Mary Fisher

1623-1598

Mary Fisher worked as a hired maid on the cold flat plains of Yorkshire in 1651. In the back kitchen of Richard Tomlinson’s farmhouse she scrubbed potatoes and shaped butter into pounds.

She also thought.

Working by herself in the kitchen, in the cow stable, or with the ducks and geese in the yard, she thought about her soul and wondered what would become of her. Already in her late twenties, she felt her life was largely wasted. She felt guilty and ashamed of herself before God. Then, on a snowy winter day, a visitor came.

The visitor had left his horse at the John Leake place near the village of Selby and came walking back the lane. His name was George Fox. When he spoke to the Tomlinsons—while Mary listened through the kitchen door—he did not try to persuade them to change their ways nor to join his Society of Friends. All he spoke of was Christ, the teacher and light. With earnest conviction George insisted the Christ, if they turned to him, would be their constant inner guide.

Both Richard Tomlinson and his wife were convinced. So was Mary Fisher—and things began to happen.

Mary could not keep silent. Where she had known nothing but sad emptiness before, she suddenly felt like bursting with joyful and beautiful things to say. Wherever she went, among her friends and neighbours, or in the village of Selby, she spoke of Christ and told people where to find him: “The Lord alone is the teacher of his children. The word is in your hearts, and the Scriptures are the testimony of that Word.” Some liked what she said and gladly listened to her. Others, like the parish priest, did not like it at all. He reported her to the police who arrested her and took her to York.

For sixteen months Mary suffered in the York jail. But her time, spent with Christ, was not wasted. Other Friends in prison encouraged her and when her freedom came she promptly set out on foot with Elizabeth Williams, through the English lowlands to Cambridge. There, on the morning she first saw the spires of the old university town, rising from the mist over frozen fens, she knew it needed a witness.

Among throngs of students Mary Fisher and Elizabeth Williams made their way to the gate of Sydney Sussex College. The students looked at them sharply—country women in grey with plain bonnets and shawls—and wondered.

They did not have to wonder long. When some of the boys began to make fun of them with silly questions, Mary and Elizabeth gave them serious answers. More students crowded around, laughing, jeering, and getting angry with the women who said a high education would not prepare them for the ministry (Anglican priests trained at Cambridge University).

Mary Fisher took the opportunity. She spoke boldly to the students and none of them misunderstood her description of Cambridge as a “synagogue of Satan” and “cage of every unclean bird.” Some ran and told the mayor, William Pickering. He promptly arrested the women, sentenced them under the law against “rogues, vagabonds, and sturdy beggars” and ordered them punished.

At the market cross in Cambridge the constable commanded the women to undress. They refused, so he tore off their clothes to the waist, thrust their arms into stocks and beat them “far more cruelly than is usually done to the worst of malefactors, so that their flesh was miserably cut and torn.” Then he drove them from town.

The people at Cambridge could not forget the terrible scene. Much less could they forget the sight of two defenceless women, singing praises to God and praying for those who mistreated them. Nevertheless, England was in no mood to listen to calls for repentance. Back in Yorkshire, the authorities arrested Mary again. When her term ended she left with an elderly Friend, Ann Austin, for Barbados. 

On white sand roads between fields of cane on the Caribbean Island, Mary and Ann walked from plantation to plantation. They spoke to black people—slaves—cutting cane in the heat of the tropical sun. They spoke to wealthy whites and mulattos without discrimination. From the beginning, Friends had understood that Christ enlightens all who come into the world, and the women found the people of Barbados no exception. “Here many are convinced,” Mary wrote home in January 1656, “and many desire to know the Way.” She called for more Friends to come from England and carry on the work.

After a few months in Barbados Mary and Ann felt called to visit the Puritans in New England. Travelling on the Swallow they passed Bermuda and New York to round Cape Cod and land in Boston Harbour in July 1656. The governor of Massachusetts was not in the colony. But his deputy, Richard Bellingham, felt prepared to handle the situation. He had heard about the Friends. English Puritans had described them as blasphemous heretics and people who disregarded the Scriptures. They said the Friends had no respect for authority and stirred up trouble wherever they went. “Quite likely,” these informers had told him, “they might even be witches or demons in human flesh.”

Richard Bellingham ordered his men to keep the two women on the ship while he searched their luggage. He found at least a hundred books full of “corrupt, heretical and blasphemous doctrines” and had them burned in the marketplace by the hangman. Then he brought the women ashore, locking them up in a prison cell with its windows boarded up to keep anyone from talking to them.

The Puritans, who had come to America for their own religious freedom, had no intentions of granting that freedom to anyone else. They allowed Mary and Ann no pens or paper. They brought them no candles at night and at first refused to feed them. Whoever spoke with them had to pay a fine.

What the Puritans did with the women was remove their clothing and carefully search their bodies for warts that might prove them witches. (Puritans burned witches.) But the Lord moved one old man among them, Nicholas Upsall, to mercy. He paid the jailer to bring Mary and Ann some food.[1]

After five weeks of abuse among the “Pilgrim Fathers” in America, Mary and Ann got shipped back to Barbados—and Richard Bellingham sold their Bibles and bedding to pay for what their stay had cost him.

In Barbados the Lord’s work continued peacefully. But Mary felt another call.

For many years the Ottoman Turks had threatened Europe. From their homeland in the former Byzantine Empire, they had pushed their way through the Middle East into Africa, across the Black Sea into Russia, and up the Danube into Romania, Hungary, and Austria. Turkish pirates were the scourge of the Mediterranean. In all Europe people feared and hated few things as fervently as the Turks, and in their worst dreams they saw nothing more frightful than the Turkish Sultan whom they imagined as blood-thirsty, evil, and sly as the devil himself.

Mary thought differently about the Turks. “Christ enlightens the Turks,” she said, “just like he enlightens us. Even though they do not know him, his voice speaks in their hearts. Someone must go and tell them to listen to him.”

In ordinary circumstances people would have thought it outrageous. But when Mary Fisher spoke of visiting the Turkish Sultan, they held their peace. One never knew what she—with the Lord’s help—would do next.

With five Friends, three men and two women, Mary sailed from England through Gibralter to Italy. From there, some of them travelled to Smyrna, in Turkey, where a British official insisted they turn back. But on their way to Venice bad weather forced them to land in Greece and Mary set out on foot, alone, through the mountains of Thrace to Adrianopolis (Edirne) where the Sultan was encamped with his army.

Knowing nothing but English, defenceless, and without money, Mary Fisher walked straight into the “lion’s den.” Too startled to know what to do with her, Turkish officials—a few of whom knew English well enough to translate—would not consider allowing her into the Sultan’s presence. “Where are your gifts?” they asked her. “What nation or people do you represent? If your visit should offend the Sultan he would behead not only you but those of us who introduced you as well!”

Mary did not waver in her purpose, and finally gained an audience with the Grand Vizier, Mehmed Köprülü Pasha.

No one expected the Grand Vizier to help. An old and very cunning man, he had arranged the death of countless subjects and had warned the Sultan now ruling “never to give ear to the counsels and advices of women.”

Mary did not fear the Grand Vizier. She trusted him, in spite of his sinister reputation, and he liked her. The very next day he took her into the Sultan’s room.

Nothing like this had happened before. The young Sultan, Mehmed IV, dressed in golden embroidered robes, amid canopies and cushions, and surrounded by attendants in glowing colours, expected Mary to come as an ambassador with a request.

Now she stood, in a simple grey dress and bonnet, before him. In silence.

Mary believed that ambassadors sent from God need no insignia but those of love and a contrite spirit. She believed they needed no armour but the Word.

The Sultan looked curiously at her. Women did not ordinarily stand unafraid before him. But when he spoke to her she only acknowledged his greeting and waited in silence on God to give her the right words to say.

The interpreters glanced nervously at Mary. The Grand Vizier urged her to proceed. From across the room, an executioner studied her with more than passing interest, but Mary still waited silently on God.

The Sultan was impressed. He asked if she wished for him to dismiss some of his suite so  she would not be bothered by so large an audience. She shook her head. “Then tell us your message from God,” the Sultan said, “neither more nor less, for we are willing to hear it, be what it may.”

At last the message was clear in Mary’s mind and she began to speak, appealing to that of God in the hearts of her hearers. Not a whisper broke the stillness of the magnificent assembly. Mary spoke as simply and directly as if she had been speaking to a neighbour in her English home.

“Is that everything you came to tell us?” the Sultan asked.

“Yes,” Mary answered. “Hast thou understood?”

“Every word,” said the Sultan, “And it was the truth.”

After delivering her message, Mary turned to go. But to her astonishment she was detained by offers of kindness. The Sultan asked if she would not like to stay in Turkey, or if not that, whether he could send her with an armed escort to Constantinople.

Mary declined. She had travelled under God’s protection this far and did not feel she needed anything more. Then, quite suddenly, a new danger came upon her. One of the Sultan’s men asked her what she thought of their great prophet Muhammad.

Mary did not try to evade the question. Neither did she seize the opportunity to launch into a zealous attack on Islam.

“I confess I do not know Muhammad,” she said. “But Christ, the true prophet, the Son of God who enlightens every man coming into the world, Him I know. As far as Muhammad is concerned, you will need to judge him true or false according to the words and prophecies he spoke. If the words a prophet speaks come to pass, then you may know the Lord sent him. But if they do not come to pass, you may know the Lord did not send him.”

The Sultan and his men liked her wise answer. In Mary Fisher they found a foreigner who respected them and at the same time commanded their respect. Was this how people acted who listened to God speaking within them? Almost without wanting to, the Turks felt inclined to listen to him as well.

Mary Fisher left Turkey, by way of Constantinople, as quietly as she had come. She felt satisfied for having delivered her message. The seed had been planted, and it was not for her to question what the harvest might be.

On her return to England Mary became the wife of William Bayley, a Baptist convinced by the Truth and now a minister among Friends. After he died on a voyage home from the West Indies, she married John Cross of London. With him she moved to South Carolina where she died in 1698.

Her life, given to Christ and his body, was not wasted.

Main source: Vipont, Elfrida, A Faith to Live By, Friends’ General Conference, Philadelphia, 1962


[1] When Nicholas Upsall warned the Puritans about their godless actions, they drove him out of their colony in the middle of winter. Old and sickly, he found refuge with an Indian chief who remarked, “What a God the English must have, if they treat one another like this over how to worship him!” Nicholas eventually found his way to a congregation of Friends in Rhode Island where he died in peace.

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