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The Importance of Margaret Fell

The Importance of Margaret Fell – Betty Hagglund and Stuart Masters in conversation
For this film, I’ve come to Woodbrooke, the Quaker Study Centre in Birmingham. And we’re going to meet Dr. Betty Hagglund and Stuart Masters, both of whom are experts on Margaret Fell. Let’s go inside to meet them.
Betty, Stuart, thank you very much for joining me today to talk about Margaret Fell. I wondered if we could begin by telling me a little bit about who she was. Margaret Fell was born in 1614 in Lancashire. She was from a gentry family, had a younger sister. Her upbringing would have been comfortable. And she was well educated. We know that she could read well, and she read extensively through her life, that she could write well, that she kept her own accounts. And that all would have been quite typical for a gentry woman of her time. She married Thomas Fell when she was 17. Thomas Fell lived reasonably nearby. He was the owner of Swarthmore Hall, a substantial house and estate.
He was a barrister at the time she married him. He was later to become both a politician and a judge. And between them, they built up the Swarthmore Hall estate. Now, for a woman of Margaret Fell’s class and time who was in charge of an estate like that, it would have been almost like being CEO of a small- to middle-sized company these days. She had a number of employees, both employees who lived there– farm workers, domestic workers who lived there in Swarthmore Hall. We know there were a number of day employees, as well.
And she would have been responsible for a lot of the decision-making about what happened there, particularly since Thomas Fell’s work took him away from home a lot, and he was often out on the assizes working as a judge. So she would have carried a lot of responsibility and authority within her own estate. Now, both Thomas and Margaret were interested in religion. Like many people of their time, they were looking for an alternative to the established church. And they were very serious seekers. We know that they read a lot on religion. They financially sponsored an independent preacher in the local parish church in Ulverston.
And they also used to invite visiting preachers– there were a lot of people who were travelling around the country at that time from various religious sects, who would travel around, stay with people, talk about their own interpretation of the scriptures. And we know that Margaret and Thomas often invited these travelling ministers to stay with them. And it was one of those travelling ministers in 1652 who was to have a really profound effect on Margaret’s life and a substantial– probably not quite as transformative, but certainly a substantial– effect on Thomas’s life. Yeah.
I mean, when George Fox and a number of other early Quaker leaders emerged into the area in 1652, they may just have been another group of people that Judge Fell and Margaret Fell listened to, were interested in, and then went away again. But clearly, that’s not the case here. This is a life-changing experience for Margaret Fell. And it seems to happen in Swarthmore, in Ulverston Church in 1652. George Fox comes and is given permission to speak in the church and gives a message that Margaret Fell says she’d never heard that kind of doctrine before. So we are in a time of a strongly Calvinist, Puritan understanding. People are totally depraved. Only a small elect will be saved.
And Fox brings a message of divine intimacy, the spirit in all people, the power to transform them. And the most important thing is not doctrine but the experience of that relationship with the spirit and being transformed. Now clearly, that was something that revolutionised her understanding and transformed her life. And from that point on, she’s a Quaker. She serves the Quaker movement for the rest of her life. Most of her family become Quaker, apart from Judge Fell, which is probably a political issue. He was a man of substance in the establishment and maybe felt it wasn’t a good idea to become a Quaker, even though he was sympathetic.
But that life-changing experience seems to happen at this time, and she becomes a leader for the rest of her life. You’ve mentioned that she’s gentry, and you’ve mentioned Swarthmore Hall. How important, do you think, her social rank and the place of Swarthmore Hall is in the early Quaker story? I think that’s really quite significant, don’t you? Because, well, there are number of things. There’s the fact that she’s a woman of influence and also that Thomas Fell is a man of influence. And that provides a kind of protection for the new Quaker movement, which is a movement that receives a lot of opposition. There are a lot of jailings and things.
And certainly, Margaret Fell’s rank and class enables her to provide a certain amount of protection. It also gives her access through the years to people like the Parliament, and then, after the Restoration, to the king, that she has a kind of ear with the king that somebody of a lower rank wouldn’t have had. And beyond that, Swarthmore Hall itself as a building, as a place, becomes really important. Yeah. I mean effectively, it becomes the headquarters of a new movement. It’s a mixture of centre for communications, a place where Quaker ministers will come and be trained before going out into the world. It’s a place of spiritual nurture, as well, for the people who come and go.
In some ways, you might say it’s the Quaker cloister from which you go out into the world, suffer persecution, and then come back for kind of spiritual refreshment. So it operates on all sorts of levels. And I think it’s a substantial estate. It can house quite a large number of people. It’s a place of safety, as you’ve said. Judge Fell has substantial authority. Quakers are a despised sect at the time, and are suffering persecution. It’s far enough away from the centres of power in London to, in a sense, be below the radar of those people who want to crush a troublesome movement before it really got off the ground.
So in a sense, by the time the Valiant 60 pour out across the country in 1654, what you see is a movement that’s been able to develop strongly enough in that place of safety and security that it’s too strong and it’s too well-developed to be easily crushed. I think the other thing– you mention spiritual nurture. And certainly, it’s a place of spiritual nurture. But Margaret Fell is also really important in that one of her strengths– and she had many strengths. But one of her real talents was for spiritual counsel and spiritual support.
And we have lots and lots of letters that have survived that she wrote to both individuals and to groups, encouraging them, sometimes reprimanding them, and helping them to develop spiritually. So it’s pretty obvious that Margaret Fell has a major role to play in the beginnings of Quakerism. But overall in looking at her life after 1652, what’s her main contribution to the Quaker story? Well, I think Betty’s already mentioned one really significant one. Margaret Fell was the most important political lobbyer of the first generation in the Quaker movement. Her social status, the fact that her husband was an important politician, and her education gave her access to places of power.
Even from the very beginning of the movement, she would write letters to those in authority seeking to release Quakers from imprisonment. But when the monarchy was restored in 1660, persecution was that much worse. And she was able to spend a lot of time in London in the centres of power arguing the Quaker case. Judge Fell had died in 1658. That had freed Margaret from the limitations of her domestic situation. Her daughters were old enough to run the estate by then. And so she could spend a lot of time in London, in the court, talking to the king, talking to politicians, writing to the king. She wrote to the king more or less every week.
You might say she was stalking the king. But her position was to say, Quakers are a peaceable people. We will not rise up against the king. You need to understand who we are and not what people say about us. And that led her to be the first person to write a declaration to Charles II explaining the peaceful principles of the Quaker movement. So it’s hard to underestimate that importance. And in fact, you could argue that George Fox himself may not have survived as long as he did if it hadn’t of been for Margaret Fell lobbying on his behalf.
He was imprisoned on a number of occasions, and when he was, her loyalty to George Fox meant that she very vigorously campaigned for his release. And long periods in prison, of course, were often a death sentence. So I don’t think we can underestimate how important that was. It seems to me that she was also important as a theological writer. Would you agree? Yes, I think that’s right. I mean, I don’t think she was a theological innovator. Essentially, she received the Quaker vision and the Quaker worldview from others, from Fox in particular. But what’s interesting about Margaret Fell is her ability to take that worldview and apply it in some interesting ways. So there’s a couple of examples of that.
One example is she was the person who had an ongoing correspondence with the Jewish community in Europe, in particular in Amsterdam. And she was able to exercise a very interesting and sensitive approach to dialogue with people of other faiths. So for example, in the case of the dialogue with the Jews, she was able to write to them with a detailed knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures and only use references from the Hebrew scriptures. So she had that kind of sensitivity.
She was also able to apply what effectively was a very Christ-centered theology, but in a universalistic way, this kind of universalistic aspect of Quaker theology that allows you to communicate with people of other faiths and make them understand they’re part of the same experience. Because it’s not about doctrinal boundaries. It’s about a common experience of the spirit that’s in all people. So I think that was really interesting and really important. On another level, of course, the early Quaker movement was unusual in the level of spiritual equality that it afforded women. Women could be prophets, could be preachers, could be travelling ministers.
And Margaret Fell’s important, obviously, as a key female leader within the movement, but also as somebody who would write to defend that– what was quite controversial– position of spiritual equality. And so Margaret Fell, for example, wrote a famous tract called Womens Speaking Justified when she was in prison in Lancaster in the mid 1660s. And that’s still regarded as a sort of really important text in, say, feminist literature and so on. I think the other thing that always strikes me is how important she is as an organiser. As I said earlier, she’s coming to this with all of those skills that she’s developed in running the Swarthmore Hall estate.
And it does seem to me, looking at Fox, looking at James Nayler, and looking at Fell that what we have in those early days is a kind of threesome– three people who are jointly making decisions, who are meeting quite often, who are discussing things. And that whereas Fox and Nayler are very much spokespeople– very good preachers, very good with crowds– what Fell has is a lot of skill in making things happen, in making sure there’s money there when needed, and in really keeping the organisation going. And we then see that later, after the Restoration, when friends are beginning to look at how do we organise this movement, this movement which had been very much a spontaneous, charismatic movement?
How do we organise it in a way that means it’s going to survive the deaths of all of those early friends? And Fell is absolutely central in some of the ways in which Quaker decision-making is reorganised at that time. And of course, she lives a long life. She lives right through to the end of the 17th century and into the 18th and continues to an influence, even though, as time goes on, the centre of power in the Quaker movement moves from the northwest into London. A new generation of people, some of whom have aristocratic background and entrance into the court, like William Penn, become more important in terms of political lobbying.
But she’s there right through, and she’s seen as the mother of the movement. In some sense, she’s a little bit of a remnant of the early generation towards the end of her life. Well, she outlives most of them. She outlives most of them, and she’s still seen and revered as that sort of organising figure and as that mother of the movement. Stuart, Betty, thank you very much indeed.

In this video, Betty Hagglund and Stuart Masters explore and explain Margaret Fell’s background, and her pastoral, organisational and theological skills and evaluate her importance in the birth of Quakerism.

Is there anything in what Betty and Stuart say that surprises you? Is there anything else you have read about Margaret Fell that you want to share?

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Radical Spirituality: the Early History of the Quakers

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