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A Sincere and Constant Love
Review by Bill Samuel
Originally published March 1, 1999 at Suite101.com
This article is a review of the book A Sincere and Constant Love: An Introduction to the Work of Margaret Fell, edited with introductions by Terry S. Wallace, Friends United Press, 1992, $10.95 U.S.
This book includes some key writings by Margaret Fell, with historical introductions by Terry Wallace. The writings include ones important in the early years of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), plus ones about Fell and her second husband, George Fox, generally considered the founder of Quakerism.
Margaret Fell, later Margaret Fell Fox, was a key figure in early Quakerism. She has been referred to as the "nursing mother" of Quakerism, as her home at Swarthmoor Hall "became not only one of the centers of their spiritual network, but also one of their major administrative and communications focal points. Her decisions, material assistance, and spiritual support in spite of the most adverse conditions and hostile opposition." (p. iii)
She was born Margaret Askew in 1614 in Lancashire, England. She was born into the landed gentry, and married in her late teens to an older man, also of the landed gentry, Thomas Fell. Thomas Fell was a highly respected judge, and several times a Member of Parliament. Because he rode a circuit as a judge, he was away for long periods of time. While he was away, he left their estate at Swarthmoor in the hands of Margaret, in whose rather considerable administrative talents he obviously had great confidence. She often was serving simultaneously as a mother, administrator of a large estate, and coordinator of a scattered network of traveling Friends' ministers. Among other things, she also wrote a number of works and lobbied extensively in London on behalf of Friends. By all accounts, she was very effective at all the tasks to which she set her hand. She persevered despite imprisonment and forfeiture of her estate. She died in 1702 at the age of 88, the last surviving leader of the first generation of Friends.
In 1652, while George Fox was still an itinerant preacher and evangelist with no organized following, he came to Swarthmoor Hall. In a short period of time, Margaret Fell, her daughters and most of her servants became convinced of the truth of the gospel he preached. When Thomas Fell returned home from his work, he also heard Fox and became quite sympathetic, although he never formally became a Friend. Margaret Fell assisted his ministry from that point on, and Fox's time at Swarthmoor then has since been viewed as one of the key events of that historic year which marked the beginning of Friends as an organized movement. After the death of her first husband, Margaret married George Fox. In the six years that followed until his death, their respective ministries and periods of imprisonment kept them apart most of the time.
A True Testimony
The first work of Fell's presented by Wallace is a doctrinal work, A True Testimony, Etc. (the full title goes on and on in the style of that day), published in 1660. In it, she expresses the classic Quaker concern about church institutions being in apostasy, understood in the light of the Book of Revelation. She pleads for worshipping God in spirit and in truth rather than by the outward forms of institutions. In this way, people will be united in the fellowship of the Gospel, and will demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). In the accompanying Epistle to the Reader, she writes of how she hopes the reader will read the work:
Now, reader, in soberness and singleness of your heart, read this following treatise without an evil eye and a prejudiced mind. Let the truth of God have place in the heart. Let the light of Christ in your conscience seriously judge, weight the things therein contained, (according to the scriptures) prove all things, and hold fast that which is good. Look not at men, nor at the times, as they stand in relation to men, for in so doing, the god of the world will blind the eye. Look at the Lord, at His truth, and eye his dealing and dispensation of His will, according to His wisdom. Let Him be your fear. Let Him be your dread. Slight not your day of visitation of His love, for truly the Lord, whom we seek, will suddenly come to His temple, and who may abide the day of His coming...
Declaration to King and Parliament
The second of Fell's works included in the book is also from 1660, A Declaration and an Information from Us, The People Called Quakers, to the Present Governors, The King and Both Houses of Parliament, and All Whom It May Concern. Thirteen other prominent Friends, including George Fox, signed a statement to "subscribe and witness to the truth of this" declaration. That Margaret Fell was the person to write this important declaration demonstrates her importance to the movement.
Coming after the restoration of the king, a time of great suffering for Friends, the declaration explains the movement's principles and pleads for religious freedom. It is noteworthy as the first public declaration of the Friends' peace testimony, coming several months before the widely quoted January 1661 declaration. She sets forth the Quaker concept of the Lamb's War, a spiritual war with evil, and states that Friends "bear our testimony against all strife, wars, and contentions that come from the lusts that war in the members..."
Perhaps the best known of Margaret Fell's pamphlets is Women's Speaking Justified, Proved and Allowed of by the Scriptures, All Such as Speak by the Spirit and Power of the Lord Jesus And How Women Were the First That Preached the Tidings of the Resurrection of Jesus, and Were Sent by Christ's Own Command Before He Ascended to the Father (John 20:17), published in 1666 during her four-year imprisonment. "Feminist historians have recognized it as a key document, one of the first by a woman, in the evolution of woman's vision as an equal partner with man." (p. 57)
It is not a full-blown feminist tract by modern standards, but it is a quite vigorous defense of women's spiritual equality and justifies women being active in the public ministry. It remains an important work today, when numerous churches continue to restrict the ministry of women. It is a very careful exegesis of scripture, highlighting the difference between women under the Law and women of the New Creation under Christ. Fell is a particularly appropriate person to write this tract, as her life and ministry ably demonstrates how powerfully the Lord can work in public ministry through a woman.
Some Ranters Principles Answered
The last doctrinal work of Fell which Wallace presents is actually the earliest to be published, 1656. It is a vehement tract attacking the blasphemy of a loose movement known as the Ranters. They took an extreme antinomian position which essentially made the individual a law unto himself or herself. While on the surface their theology appears to have similarities to that of Friends, in fact the Friends' firm grounding in prophetic Christianity and unity in direction by the Spirit resulted in a strong corporate ethical stance which is the antithesis of the ethical anarchism of the Ranters. Friends felt the need to be crystal clear that their position was radically different from that of the Ranters. Their amorality disgusted Friends.
About the Editor/Author
Terry Wallace is particularly qualified to prepare this work as one who shares with Fell a wholehearted commitment to the Everlasting Gospel. Wallace has been tireless in his work with New Foundation Fellowship, which declares and explores the original faith of Friends. Wallace is a member of Warrington (PA) Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends.
Wallace published two prior books, both consisting of his poems. He is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Harrisburg Area Community College.
I feel Wallace has done a real service with this work. Despite her pivotal position among early Friends, Margaret Fell's writings have not received a great deal of attention. Wallace does an excellent job of putting the writings in context, bringing to life both the writings and their extraordinary author.
Other Books About or by Margaret Fell
Writings of Margaret Fell Online
You may also be interested in my article on Friends (Quakers) and Women.
© by Bill Samuel. Do not reprint in whole or in part without prior permission of the author, except for limited quoting in accordance with "fair use" principles. You are welcome to link to this page.
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