Saturday, 19 September 2009

Margaret Fell & George Fox

Pendle Hill will forever be associated to the Pendle Witches who live on in the undying soul of the landscape and its folklore. Pendle Hill also gave birth to the Quaker movement.

In 1652, George Fox, a 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

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

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

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

A skilled mediator, Margaret managed to reconcile her husband to the lowborn preacher who had taken such outrageous liberties. Though Thomas Fell never converted, he allowed Margaret to use Swarthmoor Hall as a meeting house for worship. Through the 1650s, Swarthmoor Hall became the powerhouse of the early Quakers. Thomas Fell died in 1658, leaving the estate to Margaret.

Regarded by many as the co-founder of the Society of Friends, Margaret devoted her life to her religion. 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, Margaret herself was arrested for failing to take an oath and for allowing Quaker meetings to be held in her home. She was sentenced for life imprisonment in Lancaster Gaol and forfeiture of her property. While in prison she wrote religious pamphlets and epistles, including her most famous work, 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 fundamental injustice of war. One can imagine that Margaret played a leading role in the Quaker commitment to equality and social progress.

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

Surviving both her husbands, Margaret 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.”

Bernard Picard's 18th century engraving shows a woman preaching at a Quaker meeting in London.