Margaret Fell (1614–1702): The Mother of Quakerism
Margaret Fell (née Askew, later Fox) was born into a wealthy gentry Lancashire family in 1614. By the time of her death in 1702 she had gained an international reputation as a leading figure of Quakerism.
Known as the ‘Mother of Quakerism’, she played a crucial role as an organiser, innovator, author and elder of the early movement. Although the details of her life as a Quaker leader are well-known, her influence in the early movement was greater than traditional Quaker history has suggested and is a subject that is only just beginning to receive due acknowledgement by historians.
The Quaker movement (also known as the Society of Friends) was unusual in terms of the role it gave to its female members and was strikingly egalitarian for the time. Born out of the turbulent years of the English Civil War, Quakerism began as a revolutionary religious movement, founded by George Fox in the 1650s. Fox, the son of a Leicestershire weaver, who was inspired by the belief in a universal God-given ‘Inner Light’, believed that all individuals regardless of their sex or race could preach, travel on missionary service and participate in church government.
Margaret Fell first encountered Fox at her Lancashire home at Swarthmoor Hall, Ulverston, in 1652. Fox preached his message to the household and converted Margaret and her seven daughters. Her husband, Judge Thomas Fell (c.1599–1658) never converted to Quakerism and was initially deeply troubled by his wife’s association with this radical dissenting sect. He nevertheless came to support Margaret’s religious beliefs and provided legal protection for local Quakers until his death in 1658. After this, the Fell home at Swarthmoor Hall became the hub of the international Quaker movement and a repository of Quaker writings and correspondence.
The Quakers were heavily persecuted for their radical beliefs and were feared for their levelling influence and sensationalist aspects, which included running naked through the streets as a ‘sign’, interrupting Anglican Church services, refusing to show respect for social superiors and refusing to swear oaths.
Through her own experience of suffering, Margaret became heavily invested in the campaign to relieve suffering prisoners and undertook numerous journeys to London to petition for the release of fellow-Quakers. In A Declaration and an Information from us the people of God, which was a Quaker petition delivered by Margaret Fell to the King and Houses of Parliament in 1666, Fell highlights her choice of service to the Quaker cause over her familial obligations. In the postscript she added that she had been ‘moved of the Lord to leave my House and Family, and to come Two Hundred Miles to lay these Things before you.’ Throughout her life, her religious beliefs took priority over her natural instincts as a wife and mother.
In 1669, Fell married the Quaker leader George Fox in Bristol. Their marriage was radical because Fox, who was ten years her junior, signed a contract waiving his rights to Margaret’s estate. However, the couple spent the majority of their marriage in separate parts of the country undertaking work on behalf of the Quaker cause.
Following imprisonment at Lancashire Castle 1670, she took an active role in the evolution of the Quaker meeting system, which consisted of Monthly, Quarterly and Yearly Meetings for Business. Crucially, the system included the evolution of separate Women’s Meetings, which were given almost equal powers in discipline and overseeing matters relating to the female members of their congregations.
In establishing women’s separate business meetings, Fox and Fell expected women Friends to coordinate with the men in supervising the welfare and behaviour of members. Crucially, it was argued that they were to become active in their own right, thus departing from the belief that God created woman to be a helpmeet to man (Genesis 2: 18, 20). The powers granted to the Women’s Meetings became controversial subject and eventually led to a schism within the movement. However, Fell’s powerful influence and continued encouragement of her female coreligionists saw the establishment of separate Meetings for women across the British Isles, the American Colonies and the West Indies.
Fell was active in promoting public female speech, and in 1666 published Women’s Speaking Justified. This radical publication defended the right of women to be Quaker preachers and ministers in the church, arguing that anyone who experienced a divine call or message was a true minister of Christ and should thus be permitted to preach. This contravened St Paul’s injunction that ‘Women should keep silent in Church’ (1 Corinthians 14:34), which continued to be used by the established church to prevent women from speaking during church services. In her tract, Fell used scriptural example as a means of justifying women’s abilities to preach, teach and minister in the church. She cited twenty-four examples of female biblical figures to support her view that female public speech was acceptable when inspired by God.
Margaret Fell’s work on behalf of the developing Quaker movement was crucial to its survival, since her wealth, social position, connections and public standing provided an important backdrop to a highly itinerant movement. Her role as an indefatigable campaigner, sufferer, writer and leader of the Society highlighted how her religious affiliation superseded all other values and relationships. Thus rather than simply being the wife of the movement’s leader, she should be celebrated in her own right as a pioneer of early feminism and in offering a new paradigm of Protestant womanhood, which celebrated authoritative public female speech and women’s equal rights in church government at a time when women were still being regarded as ‘weaker vessels’.
Written by Naomi Pullin, University of Warwick
Find out more…
You can visit Swarthmoor Hall where Margaret Fell lived and find out more about early Quakerism http://www.swarthmoorhall.co.uk/
Find out more about the Quaker movement today on it’s website http://www.quaker.org.uk/