Mary Fisher: Maidservant Turned Prophet

When Friends in Moscow recently designed a postcard to share the message of Quakerism, the 17th-century Quaker they chose to portray was not George Fox or Margaret Fell. Rather, it was the servant Mary Fisher. The image on the card shows the silhouette of a young woman in a long skirt and a cap. Swirling around are her thoughts as she responds to the idea that she can turn directly to her inward teacher, Jesus Christ, and do God’s prophetic work.

“Even a serving maid?” she wonders.

Mary Fisher was a 27-year-old indentured servant when George Fox came and preached in the house where she worked. All members of the Tomlinson household—master, mistress, children, and servants—were touched by the spiritual power coming through the prophetic young man and convinced of his radical message. Mistress Tomlinson soon thereafter went through the streets of Selby preaching, and her servant, Mary, was equally inspired. Mistress and servant were only two of hundreds of women in the first decades of Quakerism who shared the message by preaching in public places or by publishing writings. However, Mary Fisher was among the most ardent and gifted of the early Quaker traveling ministers who were often called the Valiant Sixty. She became a pioneer in taking the message to Cambridge, Barbados, and Boston, and she was the only one to deliver it personally to the Sultan of Turkey.

Illiterate, like most women of her class in that time, Mary became a living testimony to the Scripture of Joel 2:28-29: “In those times I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy. . . . Upon thy servants and upon thy handmaidens will I pour out my Spirit and they shall prophesy.” Quakers saw the spiritual and charismatic power that was poured upon their movement as fulfillment of this Scripture that all could be given the gift of prophecy, even those of the lowest social status. Full of prophetic powers himself, George Fox had been traveling from town to town in his leather clothes and straw hat, preaching, among other things, about the call to live in the same spirit and power that had moved the prophets and apostles. He didn’t read prepared sermons, but waited until moved inwardly to speak or pray; then he seemed filled with the Holy Spirit, with an ability to bring his listeners into contact with the same divine power that was inspiring him. Like the Hebrew prophets, Fox preached the need to reform every aspect of life, starting with the forms of worship but extending to decent wages for servants, care of the poor, and legal justice for all.

Fox encouraged all to likewise become prophets and modern-day apostles, women as well as men. Fox and the early Quakers countered the widespread use in church and society of the few passages in Paul’s letters that tell women to be silent in the church and not to teach, pointing to other passages by Paul that affirm the spiritual equality of women and men and that make reference to women teachers, deaconesses, and prophets. Scripture clearly allows that the gift of prophecy can be given both to men and women. By defining their preaching as prophecy—words given them by God or Christ to speak—early Quaker women ministers claimed not only that their ministry was from a divine source, but also that it was supported by Scripture. Women as well as men were worthy vessels and could be inspired to speak just as the prophets and apostles had been. This message liberated women to exercise spiritual gifts and minister in powerful ways, out of their own direct spiritual experience, speaking and writing with spiritual authority. One of Fox’s first spiritual insights was that it was not a seminary education that qualified a person for the ministry, but rather “Christ that made his ministers and gave gifts unto them.”

Her Imprisonment in York

Mary Fisher’s story is recounted by Mabel Richmond Brailsford in Quaker Women 1650-1690. After her conversion, the young servant woman quickly started proclaiming the Quaker message. She chastised the local priest and was promptly arrested and thrust into York castle prison. The dungeon was a horrible place, but being imprisoned there was a blessing for her: she spent a year there in the company of some wise and loving fellow Quakers, including Elizabeth Hooton, Jane Holmes, and Thomas Aldam. They became mothers, sisters, brothers, and teachers to Mary. Together they worshiped, told their spiritual stories, shared experiences of proclaiming the Truth, discussed Quaker beliefs, and encouraged each other’s faith. In Elizabeth Hooton: First Quaker Woman Preacher 1600-1672, author Emily Manners quotes a letter by Thomas Aldam, about a joint appearance of the Quaker prisoners before a magistrate: “My sisters was made to speak in great boldness at the Bench against the deceit of their corrupt laws & governments & deceitful priests.” His letter continued, “We are kept all of us in great freedom in these outward bonds, & the Lord is present with us in power; to him alone be praises for ever and ever.”

Elizabeth Hooton and Jane Holmes took it upon themselves to teach Mary Fisher how to read and write. Her first written sentence was: “Woe now to the unjust judge.” She criticized the justice system that meted out harsher punishments to the poor than to the rich. When three horse thieves in York prison were condemned to hang to death, Mary wrote a letter to the judge which is quoted by Phyllis Mack in Visionary Women: “Thou doth . . . contrary to that in thy conscience which tells thee thee should not put any to death for the creature. . . . Lay it to heart and let the oppressed go free. . . . Written by one who desires the good of all people Mary Fisher prisoner . . . who cryeth for justice and true judgement without partiality.” Perhaps influenced by Mary’s letter, the judge granted a reprieve to two of the three thieves.

As the Quakers saw it, the religious system in their time was as oppressive as the justice system. People were not being taught about the presence of divine guidance available to them directly, but instead told to look only outwardly to priests, Scripture, prayer books, and rituals. They felt this imprisoned the seed of Christ within people and that the whole system of seminaries, state Church, and mandatory payment of tithes was counter to the will of God. In the English social system, oldest sons inherited all the land and most of the money. In order to have a stable income and respected profession, many younger sons, even of wealthy families, chose to become ministers, even if they had no natural inclination for it. Quakers spoke of such men as “hireling priests.” The five Friends imprisoned in the dungeon of York castle all signed a tract entitled, False Prophets and False Teachers Described.

Preaching in Cambridge

In the fall of 1653, after being released from the York prison, Mary Fisher felt called to travel southward to Cambridge, one of the two university towns where young men received a seminary education. Elizabeth Williams, 50 years old, felt called to travel as a partner or “yokemate” to Mary, who was still in her 20s. These two slowly made their way southward, walking from town to town and spreading the Quaker message: a sharp condemnation of all they believed contrary to the Spirit of Christ, including empty rituals and corrupt practices, and an invitation to be taught and guided directly by the Spirit of Christ, or the Light, which they could find by looking into their own conscience. Some nights Mary and Elizabeth may have found shelter in the homes of people interested in their message. When no welcome was extended, they stayed at a public inn along the way, paying out of the modest supply of money they carried. They were trying to follow the advice of Jesus to his disciples: travel in pairs to share the good news and take nothing extra with you. They experienced Christ as traveling with them, the bridegroom he had described himself to be. He had suffered persecution for Truth’s sake, and they were willing to suffer with him, if necessary, to bring the good news that Christ could teach each person directly.

Friends had not before ventured to take the radical Quaker message to England’s seminaries. The story of what happened when Mary and Elizabeth reached Cambridge is told in Joseph Besse’s A Collection of the Sufferings of the People Called Quakers, Vol. 1. The two women found themselves in front of Sidney Sussex College, the seminary favored by Puritans. Speaking boldly, the Quakers denounced the intellectual preparation for paid ministry taught in the college. The privileged young men gathered around them in astonishment; they had been taught that scholarship was necessary to confer the special power needed for the profession of ministry. Women were forbidden to preach or teach, yet here were two plain, uneducated females preaching to them and claiming that the seminary system was not in keeping with God’s will. In a spirit of frivolity, the youths laughed, made fun of the women, and asked stupid questions. This provoked even more fiery condemnation from Mary and Elizabeth, who felt emboldened in their stature as modern-day prophets. The women began to use stark and shocking images typical of religious debate at that time, telling the young men that “they were Antichrists, and that their College was a Cage of unclean Birds,” a reference to Babylon from the Book of Revelations. Unable to answer these shocking charges, some of the students ran to complain to the mayor that two women were preaching.

The mayor came with a constable, who asked Mary and Elizabeth questions designed to prove they were in violation of the old Elizabethan law for the “Punishment of Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars,” a law recently revived in order to provide the legal means to punish traveling Quakers. When asked where they had spent the previous night, the women answered that they had paid for a room in an inn. When asked their names, they answered that “their Names were written in the Book of Life.” When asked their husbands’ names, they responded that “they had no Husband but Jesus Christ, and he sent them.” These answers so outraged the mayor of Cambridge that he called them whores and issued a warrant for them to be whipped at the marketplace “till the Blood ran down their Bodies.” Mary and Elizabeth kneeled down in front of him and, in imitation of Christ at his crucifixion, prayed for God to forgive the mayor, “for he knew not what he did.”

As they were led away, the two Quaker ministers prayed aloud for God to strengthen their faith. The executioner demanded they take off their clothes. When they refused, their upper garments were ripped off and they were stripped naked to the waist, their arms pinned in the whipping post. According to Besse’s account, the constable “executed the Mayor’s Warrant far more cruelly than is usually done to the worst of Malefactors, so that their flesh was miserably cut and torn.” Convinced that they were sharing the suffering of Christ, for his sake, the Quaker women received spiritual strength to endure this abuse with fortitude: “The Constancy and Patience which they expressed under this barbarous Usage was astonishing to the Beholders, for they endured the cruel Torture without the least Change of Countenance or Appearance of Uneasiness, and in the midst of their punishment sang and rejoiced, saying: ‘The Lord be blessed, the Lord be praised, who hath thus honoured us, and strengthened us thus to suffer for his Name’s sake.'” It was December. They washed the blood off each other’s torn flesh afterward, with icy water from the marketplace fountain. No witnesses dared offer any sort of aid. Cold and bloody, the two women were rudely accompanied to the edge of town. They told the bystanders to fear God, not human beings. “This is but the beginning of the sufferings of the people of God,” Mary proclaimed. It was the first time that Quakers had been publicly flogged, and her prediction of Quaker suffering to follow proved all too true.

Violent and unjust public persecution sometimes brings about spiritual transformation in witnesses. As Brailsford tells, the justices of Cambridge later drew up a testimony to repudiate having had any part in the savage deed: “These are to give notice to all Men, that none of the justices of the Town had any hand in this barbarous and unlawful Act, saving Mr. William Pickering, Mayor.” One of the town’s aldermen, James Blackly, became a Quaker, and future traveling Friends received protection from town authorities. When George Fox came, he was invited to hold a meeting in the home of a subsequent mayor. Many of the seminary students, however, continued to be vicious persecutors of Quakers, entering meetings for worship and violently abusing the worshipers.

Six months after Mary Fisher and Elizabeth Williams took the Quaker message to Cambridge, two very young Quaker women, both named Elizabeth, felt God leading them to preach a similar message in Oxford. These two were physically and verbally assaulted with shocking violence by seminary students before being whipped by the authorities. Fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Fletcher never recovered her physical or emotional health, and died within two years. Mary Fisher’s experience at Cambridge left scars all over her back, but her experience, unlike young Elizabeth Fletcher’s, seemed to strengthen her. While the two were being whipped, Mary and her companion had felt a powerful sense of being upheld by the Spirit and companioned by Christ, a feeling overriding and outlasting the pain of being whipped.

Her Second Imprisonment

After preaching in Cambridge, Mary did not return to her employment at the Tomlinson household. Though she was an indentured servant owing years of service, the family had released her for travel in the ministry. She went to bring the Quaker message to her hometown, Protefrett. There she was arrested for speaking critically to the priest and put back in York Castle prison, where two of her previous Quaker companions were happy to welcome her back. For a while Mary was able to pay the fee to share a private cell with fellow Quaker Jane Holmes, but when Mary’s money ran out, she was put in the large common room, where 60 Dutch soldiers, prisoners of war, were crowded together with many others unable to pay for a private cell. Because the soldiers were making rough sexual advances on Mary, Thomas Aldam offered her money to pay for a private cell. But like other Quaker ministers of her time, Mary had been learning experientially about the transforming power that can be released in accepting suffering in the cause of Truth. What she did next was a kind of ministry not taught in seminaries of the time; sensitized now to the inequality in which prisoners with money got better quarters than those with none, she refused Aldam’s gift.

Touched by her suffering and her witness against injustice, Aldam felt God speaking to him, telling him to give away his own money, with which he had been paying for a private cell for himself. When he, too, was put into the common hold with Mary and the Dutch prisoners of war, his sacrifice made such an impression on the rough soldiers, as well as on the unfriendly jailers, that the abuse of Mary Fisher stopped. In a letter to Margaret Fell quoted by Brailsford, Thomas Aldam recorded the change he saw in her: “She is much grown in the power since her last Imprisonment.”

Travel to Barbados and Boston

In 1655, at age 30, Mary Fisher felt called to take the Quaker message across the ocean to the Puritans in Massachusetts. Once an illiterate maidservant, she now was an experienced Quaker traveling minister. She burned with the desire to share as widely as possible the liberating news that the Light of Christ is present to each person directly, without need for intermediaries. With 50-year-old Ann Austin, mother of five children, as companion, she boarded a ship for the long voyage. They stopped on the island of Barbados and spent some months preaching and converting many to the Quaker faith, both wealthy white people and enslaved Africans, seeding a Quaker community on an island that was to become an important stopping point for Quakers traveling to the North American continent.

In July 1656, Mary and Ann sailed into Boston harbor on the Swallow. Their trunk contained 100 Quaker books and pamphlets. However, virulently anti- Quaker tracts written by Puritan ministers in England had preceded them across the ocean. The leading Boston government officials and ministers were convinced that Quakers were dangerous heretics who should not be allowed to infect the colony with their ideas. One of the women said “thee” to an official on board ship, thereby identifying herself as a Quaker. Mary and Ann’s luggage was searched. Their books and tracts were seized from their trunks and declared to contain “Heretical and blasphemous Doctrines, contrary to the Truth of the Gospel here professed among us.” The Quaker literature was burned in the town marketplace.

The women had violated no law, but nonetheless they were escorted directly to prison for being Quakers. Boston had begun executing women for witchcraft, including the sister-in-law of deputy-governor Richard Bellingham, who now ordered that the two women be stripped “stark naked” and their bodies searched for signs of the Devil. Ann Austin said she suffered more trauma from that search than from giving birth to any of her five children. Fortunately, neither woman’s body contained a strange mole or other irregular mark that would have served as justification to condemn her to death.

To prevent communication with any townspeople, their prison window was boarded over, and they were deprived of their writing materials. They were given no food. A Boston citizen, an old man named Nicholas Upsall, felt compassion when he heard they were being starved, and he bribed the jailer five shillings a week to be allowed to send in food for them. Somehow the women were able to reciprocate by giving him the spiritual food he had been hungering for. Nicholas Upsall became the first Boston convert to Quakerism. Before being banished from the colony for his protest of the treatment of Quakers, he would befriend and also save the lives of subsequent groups of Friends who arrived.

Mary Fisher and Ann Austin were the first of a flowing stream of Quakers led to what was soon called “the lion’s den.” After five weeks, they were taken out of prison and put back on the Swallow for its return voyage to Barbados. The shipmaster was ordered to take them back at his own expense. Only two days later, a boat called the Speedwell came into Boston harbor carrying eight more Quakers. In Barbados, Mary and Ann spent several more months holding meetings and preaching Quakerism to receptive listeners.

Visit to Turkey

The Quakers wanted to spread their message throughout the world. Having been a pioneer in taking the Quaker message to Cambridge, Barbados, and Boston, Mary Fisher was ready to travel to places where she didn’t speak the language, starting with Holland. Then she began to hear that God wanted her to take the message as far east as she had gone west, all the way to the man considered by most Christians to be the most evil and dangerous person on earth: the Sultan of Turkey. The Turkish pirates and armies were fearsome and known for ruthless cruelty, even to their own people. Nonetheless, Mary felt moved to share the liberating Quaker message directly with the Sultan.

Six Friends joined together to travel to Turkey: John Perrot, John Luffe, and John Buckley from Ireland, and Beatrice Beckly, Mary Fisher, and Mary Prince from England. Both Marys had traveled to Boston and endured prison and punishment there. Except for Perrot, who knew Italian, none spoke a foreign language. Trusting God, they set sail from England in the summer of 1657, traveling south along the coast of Europe then through the Straits of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean Sea. Most likely they worshiped and prayed together daily. The English Agent at the Italian seaport of Livorno was kind, and they were befriended by a French merchant who interpreted for them. Their preaching to the local people was met with hostility, except for one group of Jews they visited in the local synagogue. John Perrot was called before the Inquisition, but eventually the party was allowed to sail.

In Smyrna, Turkey, Luffe preached publicly to the local Turks and Jews, and was received with much hostility. The English Consul was kind but opposed the Quakers’ plan to visit the Sultan, certain it would do no good for English relations with the Turks. He tricked them into getting on a ship headed toward Venice. Mary Prince remained behind a few weeks, returning home to England via a later boat to Venice.

It must have been with heavy hearts that the five Friends on board ship saw the coast of Turkey vanish in the distance, their mission not yet accomplished. The call to deliver a message to the Sultan had been like a steady drum beating inside Mary for over a year. She didn’t see how her God-given mission could be thwarted by the trick of an English Consul. As they headed north in the Ionian Sea, the ship encountered a terrifying storm. A fierce wind brought them back south and Mary Fisher begged the Captain to pull into port on the island of Zakinos. There Mary, Beatrice, and John Buckley got off the boat. John Perrot and John Luffe, however, decided to continue to Venice. Once there, they traveled to Rome, where they were imprisoned by the Inquisition. After an interview with the pope, John Luffe was condemned for heresy and hanged. John Perrot was put into a madhouse, where he spent three years before being released.

Meanwhile, on Zakinos, Mary, Beatrice, and John Buckley had different ideas about how to travel to the Sultan. Buckley wanted to sail to Istanbul (Constantinople), while Mary thought it best to travel toward Edirne (Adrianople). A tale was long told that Mary traveled alone on foot across the Peloponnesian Peninsula, through the Greek mainland and Macedonia, crossing the mountains of Thrace. It is possible, however, that Beatrice accompanied Mary for part of the distance from Zakinos to Edirne and that they may have taken a boat around Greece before traveling by foot. In any case, Mary was the only one of the original party of six known to arrive in Edirne, where the Sultan was camped.

Meeting with the Sultan

In a history of Turkey at that time, Paul Rycaut, Consul of Smyrna, described impoverished and fearful peasants who nonetheless would give a humble and warm welcome to strangers who proved harmless. Though Mary did not speak the language, she traveled safely through territory considered treacherous.

In late spring 1658, about a year after leaving England, Mary arrived at Edirne, where the Sultan and 20,000 of his soldiers were camped in 2,000 tents. The lofty tents of the Sultan and his Grand Vizier in the center of the encampment were magnificently luxurious. In her plain dress, much worn from a year of travel by boat and foot, Mary Fisher, aged 35, walked toward the center of the tents. Her efforts to find an introduction to the Sultan were frustrated. Standing behind the Sultan at every public event was his executioner, sword in hand, ready to quickly remove the head of anyone who caused the Sultan displeasure. Should Mary and her message not find favor with the young man who ruled all Turkey, she and any-one who had introduced her, would lose their heads.

The Sultan of Turkey, Mahomet the Fourth, was then in his late teens. His armies were under the direction of the Grand Vizier, Kupruli the Elder. In five years of government, Kupruli had caused 36,000 people to be strangled for not entirely submitting to his authority. A misogynist, he was nonetheless the only one who might not risk his life by advising the Sultan to grant her an interview. Though until recently an illiterate serving- maid from Nottinghamshire, Mary came to him and his Sultan without submissiveness or fear, carrying herself as the equal of every person, even the most powerful. Perhaps the spiritual love that motivated her influenced the old man. Somehow she managed to convince the Grand Vizier that she brought a message from God.

Mary Fisher was introduced into the Sultan’s magnificent gold-embroidered tent the next morning with state ceremony. As a messenger of the Supreme Power, God, she was accorded the honors given to an ambassador. The young Sultan lounging on silk cushions was elegantly dressed for the state occasion, in a gold vest with a dark black sable lining. Arrayed around him, in colorful uniforms and caps—some carrying bows or lances— were his guards, servants, eunuchs and pages. His Grand Vizier sat beside him and three dragoons stood ready to translate the message Mary would speak.

Mary did not know exactly what God wanted her to say. She needed to listen worshipfully to hear. Standing in front of Mahomet the Fourth, she waited in silence, a silence that must have startled the assembly.

The Sultan asked her if it was true that she had a message from the Great God.

“Yes,” she answered.

“Speak on,” he commanded her.

Still she was silent, waiting for God’s inspiration. Nearby, the executioner stood waiting for the slightest indication from his master that he should take off her head. The Sultan wondered if the presence of so many people was causing the foreign woman to be shy. He asked if he should dismiss some people.

“No,” she answered simply, returning to her silence. Perhaps something in her prayerful silence tendered his heart. The Sultan encouraged her to speak what God wanted her to say, neither more nor less, for they had good hearts and could hear it.

Finally Mary spoke. Her message was not recorded, but the words given to her, as translated by the dragoons, touched the Sultan, who listened with grave and respectful attention. When she stopped speaking, the Sultan asked if she had anything more to say.

“Have you understood what I said?” she inquired.

“Yes, every word, and it is truth.”

She had nothing more to say; she had completed the task which had brought her on a year-long journey into a very foreign land. She had shared with him the essence of an inner, spiritual form of Christianity, had spoken of the Inward Light that illuminates every conscience.

The Sultan had a question for her: what did she think of their prophet Mohammed? An abrasive answer from her, such as she had used when condemning the seminary system at Cambridge, might cost her her life. However, Mary Fisher was not there to flatter, but to speak truth as she understood it, and to give her life if necessary. She answered truthfully, but with a tact she had not used in challenging seminary students.

In Sewel’s History of the Quakers, Vol. 1, the historian William Sewel, Mary’s contemporary, wrote, “She answered warily that she knew him not, but Christ the true prophet, the Son of God, who was the Light of the World, had enlightened every man coming into the world, Him she knew. And concerning Mahomet, she said that they might judge of him to be true or false according to the words and prophecies he spoke; saying further, ‘If the word of a prophet shall come to pass, then shall ye know that the Lord hath sent that prophet: but if it come not to pass, then shall ye know that the Lord never sent him.'” The Sultan agreed this was true.

Expressing great respect for one who would travel such a great distance to bring him a message from God, he invited her to remain in his kingdom. When Mary politely declined, he warned her it was very dangerous where she was going, and offered a guard to accompany her to Constantinople. Gracefully, she declined. She trusted God to continue to keep her safe.

Her heart was touched by the reception she had received. It stood in stark contrast to the hostility and brutality of her fellow British citizens and Christians she had met in Cambridge and Boston. In Europe, Turks were reviled and feared as evil and less than human, but she saw that they had the Light of God in them, too, and she longed to help them know that Light more directly.

Her Return to England

Mary arrived safely in Constantinople and rejoined Beatrice Beckly and John Buckley. John Buckley still felt called to visit the Sultan himself, but the English ambassador found their Quaker ways scandalous and sent them all home. Thus Mary Fisher was the only Quaker in her generation to speak directly with the Sultan of Turkey. Half a year later, she arrived back in London. There she wrote a letter to three fellow Quaker ministers:

My dear love salutes you all in one. You have often been in my remembrance since I departed from you, and being now returned into England and many trials such as I was never tried with before, yet have I borne my testimony for the Lord before the King unto whom I was sent, and he was very noble unto me, and so were all that were about him. He and all that were about him received the words of truth without contradiction. They do dread the name of God, many of them, and eyes his Messengers [sic]. There is a royal seed amongst them which in time God will raise. They are more near truth than many Nations. There is a love begot in me towards them which is endless, but this is my hope concerning them, that he who hath raised me to love them more than many others will also raise his seed in them unto which my love is. Nevertheless, though they be called Turks, the seed of them is near unto God, and their kindness hath in some measure been shown to his servants. . . . So I rest with my dear love to you all. Your dear sister, Mary Fisher.

One wonders about the purpose of this great voyage undertaken by Mary and five other Quakers, one of whom never returned home. The Sultan’s armies did not stop warring upon Christian nations. Three years after Mary’s visit, his armies advanced into Austria. However, in delivering her message with love for a people considered enemies, and in their reception of it in a mutual respect for God, perhaps the Divine will had been entirely accomplished.

Marcelle Martin

Marcelle Martin is a member of Chestnut Hill Meeting in Philadelphia, Pa., and the resident Quaker Studies teacher at Pendle Hill in Wallingford, Pa.