Friday, 16 August 2013

The servingmaid and the sultan

I'm now leaving the mid-seventeenth century behind me, for the time being at least, but time to share a favourite Quaker story. As regular readers will know, one of my recent preoccupations has been early Protestant missionary efforts, or rather the lack thereof. But the early Quakers broke that rule as well as all the others.

It is very hard not to be impressed by the story of Mary Fisher. She and a friend were the first Quakers in the New World, going to Barbados and Massachusetts in 1655-6, where they were arrested, had their books burned, were accused of witchcraft and had the good fortune to be shipped home alive. For most of us, that would be enough, but Fisher and her friends were still warming up. In 1657 (all this from a terrific article* on her travels) she and five other Quakers, men and women, set out to preach in Jerusalem. This rather idealistic plan soon gave way to a marginally more practical, equally apocalyptic, and considerably more dangerous one: they would split up, with some going to Rome to convert the Pope, and others to Istanbul to convert the Ottoman Sultan. By no coincidence, these were the two individuals Protestants had traditionally labelled as the two great Antichrists. After all, why waste time with small fry?

We don't know (at least, I don't know) what happened to the Roman party. One hopes they never got there: it would not have ended well for them. Fisher, however, struck out for the east. And she did it. Despite a horrified English diplomat who tried to intercept her, in 1658 she reached Sultan Mehmet IV encamped with his army at Adrianople, and managed to wangle her way into an interview with him, at which she laid out ‘my testimony for the Lord’. The Sultan seemed to her to be a perfect gentleman (not that a Quaker would have used such a word):

He was very noble unto me, and so were all that were about him, he and all that were about him received the words of truth without contradiction, they do dread the name of God many of them … there is a royall seed amongst them, which in time God will raise.

He pressed her to stay, and when she would not offered her a formal escort to Constantinople. What he actually thought of this Englishwoman is another matter. Perhaps he and his courtiers simply appreciated a little comic relief. But equally, he was certainly not used to Christians telling him that he had the divine light within him. And perhaps he, like us, could not help being impressed by her drive and her courage.

*Sylvia Brown, ‘The Radical Travels of Mary Fisher: Walking and Writing in the Universal Light’, in her Women, Gender and Radical Religion in Early Modern Europe (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 38-64.

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