Margaret Fell: Mother of Quakerism

March 15, 2021

by Elaina Halverstadt

March is Women’s History Month, and how do we begin to celebrate the unique contribution of women to God’s creation and to humanity? To start, we can take it as a reminder to examine the lives, the spirits, and the examples of those women who dedicated their gifts and their whole selves not to proving or demonstrating what it means to be a good woman, but to living out what it means to be a good human.

Margaret FellMargaret Fell is one such example of a woman who used her life to improve the lot of humanity through the Friends tradition. Fell, often called the “Mother of Quakerism,” is self-described as being born in 1614 of “honest parents, and of honourable repute in their country.” She was married to Thomas Fell of Swarthmore, who she describes as esteemed and honorable, and a loving husband and father to their nine children.

After hearing the preaching of George Fox one day, Fell became convinced of this faith and mission and began using her estate and resources to support the Friends movement. Though her husband never officially joined the Friends movement himself before his death, he remained kind to their cause while Fell used their home to house a Meeting of Friends. Fell would eventually marry George Fox, 11 years after her first husband’s death, and the two would spend most of their married years physically separated by the travels to which God had called them, along with intermittent imprisonments for their faith. This placed the call of God upon their lives above the comforts of married life. Through this time, Fell continued to manage her home and estate, dedicating her resources to the Friends movement and declaring against persecutions and imprisonments, “I should not deny my Faith and Principles, for anything they could do against me; and while it pleased the Lord to let me have a House, I would endeavour to worship him in it [sic]” (quoted from Life Writings, 2000).

Well into her 70s, Fell traveled to and from London as the Lord compelled her to go. She took letters to kings and nobles, insisting on the freedom and fair treatment of Friends who were persecuted, beaten, and imprisoned for their beliefs, and was imprisoned herself on and off for many years. But not only did Fell continue to manage her estate successfully, despite laws and fines against holding Friends Meetings that were meant to ruin her, but she devoted her resources to bettering the conditions for the Friends movement to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ freely. During this time Fell relentlessly addressed rulers, tended to imprisoned Friends, fought for rights, declared the Gospel, and even wrote in defense of women preaching. It can hardly be said that Margaret Fell wasted any good gift that was given to her on anything other than the work of the Lord.

Did she face adversity? Absolutely. Were there powerful people who tried to intimidate her into submission because she was a woman or who would oppose her because it wouldn’t be proper to walk alongside a woman in ministry? I can only imagine so. Were there women and men who belittled her for giving of her heart outside the home, who “unfriended” her for being different, spoke ill of her, or worked against her behind her back? Maybe not – if we have reason to believe that fear, envy, strife, jealousy, and self-seeking are new developments in the last 300 years of human history.

I can’t help but imagine that as Margaret Fell fought against a political-religious system that was bigger and stronger than she could ever be on her own, she would have faced powers and principalities of adversity similar to, or greater than, those that humans still face today. Nonetheless Margaret Fell, and many others like her, lived like nobody remembered to tell her that she was “just a woman.” She lived like she believed the same God who gave good gifts to men and to kings gave good gifts to her too.

We still serve that same God today. We still exist among the same humanity today. There is still work to be done today. And we have – today more than ever – greater access to equipping resources than Margaret Fell could have ever dared to dream.

It’s not up to us to determine what gifts and talents God gave us to bring to the world, or in what ways He might use them to change the world, and it is not up to us to determine whether we will be born male or female, black or white, in a broken home or a healthy home, in this century or another. It is only up to us to determine that all manner of gifts, talents, strengths, abilities, and resources far beyond what we will ever be able to ask or imagine have never belonged to any man, woman, or child – friend or foe – but only to God eternal, the Giver of all good things, and the sole seer of all that ever was and is yet to come.

I think Margaret Fell knew this, and I think she used it to guide her hard choices in life. And God used it to alter humanity for the good. This is how I want to live, and this is how I want to celebrate women’s history: not by idealizing Margaret Fell or any other one woman for her actions or accomplishments, but by examining what these women’s lives can teach us about what it means to be a bearer of God’s image – a member of the physical body of the indwelling God on earth – first, and a woman second.

Do you know of a woman in history that lived as though someone forgot to tell her all the things a woman “shouldn’t” do; who refused to understand Galatians 3:28 as anything less than a call to action; by whose example we all – man, woman, or child – would all do well to live by? Take some time to reflect on this example and share it with someone you encounter today.

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28 (NIV)

Margaret Fell Fox: 1614-1702. (2000). In Life-Writings by British Women, 1660-1815: An Anthology (ppl 58-69). University Press of New England.  

Elaina Halverstadt is an AR Specialist and Adjunct Writing Instructor at Barclay College. She earned a B.S. in Biblical Studies from Barclay College and is completing an M.A. in English and a Master’s certificate in College Writing: Theory and Practice from Bowling Green State University.

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