My abiding goal in these columns is to direct readers’ attention to important spiritual resources within the Quaker tradition. Margaret Fell is a vivid figure in the rise of Quakerism and a powerful voice from the Quaker dawn. She also lived to oppose the move towards rigid discipline in "dress and address" that arose by the early 1700s that could masquerade as righteousness. In hearing her, we are called to consider again what our own essential spiritual understandings and commitments are.
Thomas Hamm has suggested that Margaret Fell was the single most important convert Fox ever made. As the wife of a respected judge, and minor gentry, she was able to gain access to the King’s ear on numerous occasions—and she had the force, character, and intelligence to make effective use of that access, to plead for mercy for Friends during decades of persecution. Perhaps even more important, however, was her role in the correspondence and record-keeping that substantially enabled the early Quaker impulse to take shape as a movement. Many of the publishers of Truth wrote to her, or to each other through her. In this correspondence, they clearly valued her spiritual in-sight and good sense as well as her executive capabilities, and they trusted her because she shared in the work of preaching, and of witness in prison and persecution. Swarthmoor Hall also became the hub for aid and support from Friends to Friends, with many different wants supplied from the funds solicited and managed by her, and by her capable daughters and household. It is not surprising that during the time that George Fox, her mentor and eventually her husband, was establishing the basic meeting structure under which Quakers still operate, she was a steady and passionate advocate for good order and process, including the establishment of women’s meetings. At the same time, until her death in 1702, she advocated the freedom of the Spirit of Christ, which she found utterly reliable as the source of real unity: "continue hand in hand in the unity of fellowship of this Eternal Spirit in humility and lowliness of mind, each affirming others better than ourselves."
The excerpts from her writings that are available show us the substance that made her community-building role effective. In these writings, important facets emerge that deserve to be better known as polemicist, as publisher of Truth, and as advocate in time of sufferings.
Margaret Fell engaged in vigorous arguments in print against opponents of Quakerism. In this, she reveals herself to be confident, articulate, and fierce. In a time of unrestrained raillery, she was as free in denunciation as any. (There is a famous short letter from her daughter Margaret, excoriating the local preacher in terms rather bloodthirsty for a 10-year-old — was this what she was used to hearing around the house, or at meeting?) Yet as in the truculent passages of George Fox and James Nayler, Margaret Fell is directing her fire against entrenched prejudice and complacency, with the intent of shattering comfort to allow for the work of the Light of Christ to be perceived. In a tract pleading for religion rooted in the Spirit itself, rather than in human teachings based on Scripture once given forth by the Spirit, she writes: "Now let the people seriously consider what they will venture their souls upon, for it is not a deceitful, lying spirit that will feed the soul. It is the Spirit of life and truth that nourishes. . . . Here is the chief difference between them and us: they have the words and declaration of Christ and the apostles, declared from the Spirit of life; we have the Spirit which these words were declared from . . . the same Christ . . . which all the Christians in Christendom confess in words, do we bear testimony of in the Spirit of life and power."
Two of her greatest apologetic tracts are those on the Peace Testimony, and on women speaking in the ministry. Her statement on Friends opposition to war, its sources and implications, preceded the famous statement of 1661 by half a year. It is a trenchant piece, which places the testimony squarely in the context of Christ’s life and example, but also of Christ’s current and immediate teaching, in whose light the Scriptural record reveals its true meanings. "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. [We] do deny and bear our testimony against all strife, wars, and contentions that come from the lusts that war in the members; that war against the soul, that we wait for, and watch for, in all people."
Her tract on "Women’s Speaking Justified" is apparently the first systematic treatment of this topic by a woman Friend. Once again, she skillfully adduces Scriptural precedent, but then rests her argument firmly on the experience of the Quaker community, in which women’s ministry has been experienced as authentic Gospel ministry, arising from the Spirit, speaking to the Life of God in the other, and turning the hearer to that inward Teacher, or confirming him or her in their walk with God.
Advocate and Lobbyist
Fell was often prosecuted for holding worship in her house, for not swearing, for attending Quaker "conventicles," and other similar charges. She knew well the inside of a prison, having many times found herself there, once for almost four years. During all her years as a Friend, she was constant in decrying misrule, cruel treatment of the innocent, and the punishment of Friends for conscience’ sake. King Charles II became well acquainted with her, both in person and by letter, and thanks to her work, many Friends survived during the stormy years between 1660 and 1689. From a letter to Charles [spelling as in the original]: "I that am above Seventy years of Age, am come up above Two hundred miles in this wett, cold winter, to Lay before the King my sufferings and some other poor people’s, that meet with me in my own house and country. . . . I humbly desire the King would be pleased to . . . afford us Relief according to the Innocency of our Cause; we being a people that desire nothing but the king and all his peoples good & happiness in this World and that which is to come."
Publisher of Truth
All of Margaret’s activities are part of her work under concern, on behalf of the Truth as discovered by Friends. Some of her concern was for the establishing of Friends in their new convincement, and supporting them in their growth in the Spirit. Many of her letters are written to that end, showing her understanding that inner as well as outer conditions can take us by surprise and tempt us to rely more on human strength and manoeuvering than on the guidance of the Light to see us through. As do other early Friends, she recognizes how often we think we know best, and in reaching beyond our current
measure of Light we are more liable to faint and fail. "Examine now, and try whether you are gathering now, or scattering abroad . . . come down and stoop to the Yoak of Christ . . . and beware of starting from under the Yoak of Obedience . . . for the Lord God requires not only Sacrifice, but Obedience, which is better. And that Mind that [read: "mind that which"] looks outward, from the measure enjoyed, and joins to anything without, contrary to the freedom of the Spirit. . . . Keep in the Light which is one, in the Power, which is one, 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."
For Further Reading
Still the best short source for Fell’s life and writing is Hugh Barbour’s Pendle Hill Pamphlet #206, Margaret Fell Speaking, which includes substantial excerpts from her Account of her own life. If you want to read more of her writings, a good anthology is A Sincere and Constant Love, edited by Terry S. Wallace, which includes selections from several of Margaret Fell’s tracts and displays her work as polemicist and publisher of Truth — an important piece in this collection is her effective piece on the Peace Testimony. Most recently, Elsa Glines has published a complete collection of Margaret Fell’s letters, in which all sides of her personality are accessible. The collection, entitled Undaunted Zeal, includes notes on the context of each letter, enabling the reader to know something about why it was written, and about the person to whom it was addressed.
Biographies: I would recommend an old standby still in print, Isabel Ross’s Margaret Fell, Mother of Quakerism. Although this was published in 1949, it remains an extensive, charmingly written example of "biography as narrative." I think most people would enjoy it, and from it learn a lot about Fell, early Quakerism, and indeed life in the 17th century. Bonnelyn Young Kunze’s Margaret Fell and the Rise of Quakerism (1994) is much more the work of a modern, professional historian. Kunz takes advantage of recent scholarship on Fell, Quakerism, and the times, but there are places in which the jargon of modern social theorizing intrudes on the prose. Both biographies include important chapters on Fell’s concern for the conversion of the Jews, a concern she shared with George Fox and Isaac Penington. In Search of Margaret Fell by Judith Hayden is a moving meditation, in part about Fell, but also about the author’s spiritual journey, and how her learning about and consciousness of Margaret contributed to that journey.