by Judy Maurer
I sit quietly in Margaret Fell’s chair. My eyes wander up to the windows. Iron latticework keeps the small panes of glass set on their corners, diamond-shaped, together making a long, high window set deep in the wall. A few panes are still the opaque pink of centuries past. But what arrests my attention is the sense of electricity that still emanates from the wide stone tiles on the floor. I am in meeting for worship in the “great hall” at Swarthmoor, where George Fox met Margaret Fell in 1652.
Photo: Windows of Swarthmoor Hall
To my eyes today it is normal-sized, only great in the way real estate agents say “great room” instead of “family room.” But here in the far northwest corner of England it would have been great indeed in 1652. The farmers and laborers who worshiped there, too, would have lived in houses built with beams and a latticework of twigs and then mud caked in between. I know these houses let in the winds and insects, because I grew up in the southwestern US version of them – adobe bricks, baked of mud and straw. I wonder if those farmers had marvelled, like I did as a child, how walls in sturdier houses did not let in the winds. In the great hall, the fireplace was huge, and so the room could have been warm, even when damp savage winds came off the Irish sea and threw its salty air against anyone not protected by stone walls like at Swarthmoor Hall.
So the very walls spoke of status, of protection from the elements. But the marvel was more. This was not the only room on the first floor even; it continued beyond – to the next room where Judge Fell sat alone during meeting for worship. He sat in his study because he could not be seen as a Friend, or he would lose his judgeship and status. It was probably bad enough for him that his nutty wife had gone off kilter, or so said the neighbors in letters. Some of them even went out to meet Judge Fell, as he took a shortcut across the sands at Morecambe Bay at low tide to get home more quickly; he had been gone on the Welsh circuit court for weeks. One does not go idly across the bay, even though it’s an easy walk at low tide. In some spots a person can get mired neck-deep in the sand, and then they get loosened only by the returning tide, which swamps one, head first. These neighbors were bound and determined to warn Judge Fell that his family had all been taken mad by an itinerant trader and preacher, George Fox. So they walked out at low tide to meet him. Fortunately, Judge Fell was of a lawyerly mind. After several Friends spoke gently and wisely to him, not to mention a meal, quiet children, and a wife who spoke tenderly to him, he let Fox come to his house and speak his peace. The telling, was, of course, brilliant.
Photo: George Fox’s Bible
So after blessing his wife’s endeavors in the Truth, Judge Fell would sit in his wood-panelled study, on the other side of the wall from the great hall, as close as he could come to being in meeting for worship. A wall does not separate the Holy Spirit from any human being, but human minds would have thought he was not, then, a Quaker, and so he could still be a judge and protect his wife and the nascent Friends movement from persecution.
Before our meeting for worship, our guide had taken us through the half of the original house that remains – the judge’s study, and then upstairs to three bedrooms. The master bedroom still has the same bed. Judge Fell used to see visitors in this bed, in his bedclothes still, and decide their petitions. The message was, ‘you and your concerns are so far below me that I needn’t even dress to consider them.” Status was all in those days.
Margaret had been an Askew, one of the few elite families of the district, and her family arranged her marriage to Thomas Fell, the up and coming barrister who had inherited one of his father’s estates. What had so electrified the family about a man come preaching about equality? I can see how Fox would have aroused interest among farm laborers and servants, who were forced to pay tithes and observe the strict observances of status; they had precious little status, and their lives were held as cheap. But why would the most powerful among the local gentry be attracted?
The great hall during meeting for worship is a little chilly in early October, without benefit of fire in the huge fireplace a 6-year-old could stand up in. My search for stillness and silence within is actually harder here than usual, because the impressions come so swiftly. Finally, I settle into a sense of gratefulness. Gratefulness for the 21st century Friends who sent me here, for the early Friends – the peasants, the tradesmen, and the gentry who risked all. But I am a middle-class person from the industrial West; I identify more easily with those who live in comfortable houses and have benefit of lawyerly protection. Statistically speaking, if I had lived then I would have more likely been among the servants who toiled endlessly in the attic of Swarthmore Hall, or at least among the crowds that came to Swarthmoor’s front door for a hearing with the judge, or among the laborers who didn’t think justice would ever go their way and so didn’t even bother. But first the children and servants and then the crowds were gathered in to hear Fox and worship in a new way, attentive to the Spirit that inspired the Scriptures and the Light that is Christ, in this very room.
Photo: Swarthmoor Hall
But I am most astonished by the lady of the house, whose neighbors thought she was, even before George Fox’s arrival, a straw shy of a full thatch – and after his arrival, a witch, responsible for “the Country [being] undone.” She had much to lose, but I am grateful that she perceived only her gain. When she hears Fox speak for the first time, she writes years later that he had said,
“…How that Christ was the Light of the world, and lightest every man that comes into the World… Art thou a child of Light, and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God? This opened me so that it cut me to the Heart, and then I saw clearly, that we were all wrong. So I sat down in my pew again, and cried bitterly. And 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 our selves.”
She was a woman of her time, our guide had reminded us before worship, so she did still wear the finest red silks and crinoline. Her maids toiled endless hours in the attic of the Hall. But she lent her freedom, her elite status, personal comfort and own good name to nurture the emerging Friends movement. I am grateful just to sit in her chair, and even more for meeting in worship.
– Judy Maurer