.” The traveling youth regarded themselves as “the Seed of God, springing up in the midst of a perverse generation” with a message of hope for the future. The Truth, writes Braithwaite, “burned within them and demanded expression in speech and action.”

Sometimes the traveling Quaker ministers worked alone, but as Cecil W. Sharman writes in George Fox and the Quakers, they often traveled in pairs, not only to further their work, but to give each other companionship and first aid when assaulted. “They were sometimes impatient, often overeager, and occasionally foolish in the means they took to catch public attention,” yet they “remained remarkably clear,” avoiding arrogance.

In 1654, Fletcher traveled with Elizabeth Leavens, another young Friend, to preach in Oxford. Little is known about the two, although Mack reports Leavens was poor. Thus we might assume Fletcher’s parents were not indebted and she was not working as a servant when convinced. Perhaps, given her reserved personality, Fletcher sought a life away from the scrutiny of her neighbors.

Fletcher and Leavens were the first Quakers to preach in Oxford, and the trip provided them with a freedom to travel together and to make decisions as they chose. While in Oxford, the two modest, grave young women were led to go naked through the streets, contrary to their will or inclination. “Naked,” clarifies Sharman, “meant wearing at least loincloth or vest, and sometimes having the company of another Friend formally carrying the discarded garments.”

Richard Robinson, Elizabeth Fletcher, Elizabeth Holme, and other young Publishers of Truth took a passage from Isaiah 20 and Micah 1:8 (to walk naked) literally, believing that the most potent example of faith was given to them in their daily lives. Their action was a testimony to Truth by signs and a desire to show that Cromwell and his parliament and priests would be stripped of their power because they shrank from obedience to the Spirit. The women believed that their convictions were being tested. They were concerned with proclaiming Truth at all costs; this power of Quakerism, to penetrate the whole of life, was, according to William Braithwaite, “the greatest of its credentials.”

For preaching as they did, Fletcher and Leavens were chased down by college students who flogged, beat, and bashed them, tying them back to back and pumping water over them repeatedly, until they were almost dead. The mayor of Oxford, however, refused to be a consenting party in the brutality. Mack notes that Quaker women “surely suffered more theatrically, if not more harshly, than men, if only because the sight of seeing a woman stripped naked and whipped … had a different social and sexual resonance than the sight of a man in the same cruel position.”

When Fletcher was 16 years old, she went to work in Ireland with the scars from her brutal flogging still visible. She and her companion were caught by authorities when crossing from England to Ireland and sent to prison. The friendship of the women sustained them while incarcerated as well as in their ministry. Upon release they stayed for a while to preach, but Fletcher never completely recovered from the injuries she received in Oxford. She continued to travel as a minister, however, until the deterioration of her health caused her to be sent home. She died at 19 years of age.

Conclusion

The remarkable 17th‐century Quaker youth and young adult Friends demonstrated a compassion that was unusual for others of their age. Elfrida Vipont Foulds, in The Story of Quakerism, suggests that they were “enthusiasts”; their conversions, and subsequent actions, “suggesting a state not unlike that of having fallen deeply in love.” Margaret Bacon, in Mothers of Feminism, writes that the early Quakers were vigorous and enthusiastic young men and women, who with youthful exuberance endured persecution and kept up their efforts to spread their message wherever they could. They were inspired pamphleteers and issued a stream of faith statements and challenges to their critics. They were also great travelers, going up and down England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and over to Holland and Germany. The stories told here were told again and again, the retelling providing inspiration for those, then and now, in pursuit of their spiritual journey.

Barbara Luetke-Stahlman, a member of Penn Valley Meeting in Kansas City, Mo., lives in Wilson, N.C. Material for this article is drawn from her book 17th Century Remarkable Quaker Youth. For this essay she has relied heavily on Phyllis Mack's Visionary Women: Ecstatic Prophecy in Seventeenth-Century England (Univ. of California Press, 1992).

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