Fell, Margaret (1614–1702)

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Fell, Margaret (1614–1702)

Religious leader and one of the founders of Quakerism, an English movement that survived heavy persecution to become a powerful influence in Anglo-American history. Name variations: Margaret Fox. Born Margaret Askew in 1614 at Marsh Grange, near Dalton, England; died on April 23, 1702, at Swarthmoor Hall in Furness; daughter of John Askew (a gentry landowner); mother's name unknown; married Judge Thomas Fell, in 1632 (died 1658); married George Fox, in October 1669 (died 1691); children: (first marriage) Margaret Fell, Jr. (b. 1633?); Bridget Fell (b. 1635?); Isabel Fell (b. 1637?); George Fell (b. 1638?); Sarah Fell (b. 1642); Mary Fell (b. 1647); Susannah Fell (b. 1650); Rachel Fell (b. October 1653); and one child lost in infancy.

Converted to Quakerism and began holding Quaker meetings in her home (1652); wrote letters to Cromwell and made ten visits to kings in London describing persecution of Quakers; imprisoned many times after Judge Fell's death for her connection with Quakerism (beginning 1664); wrote several Quaker monographs; founded Swarthmoor Women's Monthly Meeting (1671); traveled throughout England facilitating Quaker meetings.

Selected writings:

To Manasseth-ben-Israel (1656); A loving salutation to the seed of Abraham (1656); The Citie of London Reproved (1660); A Call to the Universall Seed of God (1665); Women's Speaking Justified (1666, 2nd ed., 1667); Epistle to Charles II (1666); A Touch-stone, or a perfect tryal (1666); The Standard of the Lord Revealed (1667); A Call to the Seed of Israel (1668); A Relation of Margaret Fell, Her Birth, Life, Testimony and Sufferings for the Lord's Everlasting Truth in her Generation (1690); "The Testimony of Margaret Fox concerning her late husband, George Fox; together with a brief account of some of his Travels, Sufferings, and Hardships endured for the Truth's Sake" (1694); Epistle to Friends Concerning Oaths (1698). In 1712, Margaret Fell's Works were published by her family as A Brief Collection of Remarkable Passages and Occurrences Relating to the Birth, Education, Life, Conversion, Travels, Services, and Deep Sufferings of that ancient Eminent and Faithful Servant of the Lord, Margaret Fell, but by her Second Marriage, M. Fox.

In 1652, Margaret Fell was attending an Anglican church service at St. Mary's, Ulverston, when George Fox made a dramatic entrance and asked the congregation for permission to speak. The traveling preacher, credited as a founder of Quakerism, then discoursed amid hubbub, asserting that priests and other "hireling" clergy were not aware of the Inner Light (Truth). Margaret Fell rose to her feet, speechless and amazed: the idea that everyone has the Inner Light already within them directly contradicted traditional Church teaching which claimed everyone was sinful and only some would be saved. She later recorded her strong reaction:

This opened me so, that it cut me to the heart. Then I saw clearly, we were all wrong. So I sat me down in my pew again, and cried bitterly. I cried in my spirit to the Lord, "We are all thieves, we are all thieves. We have taken the scriptures in words, and know nothing of them in ourselves."

Describing herself as "one that sought after the best things, being desirous to serve God," and who often attended lectures of visiting ministers, Fell was convinced that she had found the spiritual truth she sought.

The rise of Quakerism, or the Society of Friends, during the Interregnum period in England illustrates shifts in religious and social attitudes during a time of turbulent history. The early Quaker movement grew amid considerable instability of political leadership, bringing many concepts to surface: social equality and de-emphasis upon class structure, ministry of laypersons versus paid clergy, pacifism and spiritual equality among men and women. Margaret Fell, known traditionally as the "nursing mother of Quakerism," represents one of many early Friends whose role is being reconsidered in light of 17th-century English nonconformity. Her words and acts, when read in context of prevailing social attitudes of the time, testify to an articulate and determined woman who used her means and talent to further the Quaker cause, whatever the cost.

Margaret Fell was born in 1614 at Marsh Grange, a home owned by her father, John Askew, and located near the parish of Dalton, England. Little detail of Fell's childhood is known, including the name of her mother. Margaret's writings and skilled management of her husband's estate attest to an education consistent with her father's gentry status. Her only sibling was a sister, whose name is also unknown. Each daughter inherited a large legacy after John Askew's death; Fell inherited Marsh Grange.

Margaret married Judge Thomas Fell in 1632. She was 17 or 18, he was 34. In her short autobiography A Relation of Margaret Fell: Her Birth, Life, Testimony, and Sufferings for the Lord's Everlasting Truth in Her Generation (1690), Fell lists the accomplishments of her husband: barrister at law of Gray's Inn, member of Parliament, circuit judge, and more. The Fells resided at Swarthmoor Hall, manor house for the nearby town of Ulverston in Furness, where they raised eight children. Their middle daughter kept a detailed account book (The Household Account Book of Sarah Fell), which sketches the Fells' gentry lifestyle and how the large household was managed.

In the days following her "convincement" in 1652, Fell listened intently to Fox's call to a life of the Inner Light, to know the spiritual presence of Christ within. Judge Fell was away from Swarthmoor at the time, and Margaret Fell encouraged her entire household, children and servants, to embrace Quakerism. When Judge Fell returned home, several neighbors met him on the last leg of his journey to "inform" him that his family no longer attended service at St. Mary's. That evening, Margaret shared her religious experience with her husband. Fell notes in her Testimony: "When he came home and found us the most part of the family changed from our former principle and persuasion which he left us in when he went from home, he was much surprised at our sudden change." The judge listened to the testimony of his wife, then to that of George Fox, and finally to the protest of Lampitt, St. Mary's priest.

Though Thomas Fell continued to attend Anglican services and never officially joined the Quaker movement, he was sympathetic to the convictions of his wife and family. During the remaining six years of his life, Judge Fell's position protected Margaret, George Fox, and other Friends from imprisonment and persecution. He offered Swarthmoor as a Meeting house for the Friends, a tradition that continued until 1690, nearly 50 years.

I told them that I should not deny my faith and principles for any thing they could do against me, and while it pleased the Lord to let me have a house, I would endeavor to worship Him in it.

—Margaret Fell

Swarthmoor Hall became a center of communication as preachers like George Fox and other "Publishers of Truth" traveled throughout England with their message. Margaret Fell fulfilled many roles in the nascent Quaker movement. She coordinated Meetings, hosted traveling Quakers, organized charity projects, and established a fund to aid traveling ministers and their families. Later, she wrote extensively and helped establish Women's Meetings, organizations run strictly by female Quakers. Fell's extensive correspondence with other Friends spreading Quakerism in England, Europe, and America, documents early efforts of traveling Friends. Swarthmoor Hall provided a stable hub for early Quaker activity.

Judge Fell died in 1658. As a widow of independent means, Margaret Fell used her social position and wealth to expand her circle of influence for Quakerism beyond Swarthmoor and its surrounding community. She continued her role as administrator of Swarthmoor (though traditionally her only son might have assumed this role) and managed the estate with the help of her six daughters.

Fell used the written word to spread the Quaker gospel. A prolific letter writer, she maintained correspondence as a network among traveling Quakers and as a vehicle of Quaker apologetics penned for England's rulers. As early as 1655, Fell wrote two letters to Oliver Cromwell regarding Quakerism. Two weeks after Charles II's arrival at court, Margaret felt "moved of the Lord" to go to London and present papers regarding Quaker beliefs and to plead on behalf of hundreds of Friends imprisoned in England, Scotland, and Ireland for those beliefs. Throughout her life, Fell defended Quakerism against increasing persecution with letters and papers addressed to kings (Charles II, James II, William III) and political leaders of the Interregnum period.

Fell began writing books and papers to address issues central to Quaker principles. Topics included conversion of the Jews, nonviolence, and women's right to preach. She wrote "fervent millenialist messages" for officers of the army to follow peaceable policies (including just treatment of Quakers) and to consider the coming judgment against those who embraced violence. Scholar Bonnelyn Young Kunze names Margaret Fell as the first Quaker to write a "declaration against the persecution of peaceful Quakers and against war and violence for any purpose." Pacifism remains an important issue for modern Quakers.

Fell's work in the area of Quaker apologetics included efforts to explain the Friends' opposition to "hat honor" (doffing one's hat in deference to a superior), oath-taking, or enforced tithing to Charles II. (See A Declaration and an Information from the People of God Called Quakers to the Present Governors, the King and both Houses of Parliament and all whom it may concern.) Fell is perhaps best known for her book Women's Speaking Justified, which addresses the issue of women's preaching and role in the faith.

Her first book (1656), To Manasseth-ben-Israel; The Call of the Jews Out of Babylon, as well as several other subsequent works, appealed to Jews to turn to the Light of God. Fell and George Fox both expressed interest in the Jews, believing conversion of Jews helped usher the Second Coming of Christ. Fell's book was taken by millenarian Quakers to Holland, a center of European Jewish culture, where it was translated into Hebrew. Some biographers and scholars suggest that Baruch de Spinoza may have served as translator of Fell's work into Hebrew.

Margaret Fell traveled widely on behalf of the Quakers, organizing Meetings and visiting imprisoned disciples. When she traveled to London for an audience with Charles II in 1660 "concerning the truth and the sufferers for it," she remained there for more than a year. She spoke often with the king, provided papers and letters to each member of the royal family, and visited local Friends Meetings. Though it was unusual for a woman of 17th-century England to be absent from home for so long, Fell placed Swarthmoor Hall and its activities in the hands of her capable daughters and set to work. Endowed with a strong sense of purpose and the means to pursue it, Fell was in a unique position to leave her home for months on end to advance Quakerism. After returning home from her first London visit, Fell remained at Swarthmoor only nine months before she journeyed back to London for another four-month stay. By this time, she was describing beatings of Quakers by soldiers, as well as other persecutions.

Beginning in 1663, Fell began to travel through various counties to visit Friends, logging nearly 1,000 miles on her journey. On this circuit, George Fox met her party and returned with them to Swarthmoor; he was arrested immediately and imprisoned in Lancaster Castle. Shortly thereafter, Fox's prosecutors summoned Fell and required her to answer the "Oath of Allegiance," knowing that a devout Quaker would refuse to take any oath before God and therefore could be imprisoned.

The justices told Fell they would not tender her the Oath if she promised not to hold Meetings at Swarthmoor. She refused to compromise, kept silent when read the Oath, and after receiving indictment, answered the judge, "I rather choose a prison for obeying of God, than my liberty for obeying of men contrary to my conscience." While she was confined in prison at Lancaster from 1664 to 1668, Fell turned again to the written word to continue her work. She wrote epistles to other Friends, maintained correspondence with her family, and wrote an appeal to Charles II which went unanswered; she also wrote four books. The first, A Call to the Universal Seed of God, exhorted Jews and Gentiles to recognize the inward religion of Christ. The Standard of the Lord Revealed was written for Friends and traced the history of God's work through the Bible. A Touch-Stone, or a perfect Tryal addressed clergy, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant, and outlined her protest against "outward sacraments." Fell's 1666 work, Women's Speaking Justified, cites multiple biblical precedents for the spiritual equality of women and their role as preachers of the Gospel. As soon as she was released from prison in 1668, Fell resumed her full schedule of activity, traveling to northern and western England and visiting London for a third time that winter.

In the fall of 1669, Margaret Fell married George Fox. Fox had approached Fell's children before the marriage to assure himself that they were "satisfied" with the match and understood he was not interested in their mother's estate. Indeed, the marriage of Fox and Fell was unusual in many respects. Both partners continued to travel extensively and were separated by various prison sentences. During their 11-year marriage, they lived under the same roof for only a few years. Fox's lack of intervention in the management of Swarthmoor or other Fell holdings was also considered unusual, since a man who married a wealthy wife would be expected to assume administration of her property. Fell remained firmly in control of her family estate. Over the years, speculation on the nature of the Fell-Fox marriage has ranged from the idea of a "spiritual" union to a rather businesslike agreement to join forces for the sake of Quakerism.

Margaret Fell wrote a short tribute to George Fox after his death in 1691. She spent her remaining 11 years at Swarthmoor. By 1690, the Friends Meeting begun at her estate had been moved to a Meeting house nearby, and persecution of Quakerism had been greatly reduced. An Act passed by Parliament in 1696 allowed for "easement" in oath-taking, requiring Friends to "declare and affirm" rather than "declare in the presence of the Almighty God." The Society of Friends had been resisting the old oath for nearly 50 years.

In her final years, Fell reminded Quakers of the founding principles. After a half century or more, the movement had become more institutionalized, with Friends interested in building new Meeting houses and defining their faith. Inevitable differences of opinion arose, and Fell quickly rebutted issues she felt were not central to Quaker identity, such as the growing support for "outward ceremonies" of gray dress and the trend towards quietism. Alarmed by emphasis upon outward appearance, Fell reminded Friends of principles of inward purity. She wrote in an epistle, "It's a dangerous thing to lead young Friends much into observation of outward things, for that will be easily done…. But this will not make them true Christians: it's the Spirit that gives life." She regretted the increasing tendency towards separatism and repeatedly called Friends back to the idea of inward spiritual religion.

After more than 50 years of vigorous service to the cause she supported, Margaret Fell died on April 23, 1702, at Swarthmoor Hall. In Quaker hagiography, Fell is remembered as the "nursing mother of Quakerism," an epithet coined by the first Publishers of Truth, or founding Quaker leaders. Recent reevaluation of Fell's contributions, especially by feminist scholarship, recognizes the unique position Fell carved for herself as she labored for the early Quaker movement. Kunze, for example, suggests that instead of "nursing mother" of Quakerism, Fell might be more accurately considered "mother superior." By any assessment, Margaret Fell remains an excellent example of the capable ingenuity displayed by Quaker women who worked to establish and spread their faith. Fell's considerable legacy of writings allows an unusually detailed examination of her theology and accomplishments, providing rare insight into the personality and unconventionality of the author.


Crosfield, Helen. Margaret Fox of Swarthmoor Hall. London: Headley Bros., 1913.

Fell, Margaret. A call to the Universall seed of God. London: 1665.

——. The Citie of London Reproved. London: Robert Wilson, 1660.

——. A loving salutation to the seed of Abraham. London: Th. Simmons, 1656.

——. A Relation of Margaret Fell, Her Birth, Life, Testimony and Sufferings for the Lord's Everlasting Truth in her Generation, 1690.

——. Women's Speaking Justified. London, 1666, 2nd ed., 1667.

Fox, Margaret Fell. "The Testimony of Margaret Fox concerning her late husband, George Fox; together with a brief account of some of his Travels, Sufferings, and Hardships endured for the Truth's Sake."

Kunze, Bonnelyn Young. Margaret Fell and the Rise of Quakerism. London: Macmillan, 1994.

Ross, Ishbel. Margaret Fell: Mother of Quakerism. London: Longman, 1949 (reprint, 1984).

suggested reading:

Fell, Margaret. A Brief Collection of Remarkable Passages and Occurrences Relating to the Birth, Education, Life, Conversion, Travels, Services and Deep Sufferings of that ancient Eminent and Faithful Servant of the Lord, Margaret Fell, but by her Second Marriage, M. Fox. London: J. Sowle, 1712.


Correspondence and manuscripts located in Friends House Library, London; the Friends Historical Library, Swarthmoor College, Swarthmoor, Pennsylvania; and the Quaker collection, Haverford College, Haverford, Pennsylvania.

Sherry Nanninga Walker , M.A., freelance writer in religion, Colorado Springs, Colorado