Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Margaret Fell

c. 1614 – April 23, 1702


Margaret Fell or Margaret Fox a founder of the Religious Society of Friends, known popularly as the "mother of Quakerism", is considered one of the Valiant Sixty early Quaker preachers and missionaries.

Born Margaret Askew in Dalton-in-Furness, Cumbria, England, she married Thomas Fell, a barrister, in 1632, and became the lady of Swarthmoor Hall. Thomas became a judge and a member of Parliament, but disapproving of Oliver Cromwell's assumption of authority, he ceased to participate in government.

In 1652, Margaret heard the ministry of George Fox and was convinced. Over the next six years, Swarthmoor Hall became a centre of Quaker activity; she served as an unofficial secretary for the new movement, receiving and forwarding letters from roving missionaries, and occasionally sending admonitions to them from Fox, Richard Hubberthorne, James Nayler, and others. She wrote many epistles herself and collected and disbursed funds for those on missions. After her husband's death in 1658, she retained control of Swarthmoor Hall, which remained a meeting place and haven from persecution, even though it was sometimes, in the 1660s, raided by government forces.

Because she was one of the few founding members of the Religious Society of Friends who was an established member of the gentry, she was frequently called upon to intercede in cases of persecution or arrest of leaders such as Fox. After the Stuart Restoration in 1660, she travelled from Lancashire to London to petition King Charles II and his parliament in 1660 and 1662 for freedom of conscience in religious matters. In her work 'A Declaration and an Information from Us, The People called Quakers, to the Present Governors, The King and Both Houses of Parliament, and All Whom It May Concern' published in 1660 she explains the priciples of Quakerism and pleads for religious freedom.  This work is regarded as the first public declaration of the peace testimony as it came some months before the declaration of January 1661. In it she says that Friends "bear our testimony against all strife, wars, and contentions that come from the lusts that war in the members...".  The declaration by George Fox and other prominent (male) Quakers was only made subsequently in November of 1660. Although the structure and phraseology of these submissions were quite different, the import was similar, arguing that, although Friends wished to see the world changed, they would use persuasion rather than violence towards what they regarded as a "heavenly" (i.e. spiritual) end.

In 1664 Margaret Fell was arrested for failing to take an oath and for allowing Quaker Meetings to be held in her home. She defended herself by saying that "as long as the Lord blessed her with a home, she would worship him in it". She spent six months in Lancaster Gaol, whereafter she was sentenced to life imprisonment and forfeiture of her property. She remained in prison until 1668, during which time she wrote religious pamphlets and epistles. Perhaps her most famous work is "Women's Speaking Justified", a scripture-based argument for women's ministry, and one of the major texts on women's religious leadership in the 17th century.

Having been released by order of the King and council, she married George Fox in 1669. On returning to Lancashire after her marriage, she was again imprisoned for about a year in Lancaster for breaking the Conventicle Act. Shortly after her release, George Fox departed on a religious mission to America, and he too was imprisoned again on his return in 1673. Margaret again traveled to London to intercede on his behalf, and he was eventually freed in 1675. After this, they spent about a year together at Swarthmoor, collaborating on defending the recently created organizational structure of separate women's meetings for discipline against their anti-Fox opponents.

George Fox spent most of the rest of his life thereafter abroad or in London until his death in 1691, while Margaret Fell spent most of the rest of her life at Swarthmoor. Surviving both husbands by a number of years, she continued to take an active part in the affairs of the Society including the changes in the 1690s following partial legal tolerance of Quakers, when she was well into her eighties. In the last decade of her life, she firmly opposed the effort of her fellow believers in Lancashire to maintain certain traditional Quaker standards of conduct (for example, in matters of dress). She died aged 88.

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