Sleeping with Margaret Fell: A Pilgrimage to 1652 Quaker Country

Interior of Swarthmoor Hall.
The bedroom of George Fox at Swarthmoor Hall, including his “travel bed” and the trunk that accompanied him on all of his journeys..

How did the first generation of Quakers have the wisdom, strength, and courage to find, proclaim, and stand by the truth of women’s equality, when this belief was radically counter to the culture of their time and caused them to be severely persecuted? To what extent were they influenced by the ancient earth-based religions that dominated the region of the British Isles throughout its history?

These questions matter greatly to me because I have come to believe that many of the world’s current problems stem from the suppression of the feminine in the last 3,000 years. Quakers have an important role to play in women’s empowerment and the lifting up of the feminine because of our unique heritage of full equality for women from the beginning of this movement.

I found Quakers when I was just a young woman, drawn by the combination of social activism in the nuclear age, deep inner seeking, and full empowerment of women. As a “recovering” Catholic, I was painfully aware of the limited opportunities for women in religious societies, and found the equality of Quaker women exhilarating.

In seeking the answers to these questions, I was led to visit ancient, sacred sites in England and to walk in the footsteps of the first generation of Quakers. Joining me on this pilgrimage were Barbara Adams, a longtime Friend from my home meeting in Richmond, Virginia, and Janet Ferguson, a British Friend who had accompanied me on my previous pilgrimage to sacred sites in France.

The Pilgrimage in France

In 2010, while a Friend in Residence at the Maison Quaker Center in Congénies, France, I undertook a pilgrimage to explore links between the first Christians in the area and ancient Goddess religions. I planned to visit sites of the Black Madonna and invited two Friends, Maia Tapp and Janet Ferguson, to join me.

It took us all by surprise to discover the importance of Mary Magdalene, who has been honored in France for 2,000 years as a saint, the “Apostle to the Apostles,” and as the one who brought Christianity to that region of the world. Like most of us, we had been taught that she was a prostitute. But it turns out the Catholic Church recanted this position years ago, and has maintained shrines to Mary Magdalene’s memory in France since the first century. We were amazed at the stories we had never heard about this woman, who emerged in our awareness as a vitally important part of early Christianity, and possibly a living link between Christianity and the earlier Goddess religions.

The Pilgrimage to England Emerges

Upon reflecting on my experiences in France and sharing them with others, I grew hungry to walk upon the earth where the first Friends developed their beliefs, and to directly experience the spirituality of the ancients. I began communicating with other Friends about my questions and reading what they recommended.

During my year of study at Pendle Hill study center in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, my Quaker studies teacher, Marcelle Martin, shared amazing stories about early Quaker women who traveled across the ocean carrying the Quaker message, preaching, writing, and being jailed and even hanged for their beliefs.

I read about Elizabeth Hooton, the first Quaker convert, who influenced George Fox in his conviction that women and men are equally called to ministry. When Fox met Hooton, she was already preaching in her own home to a small group of Anabaptists. This group had lay preachers, including women. They were the first to call themselves Children of the Light, i.e., the first Quaker group.

In Mothers of Feminism: The Story of Quaker Women in America, Margaret Hope Bacon observes that there had not previously been anything like equality on the scale of Quakers, where women were encouraged to preach and prophesy, as well as to play an acknowledged role in church government on the basis of equality: “The experience Quaker women had accumulated in public speaking, holding meetings, taking minutes, and writing epistles prepared them for leadership roles when the time was ripe for a women’s rights movement to emerge.”

In my reading, I was struck by the feminine language used by Fox and other early Quakers; their writings are full of images of nurturance. They likened the love of God to that of a nursing mother or a mother hen tending her chicks, and spoke of having a “tendering” experience in meeting for worship, which left them with feelings of love and compassion for all.

We don’t know how or why Fox became passionate about women’s equality. From his journal, we do know that he challenged ministers about women’s right to speak in church even before Quakerism became a movement. He wrote at least two longer tracts and many epistles about women’s equality. In The Woman Learning in Silence, Or the Mystery of the Woman’s Subjection to Her Husband, he castigates those who doubt women’s spiritual equality:

For the light is the same in the male, and in the female, which cometh from Christ, he by whom the world was made, and so Christ is one in all, and not divided; and who is it that dare stop Christ’s mouth? that now is come to reign in his sons and daughters, Christ in the male, and Christ in the female?

Enter Margaret Fell

When George Fox met Margaret Fell his conviction of women’s equality seems to have become fully actualized. Margaret was 38 when she first heard George speak in church, and she was powerfully convinced by his message. From that day on and for the rest of her long life, Margaret was a tower of strength for the new Quaker movement, putting her home and her energies into it wholeheartedly. Interestingly, she is still usually referred to as Margaret Fell, even though she married George later in life (in 1669) and took his name.

Her first marriage was to Thomas Fell in 1632 (he passed away in 1658). As the wife of a respected judge, Margaret took a huge risk to become involved in the fledgling Quaker movement. Fortunately, Thomas respected his wife and her beliefs and felt a deep sympathy for the Quakers, so he used his influence to protect them from the hostile magistrates and priests. Margaret’s home, Swarthmoor Hall, became the anchor for Quakerism and remained so throughout her long life. She corresponded directly with every man and woman traveling in England and elsewhere to proclaim the Quaker message. She coordinated their efforts and helped their families financially when they were imprisoned for their beliefs. They were always welcome at Swarthmoor Hall.

Margaret also traveled extensively, visiting meetings and families and going to London several times to plead with the King and Parliament on behalf of Friends. She was jailed several times for her beliefs. While serving four years in Lancaster prison, Margaret wrote a pioneering book: Women’s Speaking Justified, Proved, and Allowed of by the Scriptures, All Such as Speak by the Spirit and Power of the Lord Jesus. The first book of its type to be written by a woman since the Reformation, it is considered a milestone in the history of women.

Pendle Hill and the Pendle Witches

Of course we went to Pendle Hill, a ridge that rises in the eastern part of Lancashire, where George had his vision of “a great people gathered.” The three of us climbed those steep stone steps on a blustery September day, with clouds and rain rolling over the terrain and occasional peeks of sun. At the top we were nearly blown over and our ponchos torn to bits by the ferocious winds. We literally had to hold onto each other to keep our balance. It was easy for us to see how a young George could have had a profound spiritual experience here where the power of nature is unleashed in a mighty way.

Down the hill in town, the main attraction is still the Pendle Witches tour, which follows the journey of 12 people who were found guilty of witchcraft (10 of them sentenced to death by hanging) just 40 years before George made his famous climb. Although the charges of witchcraft turned out to be contrived, the fear of witches and the oppression of women during that era were quite real. No doubt George was well aware of the nature-based religions still being practiced secretly in the area, and he is sure to have passed by many a stone circle and holy well on his journeys through the countryside. In fact, there is an ancient stone circle quite near the burial ground where Margaret rests.

Swarthmoor Hall

My exploration of these questions about the early Quakers brought me at last to Swarthmoor Hall, the home of Margaret for her entire adult life, from age 17 to 88. My companions and I slept several nights in one of the newly constructed, comfortable guest apartments adjacent to the house. Built in 1586, the house had fallen into disrepair but is now owned and maintained as a museum by the Religious Society of Friends. It has been carefully restored to much of its original state, including some original furnishings belonging to George and Margaret, and others from the same period. The view from the multi-paned lead glass windows appears much the same as in Margaret’s time, with lawns, flower gardens, and orchards lovingly maintained by volunteers. The surrounding peaceful countryside consists of rolling farmland with fields of cows and sheep.

Just down the road is the Swarthmoor Meetinghouse, a gift from George to the meeting to ensure they would always have a place to meet. Hanging in the hallway of the meetinghouse is a replica of the marriage certificate of George Fox and Margaret Fell, dated 1669.

A Sacred Marriage

Margaret and George married when Margaret was 55 and George was 45, 17 years after they first met. They created a simple ceremony in which they took each other as man and wife “in the presence of God and these our friends.” George was determined that this marriage be clearly and without question a marriage between equals. He sought approval from each of Margaret’s children, made the first recorded prenuptial agreement not to benefit from her estate, and paid his own way throughout their marriage. Margaret retained complete legal rights over her own income and property, a most unusual arrangement for the time.

Margaret and George looked upon their marriage as primarily a spiritual partnership. They lived together only 4 of the 22 years of their marriage, neither hindering the other’s freedom to conduct ministry as each saw fit.

In my study of Goddess religions, I learned about the practice of hieros gamos, Greek for “sacred marriage,” the ancient ritual to join masculine and feminine to create balance and wholeness, and to connect with the life-giving powers of the universe. Although there is no direct evidence that George and Margaret intended to emulate this rite, theirs was indeed a sacred marriage, and the first of many Quaker marriages between equals. I believe George wished to marry Margaret to acknowledge her as his equal partner in the founding of Quakerism.

And the Answer Is…

There are no clear answers to my original questions. The early Quakers did not honor the ancient Goddess religions. However, they somehow intuitively knew that women were worthy of respect and equality, a central tenet of these religions. Perhaps there were still whispers of the Great Mother alive in the ether of seventeenth-century England.

In “George Fox and the Gnostic Gospels” (FJ June/July), Lyndon Back suggests that an explanation for such mysterious connections can be found in Carl Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious, “a deep reserve of knowing that needs only a catalyst to regenerate into consciousness.”

Ken Jacobsen, a Friend who studies Celtic Christianity, believes that there is no “clear historical path directly linking Celts of earlier centuries and Quakers of the seventeenth, but there is some kind of geographical/spiritual proximity which is mysterious.” He feels that Friends worship became “a culturally thin place where the natural truth of the feminine arises when cultural censorship is lifted.”

Margaret demonstrated through her intelligence, compassion, wisdom, and perseverance that she was equal to any man, and she earned the respect of her husband Thomas, himself a respected judge. She created a sacred marriage with her second husband George, and paved the way for women to become equal partners with their husbands in the marriage ritual she co-created. She also co-created women’s business meetings, allowing for a meaningful role for women in church governance and helping them to develop useful skills outside the home.

Further questions remained for me, however. Why would an educated woman of the landed gentry choose to marry a social inferior, and a Quaker at that, with all the persecution, social and political ostracism, and threats of losing property she risked for being associated with the new religion?

According to Bonnelyn Young Kunze in Margaret Fell and the Rise of Quakerism, no woman of the seventeenth century, landed gentry or not, could break through traditional English gender and class roles. Quakerism appealed to Margaret and other women, all of whom were excluded from participation in the church, because it allowed them to use their gifts not just to prophesy, but also to be involved in church decision making. But Margaret went even further, serving as a public spokesperson to the King and others for Quaker doctrine and policy.

I believe Margaret deserves our gratitude for her major part in creating the equality enjoyed by Quaker women for the past 350 years. Margaret served Quakerism for 50 years, keeping the movement together and providing a safe home and the necessary structures for the young religious movement to survive. She fully and truly earned the title “mother of Quakerism.”

If she were alive today, I believe Margaret would work passionately for equality for all, including lesbian, bi-sexual, gay, and transgender persons. She would ferociously campaign against female genital mutilation, sex slavery, and all forms of violence against women. She would be a lover and protector of Mother Earth and a patron of the arts. I would hope to be invited to sleepovers at Swarthmoor Hall, solving the world’s problems over a cup of tea.

Maggie O’Neill

Maggie O’Neill (formerly known as Peggy) is a longtime member of Richmond (Va.) Meeting and the mother of two sons, Coleman and Jonathan (Jon) Watts. She leads Sacred Circle Dances and workshops on the sacred feminine. Maggie and her husband, Al Watts, are founding members of Ashland Vineyards, a Quaker-based intentional community. She recently retired from teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University.

14 thoughts on “Sleeping with Margaret Fell: A Pilgrimage to 1652 Quaker Country

  1. I suggest that you look to the book Albion’s Seed, an ethnographic study of the American colonies, to learn about the Nordic influences on the Midlands of England. The author found evidence of that female culture influencing Quakers in ideas of male and female equality.

  2. Maggie O’Neill,

    When I shared your article on facebook, I said that Friends should know as much about Margaret Fell, as we do of her second husband, George Fox.

    I, too, discovered Quakerism as a young woman. I was raised in the Episcopal Church, and when I was christened into that Church, my godmother was my mom’s elder sister, Mary Magdalene. So, I always knew that Mary of Magdala was the “Apostles’ Apostle” and not a prostitute.

    Thank you for an enlightening piece!

    Katie Kent

  3. Dear Maggie,
    I Enjoyed your article a lot and am interested in reading more about the lives of early Quaker women. I have been planning a play or musical about Mary Dyer for some time. I am perplexed by a premise that tints your article a bit. “You seem to state that Margaret Fell and other Quaker women were important -too-, which made me yearn for the day when we just say “These women are important”. I think it may be time to address the question directly more often, asking men, “why do you think you should be in charge? Are your ideas or leadership abilities really superior?” And more women may need to ask themselves how they are willing to shoulder the full responsibility of leadership.

    BTW, my wife Chitra and I were married in Richmond Meeting in 1969, saying the same words that Margaret and George said. I believe we have a marriage of equals, although to be honest I think Chitra has the edge in accomplishments.

    Thanks again for a good read.

  4. An excellent question and an excellent article. I admit, however, that I’m still mightily thirsty to really, really, REALLY, understand how the early Quakers were able to be so far ahead of the times. I’ve striven, most of my life, to live beyond the cultural expectations that surround me, so I think I understand something of the trial that can be. Thanks for raising up the power of women in the very roots of Quakers – and trying to light the way for further such power and transformation.

  5. Fascinating and insightful article – thank you! Just a note to two of the people providing comments – the area discussed in Maggie’s article isn’t in the English Midlands, it is very firmly in the North West of England. Nordic influences are strong in that area. George Fox was originally from the English Midlands but only when he travelled to the north did he find the many people, already seeking a new way, who truly heard him and made the Quaker movement. This area of North West England is known as the Cradle of Quakerism for that reason (not the birthplace – but the place where it was nurtured and grew into strength. For the past three years I had the privilege of working as Pilgrimage Coordinator for Quaker groups visiting the area. I’m sorry I didn’t get the opportunity to meet you. Maggie, That work is now carried out more directly from Swarthmoor Hall.

  6. I not sure that I had heard before that George Fox was married to Margaret Fell. (At least I don’t remember hearing it.). I wonder how she wrote her name? And would it be better – in some way – if we referred to her as Margaret Fell Fox? More obvious for those not steeped in the details of quaker history?

  7. I have just finished the Pilgrimage of George Fox staying at Swarthmore Hall. I am particularly interested in the young woman who travelled as part of the Valiant 60. I am writing a book about the first Quakers under 30 years of age. Please contact me if you have any suggestions or insights at
    Aug 2015

  8. As a descendent of Margaret Askew I am intrigued by her fortitude. My research indicates that she is the great granddaughter of Anne Askew who as a noblewomen was tortured on the rack and then burnt at the stake for her religious views and her ability to keep silent about her confederates which included Catherine Parr the then and final queen to Henry VIII. I would suggest that the courage shown by Margaret was inherited through her father John and grandfather William the son of Anne. Margaret was my 8th great grandmother and Anne my 12th. It would appear they were both descendants of Robert II King of Scotland whose grandfather was Robert I the Bruce.

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