A brief journey back in time
Michael Corbett, Queensland Regional Meeting
My association with Friends at the Kelvin Grove Meeting House goes back over 40 years. During that time there have been many different scenarios by which we have read and studied the Advices and Queries [A&Q]. I have formed deep feelings for these wondrous small windows into our Quaker faith and over the years I have concluded that the A&Q form the bedrock – the very foundation of our movement.
Thanks to our Pastoral Care Committee, over the past few months we have been having readings during the Meeting or Worship from the Advices and Queries and they have contributed to a new depth of thought, reflections and Ministry. Over the 60+ years I have been a Quaker, two things have struck me about the A&Q – I do not know of any faith or religion that gives you choices, other than of course Quakers. Advices – you can take them or leave them – they are only A&Q – we are allowed to question the questions! Remarkable but true. Remember the epistle by the elders at Balby in 1656 ‘these things we do not lay upon you as a rule or form to walk by…’. Quakerism at its very best. But it did occur to me that they were probably a collection of inspirational thoughts and leadings that just grew into what we now know. I have a feeling that at least one of origins could have been one very remarkable woman.
So this was the beginning of my brief journey back in time.
Almost 370 years ago, two major forces met, and we would not “be” if it were not for this. In June 1652, George Fox was doing his usual evangelical travelling around the Midlands of England, it was during an intense storm when he arrived Swathmore Hall, at the estate of the Lord Chief Justice Thomas Fell. The Swathmore estate was very large, and part of the building is still standing today. It had land for farming, orchards, vegetable gardens, stables, with many employees to look after the property, including maids and cooks. Justice Thomas Fell was a “man of substance” both in the legal sense and position in society. As it was late, George Fox and his travelling companion were offered a meal and a room to sleep. This was a customary practice that often took place at Swathmore Hall, visiting judges and priests would “stop over” on their journey.
On the day that Fox arrived, Judge Fell was away at an assizes in Wales, holding court appearances. Mistress Margaret Fell was very capable of running the estate during her husband’s absences. She was the mother of 9 children – 8 daughters and 1 son. There is no doubt that Margaret was a devout follower of the Church. She led daily evening prayers “above stairs” whilst the servants held their prayers “below stairs”. The estate also had its own private chapel which would be used when a travelling priest came through.
There was no peace at this time, there was a civil war between the Royalists and the Roundheads. In 1649 King Charles was executed and Oliver Cromwell became the Military Protector and Dictator. Many fierce battles took place and in 1653 Cromwell dissolved parliament. Apart from this chaos, there was a slow spiritual awakening beginning. Martin Luther and others began translating the Bible, starting with the Old Testament, and the Bible was published in English in 1523. More and more people were learning to read and, horror of horrors, people like Fox were able to challenge the clergy’s “self-serving” sermons that came from the pulpit, so the priests felt their authority under threat. Fox and Friends rose to the fore and suffered for many decades for preaching to “that of God in everyone” and to “follow the inward Light”.
During Fox’s stay in Swathmore Hall, Margaret Fell started conversations with Fox and she was struck by his “presence”, his testimony of the inner Light and his preaching. Despite her misgivings – not able to understand why – she became ”convinced” in a very short time after meeting George.
It is to Justice Fell’s credit that he accepted her commitment and supported her and their children as all 8 girls became “convinced”, along with many of the people who worked for the Fell household. Slowly but surely Swathmore Hall became the centre of our movement. Large numbers of Friends were sent to prison. George was famous for not removing his hat in front of judges and priests and refusing to take an oath, and as a result went to prison many times.
Many of our Testimonies were also born at this time – Simplicity and Truth etc., phrases like “what canst thou say”’ and “we marry none; it is the Lord’s work”. The words “we do utterly deny, with all outward wars and strife, and fightings with outward weapons… this is our testimony to the whole world”. This declaration to King Charles II in 1660 became our Peace testimony. In the testimonies lie the seeds of the Advices and Queries we use today.
Margaret took to visiting the jail closest to her and became distressed about the conditions that she found, particularly the number of children imprisoned with the parents. She was able to use the fact that she was married to Justice Fell to enter jail, was able to offer prayers and pastoral care, as well as practical help. She once met a convicted poacher who had one of his hands cut off as well as being imprisoned, she sent him one glove and a mitten, another time she was visiting a young child who had been sentenced to the gallows, and during prayers received the message that “all he has is thee’’ and so accompanied him to his execution.
Margaret started writing letters to distant Friends’ meetings asking for news of “those of your meeting who are in prison”. It is recorded that in 1653, Margaret Fell wrote her first epistle.
She wrote “Dear Friends, this meeting has a concern about those who find themselves imprisoned for Truth’s sake” and signed the letter “Margaret Fell, Recording Clerk, Meeting for Sufferings”. In another epistle, written around 1655, she wrote “now search with the light, which is eternal, whether ye be established in righteousness and purity; if ye be not, ye deny the teaching of the Lord”.
During Yearly Meeting in1682, Friends were moved to write to distant Meetings asking:
What Friends in the ministry, in their respective counties, departed this life since last yearly Meeting?
What Friends imprisoned for their testimony have died in prison since last yearly meeting?
How the Truth has prospered amongst them since the last yearly meeting, and how Friends are in peace and Unity.
This was the first of the Advices & Queries. These three queries were expanded into six in 1694 and amended further in the early 1700’s. Their purpose was to gain factual information about the state of the Society; later the advices were included to give spiritual nurturing and growth to the different Meetings.
On a personal level, I have always felt that Margaret Fell was the “first” of all Clerks in our history. Whilst George Fox was doing a wonderful job in “convincing” with his sermons and setting up Meetings all over England, Ireland, and Wales, it is Margaret who, with divine assistance, started knitting together the organisational structure of our movement turning Swathmore Hall into the headquarters of Quakers. She was a prolific writer of letters, many of which are held in the archives of Friends House in London as well as other places. Apart from personal letters, she also wrote epistles and Minutes as well as a number of books.
She wrote many times to Oliver Cromwell, as well as visiting him, always addressing him as Dear Heart, asking for the release of imprisoned Friends. In January 1661, some forty-three Friends were sent to prison from Swathmore Hall. At another time, four hundred Friends were held in Lancaster Prison at the same time. Margaret was faithful to those in prison, relentless in her communicating and visiting with Cromwell until he died in 1658. She then switched her approach to King Charles II [in 1660] addressing him in the same manner, and it would seem that both men accepted her words of greeting and were not offended by them. She visited the King at least five times, pleading all the time for the release of prisoners “who were all people of peace” and not plotting against the King. All through the summer of 1672 two Friends in London, Ellis Hookes and George Whitehead, an early Quaker preacher and lobbyist, were involved in making a list of imprisoned Friends and number of non-Quaker Dissenters. This was presented to King Charles II; it was a list of 500 people – including John Bunyan – and they were all released by years end by Charles II by “The Great Pardon”.
It is recorded that from 1673 to 1785, there was continuous and severe persecution of Quakers. Yet our movement grew, and people like William Penn, Robert Barclay, and Isaac Pennington became Quakers and spread the word. Many of the letters, books, minute books and epistles written, and many other documents have provided a great tapestry of our Quaker movement.
Justice Fell died in 1658 and this left Margaret open to persecution. In February 1664 she was arrested and sentenced to six years in Lancaster Castle jail. Margaret was released in June 1668. Friends kept her supplied with paper and she became a prolific writer of letters to both the King and other Quakers Meetings and Friends in prison. In October 1669, George Fox and Margaret Fell were married in Bristol and it is recorded that after the wedding, George Fox travelled in the South and Midlands, whilst Margaret returned to Swathmore.
They both, along with many other Friends, were persecuted and were in and out of jail for many years. As if prison was not enough for Margaret and other Friends, in 1670 a special Act the Second Conventicle (which was to be used against “secret” or “unauthorised meetings for religious worship”) was passed. It not only imprisoned but impoverished people. A person preaching at a religious meeting was fined £20 for the first and £40 for any further offence and a person who allowed a meeting in their house was fined £20. The Act also created a class of people – the informers – who made a living spying on meetings held by Quakers, and other non-conformists. This Act held till 1688 and it is noted in books compiled by the “clerks” of local Meeting which throw great light on the suffering of Friends, and appears in the Book of Sufferings of Lancashire Friends, from 1654 to 1700 at the Lancashire Meeting House. If you could not pay the fines, then the contents of shops and houses were commonly taken in lieu of fines.
Margaret never gave up talking to Royalty. When Charles II died, she “interviewed” James II, always pleading for Friends’ freedom to worship without punishment and it is her efforts, laying the foundations to our Society, that we enjoy today. The suffering and punishment that early Friends went through would have deterred many of us.
George Fox died in January 1691, Margaret Fox, nee Fell, lived till April 1702 when she died aged eighty-eight, at Swathmore Hall So, the next time you see or hear from the booklet, Advices and Queries, I trust you will remember the sufferings that early Friends went through and who gave birth to the A&Q.
I have used three sources of material. The first “The Peaceable Kingdom” by Jan De Hartog – where I found the first reference to “Margaret Fell, recording clerk, Meeting for Sufferings”.
The second source was “Quaker Faith and Practice” from Britain Yearly Meeting.
But my main source of information came from “Margaret Fell – the Mother of Quakerism” written by Isabel Ross – a seventh generation descendant of Margaret. A truly fitting title to “the first of Clerks” in my humble opinion.
Any faults in this article are my own. I trust that I have done justice to the memories of the Friends who have suffered to create this pathway that I now travel.
De Hartog, J. 1972 The Peaceable Kingdom Published by Scribner. ISBN-13: 978-0689104824
Religious Society of Friends 1995, 2005. Quaker Faith and Practice. Published by the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain, London. ISBN 0 85245 374 4
Ross, I., Milligan, E.H., Thomas, M.J. 1984. Margaret Fell – the Mother of Quakerism. Published by Hyperion Books. ISBN 0900657839
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