I am in Peace: The Ministry of Margaret Fell by Mary Sharratt


margaret fell

This linoprint of Margaret Fell can be ordered here.

Pendle Hill will forever be associated to the Pendle Witches of 1612 who live on in the undying soul of the landscape and its folklore and who inspired my 2010 novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill. Pendle Hill also gave birth to the Quaker movement.

In 1652, George Fox, a simple weaver’s son and cobbler’s apprentice turned dissenting preacher, wandered across England on a spiritual quest. When he climbed Pendle Hill, his revelation came to him—an event that would change both Fox and the world forever. He envisioned a “great multitude waiting to be gathered.”

As we travelled, we came near a very great hill, called Pendle Hill, and I was moved of the Lord to go up to the top of it; which I did with difficulty, it was so very steep and high. When I was come to the top, I saw the sea bordering upon Lancashire. From the top of this hill the Lord let me see in what places he had a great people to be gathered.

George Fox: An Autobiography, Chapter 6

beltaine pendle view

The view of Pendle Hill from my back garden.

Later when he walked on to Firbank Fell and met with the Westmoreland Seekers, he found his “great multitude.”

Wandering still further, Fox came to Swarthmoor Hall in Cumbria where he hoped to discuss his revelations with the lord of the manor, Thomas Fell. Instead he met Margaret Fell, the mistress of the house, a woman who had been searching for spiritual direction for the past twenty years.

From the first time Fell heard Fox preach, his vision became her own. In the following three weeks, Fell, her children, servants, estate workers, and many inhabitants of Furness became a part of the Society of Friends. When the lord of the manor finally returned, he found himself in a Quaker stronghold.

Fell eventually managed to reconcile her husband to their unusual guest, but Thomas Fell never converted. He did, however, allow his wife to use Swarthmoor Hall as a meeting house for worship. Through the 1650s, Swarthmoor Hall became the powerhouse of the Quaker movement. Thomas died in 1658, leaving the estate to Margaret.

Regarded by many as co-founder of the Quaker movement, Fell devoted her life to the Society of Friends. She wrote epistles and funded missionaries. One of the few early Quakers who was a member of the gentry, she interceded on behalf of her co-religionists who were arrested for illegal preaching or refusing to take oaths. In 1660 and 1662 she traveled to London to convince King Charles II and his parliament for freedom of conscience.

In 1664, Fell herself was arrested for failing to take an oath and for allowing Quaker Meetings to be held in her home. She spent six months in Lancaster Gaol, where she was sentenced for life imprisonment and forfeiture of her property. While in prison she wrote religious pamphlets. Her most famous work is “Women’s Speaking Justified,” a scripture-based argument for women’s ministry. From its very inception, the Quaker religion insisted on gender equality, women’s right to preach, the abolition of slavery, and the immortality of war.

1666_Fell_Womens_Speaking_Justified

In 1668 Fell was released from prison by order of the king. The following year she married George Fox. Returning to Lancashire, she was arrested again. Shortly after her release, Fox departed on his mission to America, only to be imprisoned on his return to England.

Surviving both her husbands, Fell remained a religious activist into her eighties and finally died in 1702 at the age of 88. Her last words were, “I am in Peace.”

 

Mary Sharratt makes her home in the Pendle region of Lancashire, England, the dramatic setting for her 2010 novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill. She is on a mission to write women back into history. Her most recent novel Ecstasy is about the composer Alma Schindler Mahler. Visit her website.

 



Categories: Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Awakenings, General, Herstory

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15 replies

  1. I hope you will talk more about Quakerism and feminism in other blogs. I was surprised when my genealogical research revealed that quite a number of my ancestors converted to Quakerism in the Hempstead Colony (Long Island) and it was maintained in my family line for two or three generations after the Revolutionary War. Of course I heard nothing about this growing up.

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    • That’s so interesting, Carol! Yes, I hope to blog more about Quakerism. I’m fascinated by their history and philosophy although I have not yet attended a Quaker meeting.

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      • I hope you will both be able to attend a Quaker meeting very soon. They are such a beautiful experience of shared silence and free, humble approach to the Divine. I have not attended in several years, but I immediately felt a sense of spiritual home with Friends and attended the Austin, TX meeting for 5-6 years.

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      • I hope you will both be able to attend a Quaker meeting soon. It is such a beautiful and moving experience to sit in shared silence and humbly wait for the Divine. I attended the Friends Meeting in Austin, TX, for 5-6 years, but have not been in several. That was the first (and maybe still the only) place I have ever felt a sense of spiritual home in a church.

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  2. Thank you for this post, Mary, and the gorgeous photo of Pendle Hill. I was a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) for ten years. There were Quaker ancestors on my mother’s side. But what attracted me was the silence, sitting facing each other (“there is that of God in everyone”) And that in silent meetings (the eastern Hicksite branch) there were no professional ministers. (On my father’s side there were generations upon generations of priests). We were all ministers, young and old, female and male. From Friends I learned consensus process, though they don’t use that word. Rather they wait for the sense of the meeting, seek divine truth as a corporate body. There were many Quaker abolitionists, but any Friend steeped in history will confess that it took one hundred years for Friends as a corporate body to come to unity in their opposition to slavery.

    In my counseling practice I work with internal consensus using the methods I learned from Friends. When working with couples and families, I often ask clients to wait in silence, to speak from silence, and to receive the words of others in silence.

    It was in the silence that the goddess began to show herself to me and to other women. At Yearly Meeting, there was an interest group on the goddess sponsored by the women’s rights committee, which some not so jokingly called the women’s rites committee. Yes, I was a member. Quakers are known for openness and tolerance, but when I was a Quaker there was a sort of Quaker identity crisis. Some Friends favored an open universalist approach; others felt strongly that Friends must remain Christ centered. For George Fox famously said: “There is one even Christ Jesus who can speak to thy condition.”

    Conceiving of or addressing the divine as female disturbed many otherwise open-minded Friends greatly. Reproductive rights and homosexuality were also subjects of contention at that time. I went through an identity crisis of my own and ultimately discovered that I, personally, could not wait on or give authority to the corporate body. Corporate discernment is an essential component of Quaker belief and practice.

    Following Quaker practice, I met with a clearness committee and made a formal request of the meeting to be released from membership. I chose to pursue the interfaith ministry and my calling to be an earth-centered priestess. My deep love and respect for Friends abides. I do not think I will ever be a member again of the Religious Society of Friends, but your post has stirred in me a longing to sit with Friends again in silent worship.

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    • PS: Mary, I wonder if Margaret Fell might inspire a novel?

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    • Elizabeth, I so much love your response for you are a truth teller. You speak openly to the inner struggle, the identity crisis that so many women of strong faith must lean into if we are to become truly One with the Great All. My struggle came through the trauma of clinical depression. It took me out of My Father’s House on many many different levels. I so often long for the beauty of the music of the church of my childhood. The beauty of the Mass. The ritual and family togetherness. Must journey we must.

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    • Thank you for sharing these insights from your personal journey with the Quakers. I can understand why you left to explore the path that called to you. One day I hope to attend a meeting. I did belong to a meditation group that met in a Quaker Meeting House, but never actually attended one of their proper Quaker meeting. I loved the atmosphere of serenity in the meeting room, though.

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  3. Very interesting. I have Pagan friends who are or used to be Quakers. They’re Quagans. (Really! I think this word comes from Starhawk.)

    Sitting in silence is a lovely practice, no matter what god or goddess we worship. I’m glad to read about Mistress Fell. I’d heard of George Fox, of course, but not a word about her. Thanks for the bit of history and the photo of Pendle Hill from your back yard. Is climbing that hill a metaphor for finding the Quaker god?

    I guess it’s time for me to pull your book off my shelf and read it again. Bright blessings on a rainy day in SoCal.

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    • Very interesting about the overlap between the Quakers and the Pagan community. Thanks for reading my books, Barbara. By the way I’m visiting LA next week. I’m staying in Anaheim. It would be lovely to meet you if we pass anywhere near each other in the environs of So Cal. <3

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  4. Yes, agree where Barbara Ardinger says: “(Really! I think this word comes from Starhawk.)”

    Liked by 1 person

  5. You are certainly doing an excellent job of reclaiming women’s histories. Your book on Hildegard von Bingen so affected me, I think I have to add your other books including Daughters of the Witching Hill to my reading list.

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