This essay is adapted from Storied & Scandalous Charleston. For a briefer version, see the Post & Courier's Do You Know Your Lowcountry column of March 7, 2024.

Born sometime around 1623, Mary Fisher began her life as a humble, illiterate housemaid working for Richard and Elizabeth Tomlinson in Selby, England, another seemingly anonymous soul among the millions history might easily have forgotten about long ago. Just goes to show the power of a good sermon.

Sometime around the end of 1651 or early 1652, George Fox, founder of the Religious Society of Friends, today known as Quakers, spent time as the Tomlinsons’ houseguest where he espoused his belief that God’s divinity can be found within each of us and that Christians should experience a personal, one-on-one relationship with God, rather than worship within the formal hierarchical structure of the state church system. Fox’s personal charisma and evangelical message that all believers, regardless of gender or circumstances, are part of a universal priesthood immediately resonated with Mary, who converted during his visit. Soon after, she joined Fox’s Valiant Sixty, the first group of traveling missionaries whose mission it was to spread the Quaker message throughout the world.

Within the first year of her conversion, it became clear that the humble housemaiden had been transformed into the boldest of zealots when Mary publicly rebuked Selby’s local Vicar after his Sunday sermon, saying "Come downe, come downe, thou painted beast, come downe. Thou art but a hireling, and deluder of the people with thy lyes," 1 a pronouncement that earned her about 16 months’ imprisonment in York Castle. 

Yet there she was in good company. Fellow Quaker inmates Elizabeth Wooten and Jane Holmes used their time in prison to teach Mary to read and write. Together they penned a pamphlet titled False Prophets and False Teachers Described, urging the populace to leave the established church and embrace their Quaker tenets. This accomplishment earned them additional time as guests of York Castle.

Upon her release the next year, Mary and another Quaker, Elizabeth Williams, embarked on a journey to proselytize the southern regions of England. Together they traveled on foot to Cambridge, where they publicly challenged theology students at Sidney Sussex College, which they called “a cage of unclean birds, and the synagogue of Satan.”2 The young theologians responded to their denouncement by throwing stones at the women, before the mayor had the two arrested, dragged to the local market, stripped to the waist and “whipped at the market cross til the blood ran down their bodies,” the first documented beating of Quakers for their missionary efforts.3

Mary and Elizabeth spent the next two years, 1654 and 1655, traveling from village to village around the south of England, spreading the Quaker message and being imprisoned for it. If the punishments served no other purpose, they served to make Mary’s convictions even stronger and her passionate desire to spread her message even further. Upon her release from prison in 1655, Mary and another friend, Ann Austin, decided it was time to take their message to the New World, and they boarded a boat to Barbados. Here, finally, their message was heard without remonstrations. Wealthy sugar planter Thomas Rous and his son John (who would later marry George Fox’s daughter) were among the first to convert. Eventually the island would support five meeting houses, making Barbados the hub of Quakerism in the New World.4

On July 11, 1656, Mary and Ann sailed into Boston Harbor, becoming the first Quakers in British North America. Yet the Puritan Deputy Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Richard Bellingham, had already received word of their impending arrival and was prepared to silence their anti-church heresies. Before the women even left their ship, they were arrested and brusquely hauled ashore, where examiners stripped them naked in the public square and searched their bodies for any telltale signs of witchcraft. Ann Austin would later report that at least one of the supposedly female examiners was a man in disguise.5 Their books and evangelical pamphlets were confiscated and burned, and the women imprisoned.

To minimize the risk of their heresies reaching the ears of any curious local Puritans, Bellingham ordered that the doors and windows to their prison cell be securely boarded up. His intention for doing so, according to some historians, was to avoid a controversial execution by “allowing” them to starve, if they and God so deemed it.6 Nevertheless, a local innkeeper, Nicholas Upsall, quietly bribed the guards five shillings a week to be allowed to smuggle food and water to the women and spend a short time speaking with them. 

After about five weeks, with the women having “miraculously” survived without provisions, Deputy Governor Billingham determined it was best to put Mary and Ann back on the boat that brought them over and send them back to Barbados. During their brief stay in New England, the only person they had seen or spoken to, secretly of course, was Nicholas Upsall, whom they successfully persuaded to become the first Quaker convert in the New World.

Mary continued her ministry in Barbados before returning to England in 1657, but her travels were far from over.

Believing that God was calling her to minister to the Turkish Sultan Mehmed IV, ruler of the Ottoman Empire and a dreaded figure in the imagination of Western European culture. Nevertheless, Mary set out some time around 1659, along with several companions, to find the Sultan in the Eastern Mediterranean. Tracking him down in Smyrna, the group’s first attempt to arrange a meeting was obstructed by British diplomats. Discouraged after such a long, arduous trip, the rest of the group turned back, but not Mary. After covering 600 miles, mostly on foot, she finally succeeded in gaining access to Mehmed IV’s influential Grand Vizier Köprülü Mehmed Pasha, who was impressed by this Englishwoman who proclaimed that she was an ambassador from the Most High God, come with a divine message for the Sultan. The Vizier arranged for a meeting with the Sultan at his military camp near Adrianople.

Mehmed IV listened attentively as Mary gave her witness through an interpreter, though no record of the conversation has ever been found. When she was done, he sat for a while, considering her words and acknowledging that there was truth in what she said. Though he did not convert from Islam to Quakerism, Mehmed thanked Mary for traveling so far in such dangerous circumstances to bring him the message, and he graciously offered Mary a military escort to see her safely back to England on a royal barge. She declined, wished him well, and returned to England. 

Mary later wrote of her experience with the Turks, comparing the treatment she received from these “barbarians” as much more compassionate than that she experienced with either her Anglican countrymen or the Boston Puritans, saying:  “Now returned into England... have I borne my testimony for the Lord before the king unto whom I was sent, and he was very noble unto me and so were all that were about him... they do dread the name of God, many of them...They are more near Truth than many nations; there is a love begot in me towards 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 towards his servants.”7

Not long after her return to England, Mary felt a new calling, this time to the role of wife and mother. While continuing her ministry in the area around Dorsetshire, she married William Bayley (sometimes spelled Baley or Baily), a Quaker sailor, minister and author of religious pamphlets. Also converted to the faith by George Fox not long after Mary’s conversation, Bayley had likewise suffered and spent time in prison for his efforts to promulgate the Quaker faith both at home and abroad. One account notes that when Bayley was arrested in London in 1662, an alderman began to beat him. Mary came to his rescue and was also knocked down twice, though she was obviously pregnant at the time.8

The Bayleys had three children: William Jr., Mary and Susannah. William Bayley Sr. unfortunately drowned at sea in 1675 on a voyage back to England from Barbados.

About three years later, Mary remarried, this time to John Cross (also Crosse), a Quaker shoemaker. The couple, along with her three children, moved in 1678 to Charles Town, which had been founded only eight years before and which was known as a haven for those seeking freedom of worship. By all accounts, Mary seemed to have finally found a permanent home, and once she arrived in Charles Town she ceased her missionary travels. Neither are there any records that she was ever again arrested or imprisoned here. Mary and John were actively engaged in the new colony’s Quaker community, as borne out in a letter written in 1696 by Quaker missionary Richard Barrow to his wife back in England. In it he shares his experience of having been shipwrecked in Charles Town, where he received medical assistance and support from a kind woman "whose name you have heard of, a Yorkshire woman, born within two miles of York; her maiden name was Mary Fisher, she that spake to the great Turk, afterwards William Bayley's wife…  she is a widow of a second husband, her name is now Mary Crosse."9

John Cross died in Charles Town in 1687, as did Mary in 1698. Mary began her will, written on August 8 and executed November 10, noting that she was "very sick and weak." Yet both her will, as well as John’s earlier one, bear out that the Cross family had fared well and prospered during their time in Charles Town. A map of the colony perhaps made as early as 1680 shows the name of “Mrs. Crosse” on several town lots.

In her will, Mary left her son William a lot in town “whereon ye Great house stands,” as well as 50 acres of land.10 Though the house is long gone, one would find this lot today at the southeast corner of Meeting and Chalmers streets, where the city’s Fireproof Building, c. 1822, stands, today the home of the S.C. Historical Society and Washington Park. Perhaps not surprisingly, in 1698 this would have been located just a block or two from Charles Town’s Quaker meeting house, today occupied by the rear portion of the Mills House Hotel. 

To her daughters Mary and Susannah, both of whom had married well and had children of their own, Mary bequeathed several lots she noted were “situated near the Market Place,” which at that time would have been in the area where Tradd and East Bay streets exist today, a waterfront location overlooking near the colony’s Cooper River wharves. At least one of these lots included a house, which is where Mary probably was living at the time of her death. 

In the latter part of the 18th century and into the 19th, Quakers were known for their abolitionist ideals and eventually became an unwelcome presence in Charleston. Still, the issue of slavery had not galvanized the country this early in its history. Mary left to her daughter Mary an Indian slave girl named Rayner. Mary closed her will saying, “I recommend my soul to ye mercy of God my Creator hoping through the merrits of Jesus Christ to obtain forgiveness from all my sins and everlasting life.”11

John and Mary Cross were buried in the Quaker graveyard surrounding the meeting house that stood on the south side of Queen Street between Meeting and King streets. In 1967, just a year shy of the 200th anniversary of Mary’s death, Charleston County began construction of a new parking garage at the corner of King and Queen streets. Many, though undoubtedly not all, of the Quaker graves there were dug up and the bodies reinterred near the County Courthouse on Broad and Meeting streets. Thus the final resting place of Mary Fisher Bayley Crosse is uncertain today. All that remains of the Quaker graveyard is a mid-19th century iron fence that once surrounded it, and which now somewhat incongruently adorns a parking lot. 

In 1967, Charleston County built a parking garage over the site of the Quaker meeting house and graveyard. Today, only the decorative iron fence remains. We visit this site on our Charleston Overview and Lost Charleston tours. (Photos by Leigh Handal, 2024.
Sources and for more information:
1. Stefano Villani, "Fisher (married names Bayly, Cross), Mary (c. 1623–1698), Quaker missionary" in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. n.p.
2. Joseph Besse, 1683?-1757,  Sufferings of Early Quakers (York, England: Sessions Book Trust, 1998), 84-85.
3. Edward Digby Baltzell, Puritan Boston & Quaker Philadelphia, (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1979), 86.
4. Ibid.
5. Janet Moore Lindman and Michele Lise Tarter (eds), A Centre of Wonders: The Body in Early America (Ithaca, N.Y. and London: Cornell University Press, 2001), x + 284.
6. Ann Austin and Mary Fisher Arrested,, Salem Web Network.
7. Quaker Faith and Practice: The Book of Christian Discipline of the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain, (Quaker Books. 2005), n.p.
8. Besse, Sufferings of Early Quakers, 388.
9. Bowden, James. The History of the Society of Friends in America, Volume 1. (United States: BiblioBazaar, 2016). Abstract of a letter from Robert Barrow to his wife dated 12 Mo. 1696/7. n.p.
10. Salley, A.S.  “Abstracts from the Records of the Court of Ordinary of the Province of South Carolina, 1700-1712 (Continued).” The South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine. Vol. 12, no. 2. 1911, pp. 70–71.
11. Ibid.

Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire