Illustration for Mary Fisher
QUAKERS IN ACTION

Mary Fisher

c. 1623 – 1698

Mary Fisher was a housemaid from Selby in Yorkshire when she first met George Fox. As one of the Valiant Sixty, she travelled throughout England and to North America, preaching. But she is best remembered for her extraordinary mission to Sultan Mehmed IV, the Ottoman Emperor.

Having been ‘convinced of the truth’ by George Fox, Fisher began preaching around the country. Between 1652 and 1654, she was imprisoned repeatedly in York for speaking against priests and paid ministry. In Cambridge in 1653, she, along with Elizabeth Williams, became the first Quakers to be publicly and brutally flogged for their ministry.

In 1655, she sailed via Barbados to the Puritan colony of Boston, on board the ship “Swallow”. On arrival, the ship was boarded and she and an elderly Quaker called Ann Austin had their books seized by Richard Bellingham, the deputy governor.

Bellingham found them: “to hold very dangerous, heretical, and blasphemous opinions” and that “they came here purposely to propagate their said errors and heresies.”

The two were thrown into prison. No one was permitted to speak to them and a board was nailed over the window so that no one would see them. They were allowed neither writing materials nor light. They were so ill-fed that a church-member called Nicholas Upsall bribed the gaoler to give them provisions. After five weeks they were sent back to Barbados.

She must have returned to England not long afterwards, as in 1657 she set out for Turkey with six other Quaker men and women. Her goal was an audience with the young Sultan Mehmed IV, ruler of the Ottoman Empire. On their arrival at Smyrna, the English consul advised them ‘to forbear’ and when he could not dissuade them, placed them on a boat bound for Venice rather than Turkey. But Mary Fisher was not so easily put off. She persuaded the captain to put her ashore on the Greek coast. From there she set out, alone and on foot, and travelled through Macedonia and over the mountains of Thrace to Andrianople, where the Sultan was encamped with a large retinue.

Eventually she found someone who was willing to approach the Grand Vizier on her behalf. The Sultan was informed that an English woman had arrived who had “something to declare to him from the great God” and she was granted an interview.

The Sultan received her as he would an ambassador. Through an interpreter, he asked her if it was true she had a message from God. When she said yes, he urged her to ‘speak on’. She sat in Quakerly silence until the Sultan asked her if she wanted any of the company to withdraw. No, she did not wish that. In that case, he told her, she should speak the word of the Lord without fear ‘since they had good heart to hear it.’

Exactly what it was she told the Sultan isn’t recorded. But after she had ministered, she asked if he had understood her. He answered, “yea, every word, and it is truth!” He invited her to remain there, under his protection, and when she declined, offered her an escort as far as Constantinople. But she refused, saying she trusted in the Lord alone.

Her treatment at the hands of the Sultan stands in marked contrast to the way she was treated both in England and New England. Mary Fisher wrote of her Turkish hosts:

“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 towards his servants.

In 1662, Mary Fisher married William Bayly, a Quaker preacher and master mariner who had also travelled far and been imprisoned for his beliefs. When he died in 1675, she married John Cross and they emigrated to Charlestown, South Carolina. She died in 1698 and is buried there in the Quaker Burial Ground.

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