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Key aspects of Margaret Fell’s thinking

Key aspects of Margaret Fell's thinking
I’m back in Special Collections at Lancaster University Library, where we have the passage that we are looking at, again, in the first printed version of Fox’s journal of 1694. Margaret Fell wrote this passage as a tribute to George Fox. It tells of her experience in Ulverston Church shortly after meeting him for the first time. It was published, as I’ve said, in this first printed edition of his journal following his death in 1690. There’s a description of the context– that it was 1652, that her husband was away, but that Fox was a guest at Swarthmoor Hall.
Margaret Fell’s description of him coming to church the next day does not match that of Fox’s journal, but we get the same picture– that he did not go to the service at the start when she did but came in just before the sermon. It was Margaret Fell who gained the priest’s permission to let Fox speak. This may have been simply a case of justice, that all should be allowed to speak, or it may be that she had a sense that she needed to hear what he had to say. Fox’s words concern those who were truly part of the chosen people, that true faith is not demonstrated by outward traits but by inward authenticity. Faith is of the heart.
The light of Christ is available to everyone, not just the predestined. And through that light, all can be gathered to God. As with the Howgill passage that we looked at last week, we find a strong emphasis on an inclusive or universal faith rather than an exclusive or limited one. Fox continues that the scriptures are written by those and about those who’ve experienced this inward grace. Without the experience of the inward light of Christ, people professed but did not possess authentic spirituality. So the litmus test when people talk of their faith is whether it’s truly inwardly from God. “What canst thou say from that place?” Fox asks, “Anything or nothing?”
Margaret Fell stands to listen, but then sits down in her pew and cries. She writes that she realised, “we were all wrong.” She and her fellow worshippers have been thieves. They’ve taken the scripture and used it but not really understood it or felt its origin. They’ve not been in the authentic place of its writers. They’ve not been speaking what is inwardly from God. Indeed, she claims to have truly known nothing. Margaret Fell feels that she now understands this aspect of faith, that she understands now what is true and what is false. She accepts this revelation fully, offers no resistance to it, but submits to it with the love with which it was given– knowing it is for her salvation.
This is a reference to Paul’s second letter
to Thessalonians 2:10. She hopes she will not lose this new way of understanding but will be kept in it, kept in that place. Fell’s account– like those of Fox and Howgill have a before and after structure as well as a theme of new understanding, turning what has been accepted on its head. The sense of God is inward and intimate and powerful, and the consequences are life changing. Both Fox and Fell see how they’ve fallen short in their Christian faith but are now able to proceed in this new spirituality. All three authors use scripture to frame their experience, but all authority for their new understanding is with God alone. For Margaret Fell, in this account, Fox speaks for God.
And the day after his arrival in Ulverston, she is brought to a place of acute discomfort but ultimately also of spiritual rebirth.

This video reflects on the Margaret Fell passage we have been studying.

It unpicks the main points she is raising in this account of her experience in Ulverston Church and contrasts this passage with those we have looked at from George Fox and Francis Howgill. All are accounts written many years after the events they describe.

How convincing do you find these accounts? Why were they written? How reliable might they be? How do you personally find the Margaret Fell passage? Is it for example inspiring or discomforting? Both?

Post your reflections in the comments section.

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Radical Spirituality: the Early History of the Quakers

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