Mary Penington’s name is usually mentioned first because she was married to Isaac, and secondarily as mother of Gulielma, William Penn’s first wife. I encourage you to make her acquaintance in her own right, however, because she was a brave, articulate, and fervent spirit whose autobiography is good reading and who gives good company to the modern seeker.
Born into a Protestant knightly family, Mary was orphaned early and fostered by a good family of moderate piety. While thriving under the kindness of her foster family, Mary was engaged from youth in a search for an authentic spiritual life. It is significant that the first Scripture verse she recalls is the beatitude, "Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled." This stands as a motto for the most significant thread in her life thereafter: consistently, it is the depth and life of prayer that is Mary’s main concern.
Her search took her into Puritanism, causing tension with her family; but her foster mother’s son, William Springett, was led into the same kind of search, and he and Mary found deep companionship in a brief, loving marriage. William was lost to "a consumption," and their infant son to an early death. Mary bore their daughter, Gulielma, a few months later, and entered a period of alternating fervency and dissatisfaction. Not finding relief in all her religious exercises, she passed into a time of self-indulgence, though she found no rest: "I frequented . . . places of pleasure, where vain people resort to show themselves and to see others in the like excess of folly in apparel, riding about from place to place, in the airy mind. But in the midst of all this, my heart was constantly sad, and pained beyond expression. . . . To all this excess and folly I was not hurried by being captivated by such things, but sought in them relief from the discontent of my mind."
Her seeking was not finished by her happy second marriage to Isaac Penington, already a mature scholar and seeker of wide experience. Neither had yet found rest in the Spirit among all the crowding sects and preachers of the age, of which they tasted broadly. Together they sought a sense of truth, and explored into the nature of life under the deeper and more radi-cally open guidance of the Spirit. Mary was gifted with powerful dreams in which she believed she saw a foreshadowing of her later encounter with Friends, inviting her to meet with Christ, a wise and welcoming companion.
The first few times the Peningtons met Friends, they were intrigued by their direct earnestness, but put off by their roughness. Furthermore, Isaac, a deeply learned and controversial writer, was inclined to engage these simple apostles at an intellectual level, and easily overcame them in dispute. As Mary wrote about one encounter, "my husband [being] too hard for him in the fleshly wisdom." Yet something kept the Peningtons interested. It was characteristic of Mary to feel that in shared prayer she would be able to test the quality of this new revelation: "Though I despised these people, I had sometimes a desire to go to one of their meetings, if I could, unknown, and hear them pray, for I was quite weary of doctrines; but I believed if I was with them when they prayed, I should be able to feel whether they were of the Lord or not."
In about 1658, the Peningtons made their commitment to the movement. While Isaac became a prolific writer and public Friend, Mary managed a household that became almost a southern Swarthmoor Hall, a place of hospitality and refuge. During the ensuing 20 years, Isaac was imprisoned six times, totaling about five years, for refusing oaths and hat honor, among other things. In legal battles, their estate in Chalfont was taken away. Resourceful and resilient, Mary managed the purchase and refurbishment of a run-down cottage, once again establishing the Penington center of gravity. She and Isaac continued to provide counsel and comfort to Friends and seekers until his death in 1679. Her lament for him preserves the memory of a time of poverty of spirit, before their settlement as Children of the Light, and it says much about what she sought and what she loved in the life of the spirit:
Oh the heavenly, bright, living openings that were given thee! God’s light shone round about thee. Such a state as I have never known of in any other, have I heard thee declare of. But this it did please the Lord to withdraw, and leave thee desolate and mourning. . . . In that state I married thee; my love was drawn to thee because I found thou sawest the deceit of all notions. . . . This little testimony to thy hidden life, my dear and precious one . . . have I stammered out, that it might not be forgotten. . . . They who are strong, and overcome the evil one, and are fathers in Israel have declared of thy life in God, and have published it in many testimonies. . . . My bosom one! My guide and counsellor! My pleasant companion! My tender sympathizing friend! Yeah, this great help and benefit is gone!
. . . Such was the great kindness the Lord showed me in that hour, that my spirit ascended with him that very moment the spirit left his body, and I saw him safe in his own mansion, and rejoiced with him there. From this sight, my spirit returned again to perform my duty to his outward tabernacle.
Mary continued a little longer, dying in 1682.
For further reading
Mary Penington’s own account, with a useful introduction, is in print as Experiences in the life of Mary Penington (written by herself): the spiritual autobiography of Mary Penington c 1625-1682 , edited by Norman Penney (1911), reprinted by Friends Historical Soc., 1992. Maria Webb, in Penns and Peningtons, wrote an account of early Quakerism through intertwined biographies of Mary and Isaac Penington, and William and Gulielma Penn. Finally, Douglas Gwynn’s Seekers Found has a chapter on the Peningtons that puts them in the context of the spiritual ferment of the 1600s, and makes clear how the Quaker Gospel came as daybreak to these deep souls.