By Margaret Fell, edited by Jane Donawerth and Rebecca M. Lush. Iter Press and the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2018. 223 pages. $39.95/paperback.
I was thrilled to be asked to review Margaret Fell’s writings in Women’s Speaking Justified and Other Pamphlets because I often feel as though I do not have the same depth of knowledge about Quaker history as do many others in my meeting. Although I already knew that Margaret Fell had been an influential early Friend, I learned on the very first page that she was married to George Fox in her later life. I also learned a good bit about what motivated not only Fell but early Friends in general. I learned that Fell was an architect of Friends’ strong belief that the Second Coming was in progress and that they were approaching the end of days.
When Fell refers to the Light, she is referring specifically to Christ manifested in the conscience. She knew the Bible by heart, and much if not most of her writing refers to Bible verses. Early Friends believed that reading was an experience of continuing revelation, which empowers readers to find understanding of the Bible for themselves. Because of that lens, Fell, at times, leaves out passages from the Bible that do not support the points she is making.
The editors give important context for the essays, and my only critique would be that their introduction to all of her essays is contained in the first chapter of the book rather than before each pamphlet. This format requires a bit more work on the reader’s part. Women’s Speaking Justified and Other Pamphlets contains a range of Fell’s writings and offers a powerful window into the early days of Quakerism.
I loved the places where I saw my Quaker faith reflected in Fell’s writing. This was particularly powerful as Fell wrote about the Light. Some of my favorite lines were: “turn to the Light, wait in the Light, keep your minds within to the Light, and walk in the Light”; “lay your foundation in the Light”; and “let [the Light] be your teacher, and leader, and guider.” I admire Fell’s consistency. During a period in which banishment was the penalty for holding Quaker meetings, Fell never shied away from speaking the truth. While on trial, she spoke to the importance of keeping her conscience clear, and said, “I must offer and tender my life, and all, for my testimony, if it be required of me.” It became clear as I read the book that Quakerism was able to survive its fraught early years in England in part because of Fell’s brave commitment to her faith, as she continued to push for the rights of other Friends even after spending years in jail herself because of her unwillingness to compromise her beliefs. Although only two pieces of Fell’s writing in the book focus explicitly on the role of women, the whole of her life as depicted through the text reads as a convincing argument for equity.
Not all of Fell’s writing has aged well. Her clarity on her own faith led her to speak harshly to and about people of other faiths. Some of the lines directed at non-Quaker Christians that were hardest to read were: “all your righteousness shall be spread as dung upon your faces; it is as filthy rags”; “the Lord abhors all your vain profession and hypocrisy”; and “with your unclean hearts and spirits . . . your day of lamentation and howling is coming upon you: ye cannot escape.” The editors explain that the sentiments contained in the pamphlet addressed to Jewish people are moderate for the time, but that is hard to imagine with lines such as, “Hardness of heart and unbelief hath been your ruin”; “This is a rebellious people, lying children, children that will not hear the law of the Lord” (Isaiah 30:9); and “This has been your sin all along—you would not believe the Lord when he spoke to you.” She does clarify in one pamphlet that she is chastising people from other religions out of a sense of love and responsibility. Although she quotes Scripture in one pamphlet that Jesus Christ “lighteth every man that cometh into the world” (John 1:9), much of her own writing critiques people of other faiths in a way that feels disconnected from the more inclusive expressions of Quakerism I have grown to know and love.
I enjoyed reading Fell’s writings both for the ways they resonated with my own spiritual life, and for the fact that the disconnects I felt show how continuing revelation allows for experiences of Quaker faith and practice to shift over time.
Fell’s confidence in her own faith and its biblical foundations are impressive, as is reading about the ways she literally spoke truth to the powers of the time, from judges to kings. May we all learn from the Light she knew.