ESR Geraldine Leatherock Professor of Quaker Studies Stephen W. Angell delivered a version of this essay as a lecture for the Gathering of Adult Young Friends in Plainfield, Indiana, on November 8, 2013.
This essay proposes to examine the life of first-generation Quaker Mary Fisher as a lens to examine issues relating to Quaker engagement with interreligious, intercultural, and intra-cultural dialogue, as well as issues relating to God’s progressive or continuing revelation over time. Let’s distinguish, at the start, three different kinds of interreligious dialogue: (1) ecumenical dialogue – i.e., dialogue between Quakers and other Christians; (2) interfaith dialogue – i.e., dialogue between Quakers and Christians, on the one hand, and non-Christians on the other; and (3) dialogue between different types of Quakers. I’ll attempt to deal with all three kinds of interreligious dialogue in this essay.
So, who was Mary Fisher? She was an unmarried servant in her late twenties when she first heard Quakers preach in 1652 (the first year of mass Quaker convincements) in the north of England. Convinced along with her master and mistress, she rushed out to prophesy. Admonishing the local parish minister to “come down, come down, thou painted beast, come down. Thou art but a hireling, and a deluder of the people with thy lies” occasioned her arrest for what was to be the first of many imprisonments. Her broader point, whatever her particular disagreements with her local minister, was that the Christian churches had declined significantly in fidelity of witness to the original Christian vision of Jesus and the first generation of apostles. Christianity, in the manifestation of the Anglican church, had lost its simplicity, had perverted the teachings of Jesus, and, most importantly, had lost the ability to search for God’s leading as manifested by the inward teacher, Christ’s Spirit. Quakers stated that the Christian Church was in “apostasy,” having fallen away from the Truth – indeed, they had claimed this had happened after the first Christian century – and they aimed to reinvigorate Christ’s witness within a supposedly Christian church and Christian nation.
There, in jail, she met older Quaker women, such as the fifty-two year old ElizabethHooton. She also became acquainted with persons sentenced to hang, as convicted horse thieves. She wrote a letter of protest to the judge, telling him that what he had done was “contrary to that in thy conscience which tells thee that thee should not put to death any creature. Lay it to heart and let the oppressed go free.” She signed her name as “Mary Fisher, prisoner” and “one who desires the good of all creatures.”
She was imprisoned for more than a year, and then traveled south in England with Elizabeth Williams, another other woman and unmarried, to witness to scoffing scholars at Cambridge. Young adult Friends were routinely paired with older Friends of the same gender as pairs of ministers left to preach the “everlasting gospel” (Rev. 14:6); mentor relationships were prized. In seventeenth-century England, one woman (or two) presuming to preach the Word of the Lord was immensely offensive, not to mention the fact that she was spreading the message of the despised Quakers. As with the parish minister in the north of England, she addressed the Cambridge students directly and harshly, calling them a cage of unclean birds. Cambridge students stoned the women. Then Fisher and Williams were arrested and treated brutally, stripped naked to the waist and whipped savagely in the marketplace, until “their flesh was miserably cut and torn,” according to the chronicler of Quaker sufferings, Joseph Besse. They were treated “far more cruelly than is usually done to the worst of Malefactors.”
The intrepid Fisher was determined to continue with her ministry. After two more imprisonments, one in York and one in Buckinghamshire, Fisher again traveled with an older woman, Ann Austin, married with five children, and this time, they booked a passage across the Atlantic (via Barbados in the West Indies) to declare the word of the Lord to the inhabitants of Boston. When they arrived, they were denied permission to land, their books were confiscated, they were kept in solitary confinement, and they were stripped naked in order to search their bodies for signs that they were witches. One English Quaker, George Bishop, compared the Boston magistrates’ treatment of Fisher and Austin to the Spanish inquisition.
Eventually, they were deported to Barbados, where Fisher worked in order to gain money to return to England. One Barbados Friend wrote of her ministry there, “Mary Fisher is a precious heart, and has been very serviceable here.” Fisher addressed Friends in Barbados as her “dear babes,” and advised them to “love not your lives unto the death” but rather “give up freely, soul and body as a living sacrifice.” All of our righteousness “is of God”; any other kind of righteousness is “an unclean garment, which is a shame to be warm.” Historian Phyllis Mack elaborates that, for groups of Quakers to whom Fisher had already preached, she “acted as a pastor, not a social critic.” Fisher was well acquainted with both the pastoral and prophetic forms of ministry. She encouraged George Fox to send more Quaker ministers to Barbados, assuring them that they would be “serviceable” there. In 1671, Fox would come himself to Barbados.
Eventually she did return, but then, in 1657, in her early thirties, she set out on her most ambitious missionary journey of all. With four other Quakers (two men and two women), she set off for the eastern Mediterranean. They may have desired to minister in Jerusalem, but they got as far as Greece and Turkey. The English envoy in Turkey opposed the Quakers and managed to force them to leave, but Fisher was not clear to leave Turkey, and became separated from her companions, traveling overland by herself to visit the Ottoman emperor Mehmed IV at Adrianople, or modern-day Edirne. (It is still a part of the country of Turkey, and is located on the continent of Europe.) He was known to English people as the “Great Turk,” and he was greatly feared. His military campaigns conquered much of eastern Europe, and his armies later reached the outskirts of Vienna before being turned back. It was not easy to get an audience with the emperor, but Fisher was diligent in her attempt, and eventually was able to gain an audience with an important assistant to the emperor, the son of the grand vizier, Koprulu Fazil Ahmed Pasha. Pasha was able to get Fisher a meeting with the emperor.
Fisher’s account of her meeting with the emperor is the only one that survives. It must have been an impressive spectacle, as she was received in the emperor’s court, with all of his “great men” around him, along with three interpreters. The emperor asked her whether she had something to say to him. Fisher affirmed that she did, but stood silent for a time, waiting on the Lord. The emperor supposed that she might be afraid of him, and so he spoke encouragingly, bidding her to “speak the Word of the Lord to them, neither more nor less, and not to fear, for they had good hearts, and could hear it.” At that point, Fisher did find that it was given to her to speak, and she said what she had to say. She did not record her own message, but she asked the emperor whether he understood everything she had said, and he responded, “Yes, every word.” He affirmed the truth of her statements, and asked her to stay in Turkey, and when she declined, offered her a guard, to bring her to the seaport of Istanbul. She declined that offer as well, “trusting in the Arm of the Lord, which had brought her thither and had prospered her work, to bring her back.”
Then some in his Court asked her a question that she hadn’t anticipated: “What do you think of our prophet, Mohammed?” Cautiously, she replied that she did not know Mohammed; “but Christ the true prophet, the Son of God, who was the light of the world, and enlightened every man coming into the world, him she knew.” She ventured to add that, concerning Mohammed, her hosts “might judge of him to be true or false; according to the words and prophecies he spoke.” If his prophecies came to pass, then they should know that God had sent him as a prophet. This answer pleased the Turks.
So she left as she had come, unaccompanied, and returned to Istanbul for passage back to England. It had been an arduous journey: Fisher recalled she had met with “many trials such as I never met with before.” Still, she was left by a favorable impression of the Turks and their emperor. “He was very noble unto me,” she recalled. “He received the words of truth without contradiction, they do dread the name of God, many of them.” On an even more optimistic note, she affirmed that “there is a royal seed” among the Turks “which in time God will raise. They are more near Truth than many nations; there is a love begot in me toward them which is endless, but this is my hope concerning them, that he who hath raised me to love them more than many others will also raise his seed in them unto which my love is. Nevertheless, though they be called Turks, the seed of them is near unto God, and their kindness hath in some measure been shown toward his servants.” She had certainly been treated more kindly in far-off Turkey than she had been in her native England, or in New England. It’s also likely that she did not call the Ottoman emperor a painted beast, nor his court a cage of unclean birds, as she had various of her fellow English. To state the obvious, the level of insult in one’s rhetoric does matter. And she did more listening in Turkey than she did among the Anglicans in England.
So the “interfaith” part of Fisher’s witness was much gentler than what I will misleadingly term the “ecumenical” part of her witness. In fact, there was little of what we would now call the ecumenical spirit in the way that different groups of Christians confronted one another in the seventeenth century. But there was a great deal at stake for Quakers in their interfaith contacts with Jews, Muslims, and Native Americans. Alone among English Christians, they believed that the inward teacher could bring these groups of non-Christians into saving contact with the Truth. Consequently, there was every indication that, with these folks, they adopted a respectful approach. Early Quakers tended to have an admirable interfaith outreach.
Perhaps as a result of Mary Fisher’s experience, at least in part, Quakers were more likely to have a generous assessment of Turks, or Muslims. For example, the later Quaker writer William Penn’s references to Turks were almost invariably positive, as he meant to convey an honest non-Christian who had some degree of religious understanding beyond his or her own religion of Islam. (By contrast, Penn’s most important teacher, Moses Amyraut, a French Huguenot scholar, had a highly negative view of Islam.) Furthermore, Penn believed that the Turks were superior in morality to hypocritical Christians. Penn, unlike Fisher, never traveled to Turkey and thus had little or no acquaintance with actual Turks, but he could easily have come to this conclusion by meditating upon Fisher’s story.
Fisher, unlike many seventeenth-century Quakers, was relatively long-lived. After her return from Turkey, she married a Quaker ship captain, William Bayly, who was also an important Quaker preacher and writer. She stayed close to her Dorset home while married to Bayly, although she was arrested once in London in 1662 and roughly treated, despite being pregnant at the time. She bore three children, two boys and a girl, while married to Bayly.
There were several Quaker schisms in the last four decades of the seventeenth century. Mary doesn’t seem to have been involved in this aspect of seventeenth-century tumult. But one of the issues at hand was whether women should be involved in Quaker business processes. Until George Fox and Margaret Fell regularized Quaker business process in the late 1660s, Quaker men handled all of the meeting business, but Fox and Fell set up separate Quaker meetings for business for women at that time. William Mather, a Quaker dissenter, objected: “Can there be greater imposters, than those that judge all people, not to be of God, for not submitting to a female government in marriage? A thing never heard of, except the government of the Amazons. Was not that eminent man, William Penn, ashamed to mention this frivolous government of women, fearing the world would laugh at it, as indeed well they might, having never heard before that a meeting of women must be advised with, before marriage. We are not against a woman’s declaring in a religious meeting, what God has done for her soul, by silently waiting at the feet of Jesus, as Mary did. Nor are we against women meeting by themselves, upon a particular occasion, but not monthly for government.”
While we don’t have documentation, it is not hard to imagine that Mary Fisher would have vigorously opposed Mather’s perspective. Phyllis Mack writes, “When we learn of Mary Fisher, an illiterate serving maid, instructing Muslims, Puritans, and pagans on the other side of the world, it is difficult to ‘read’ her experience as anything other than a quest for personal freedom and autonomy.” But Mack goes on to observe that Quaker women also embraced a collective identity of Quakerism that made space for this kind of freedom for women. Fisher would not have embraced, however, the more rigid constrictions for women’s freedom that the Quaker separatist Mather sought.
Bayly died at sea in 1675, and three years later, she married a second time, this time to John Cross, a Quaker shoemaker. With Cross, she emigrated to South Carolina, with all of her children. She outlived her second husband, too, dying in 1698 aged about 75. She was a very active Quaker in South Carolina, with Friends there addressing her reverently as “Mother Cross.” While her children remained Quakers, her grandchildren all married out of the Meeting and became Anglicans. One of her granddaughters, Sophia Hume, subsequently experienced convincement to Quakerism and became a minister (or “public Friend”) like her grandmother had been.
In her last years, she owned ten slaves, both African and Indian. Her prophetic ministry as an adult young Friend involved proclaiming the injustice of the death penalty for theft to a judge in England; as an older Friend, however, she never protested against slavery, neither in Barbados nor in South Carolina; indeed she became a slaveholder himself. While prophesying against some forms of injustice, she became ensnared in others. We might recall that George Fox, while ministering to Quaker slaveholders in Barbados, admonished them to include their slaves in their meeting for worship, and suggested that they free their slaves after some “considerable” period of years. It is unclear how closely slaveholding Friends in America followed Fox’s advice on these matters, but it seems likely that many, or most, Quaker masters during Mary Fisher Bayly Cross’ lifetime generally excluded slaves, i.e., human beings denied fundamental aspects of humanity, from Christian worship of any kind. Following anti-slavery activists such as eighteenth-century Quakers John Woolman and Anthony Benezet, we perceive a continuing revelation that causes us to abhor holding any of our fellow human beings in bondage.
We can be confident that we have identified one of Fisher’s blind spots, one for which we would criticize her in retrospect. But let us also recollect historian Barbara Tuchman’s comment that one of the uses of history is that it can serve as a “distant mirror.” When we gaze back several centuries, we just possibly might be startled to find our own faces staring back at us, in what we have found. Along these lines, I or we, might ask: What are my blind spots, what are our blind spots, for which I, and we, will be criticized in the future? Where is the Holy Spirit nudging us, and telling us that we need to grow?
In conclusion, we should note that, while Quakers, to this day, are inspired by Mary Fisher’s interfaith witness, the ecumenical vision of Quakers (and also that of the Anglicans or Episcopalians, the Quakers’ nemesis three centuries ago) has changed and broadened considerably. Today, very few Quakers of any branch of the Religious Society of Friends would uphold the early Quaker view that other Christian churches had been apostate from the second century forward. Instead, Quakers often embrace the modern ecumenical tenet that all Christian churches preserve some vital aspect of the Christian vision, and there is much for any Christian denomination to learn from the witness of other denominations, as all manifest the light of Christ. Fisher, and others influenced by her like Penn, were fascinated by honest, sincere Muslims, ironically finding more virtue in the non-Christian Muslims than in many of their fellow Christians. The modern-day ecumenical movement, including Quakers, is a steadfast witness to the honesty, sincerity, and inspirational quality of a wide variety of movements of faith and spirituality. The light of Christ shines in all, and we have grown to appreciate and cherish our close community with even more people of faith as we discern more closely how Christ’s Light is shining through them – and through us, too.
Sources: Stefano Villani’s article in the Oxford dictionary of national biography; Randy J. Sparks, “Mary Fisher, Sophia Hume, and the Quakers of Charleston: Women Professing Godliness,” in South Carolina women, their lives and times:volume 1, ed. by Marjorie Julian Spruill, Valinda W. Littlefield, and Joan Marie Johnson (Univ. of Georgia Press, 2009); Phyllis Mack, Visionary women: ecstatic prophecy inseventeenth-century England (Univ. of California Press, 1992); George Bishop, New-England judged, by the spiritof the Lord (London, 1703); Hugh Barbour and Arthur Roberts, Early Quaker writings, 1650-1700 (Eerdmans, 1973); Stephen W. Angell, “William Penn’s debts to John Owen and Moses Amyraut on questions of truth, grace and religious toleration,” Quaker Studies, March, 2012; QuakerFaith and Practice, 2nd ed. (Britain Yearly Meeting, 1999), Sect. 19.27.