Saturday, August 10, 2013

Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845)

Elizabeth Gurney was born on May 21, 1780, into a Quaker family in Norwich, England (about 116 miles northeast of London). Her father was a bank and factory executive, her mother a member of a major banking family, and her childhood home a large mansion.

As a teenager, she disliked attending Sunday Quaker meetings. One Sunday when she was 18, however, she heard an American Quaker named William Savery speak. William encouraged everyone at meeting to care more for marginal people. Elizabeth took these words to heart. She started ministering with people who were poor, sick, or illiterate.

In 1800 she married Joseph Fry, also a Quaker, and lived with him in London. In 1811 her Quaker meeting publicly recognized her as a minister.

After a visit to Newgate prison, Elizabeth committed herself in 1816 to improving the conditions of the women and their children who were caged there. She related to the imprisoned women with respect, rather than with condescension based upon some imagined moral superiority, and helped them to organize and supervise their own lives for the better. She encouraged her female friends to join her in prison ministries and they persisted in their desire until reluctant authorities allowed them to do so.

In 1819 she published Prisons in Scotland and the North of England. In it she complained that prisons largely served no other purpose than to punish the human beings in them, whether guilty or innocent, with gratuitous dirt, disease, overcrowding, boredom, and violence. In 1825 she published Observations of the Siting, Superintendence and Government of Female PrisonersIn it she criticized capital punishment as wicked and was criticized as being wicked for doing so.

She served as a witness for prison reform with Parliament, Victoria (ruler of the English state), and even Frederick William 4th (ruler of the Prussian state).

In the winter of 1820, she stumbled across the body of a boy who had died of exposure. In response she started a shelter for homeless people and an organization of women devoted to ministering with poor families.

In 1840 she started a training school for nurses. Florence Nightingale took a group of nurses trained there to the Crimea with her to aid soldiers wounded in the war there.

Not everyone respected Elizabeth for her work. Some Christian leaders despised her because her work tarnished their reputation by comparison. Some thought women as women should not exercise the influence that Elizabeth did. Others imagined that she ministered to others at the expense of her husband and children.

Elizabeth died of a stroke in the coastal town of Ramsgate in eastern England on October 12, 1845.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.