Biographies of Faith: Elizabeth Fry

A sermon in my continuing, brief series on biographies of faith.


We continue, this morning, with our short series – biographies of faith. 

We have all-too briefly explored the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who gave us a sense of costly grace – of what it means to stand firm for Jesus Christ and his church; an individual who was martyred by the Nazi regime in 1945.

We have all-too briefly explored the life of Joni Eareckson, who gave us a sense of what it means to follow Jesus Christ in the midst of our suffering – who reminded us of our freedom to be honest with God; who reminded uElizabeth Frys also of our resurrection hope. Our hope for a world made new.

This morning we reach a little further back into history in order to answer those questions we have taken up – What does it look like when someone is following Jesus. What does a genuinely Christian life look like? And that equally vital question: What does it look like when I am following Jesus.

Elizabeth Gurney was born in England the year seventeen hundred and eighty. She was born into a Quaker family, a denomination or branch of Christianity. Her father was a wealthy banker and in fact a partner in a bank which bore the family name – the Gurney bank. And Elizabeth’s mother was a child of the Barclay family, who were among the founders of Barclay Bank. Elizabeth was, then, born into a prosperous family – she was in fact the third of 12 children born to John and Catherine Gurney of Norwich, England.

The Quakers were a Christian community at that time known for their simplicity of dress, for their refusal to participate in the formal, ritualistic worship of the Anglican or Evangelical churches. The Quakers were also known for a somewhat sectarian spirit, according to which they often hesitated to mingle or worship or visit with those who were not members of the Society of Friends, as Quakers referred to themselves. Among the Society of Friends, we might say, the Gurney family was set apart on account of its wealth and social standing. Nevertheless, throughout her life Elizabeth remained a keen and active member of the Society of Friends. She was particularly shaped by the Quaker conviction that the Spirit of God speaks inwardly to us, within our hearts, leading and guiding us as followers of Christ.

Elizabeth received a basic education in major subject areas from her mother – and her mother also read the children Bible stories and Psalms. Catherine Gurney also spent time visiting and helping those who were sick or poor, and Elizabeth often join her mother during these visits – until, that is, her died in 1792 – when Elizabeth was 12 years old.

In recounting her own life experience, Elizabeth Gurney would speak of a decisive and important experience that took place in 1798 when she went to hear a visiting Quaker minister from America named William Savery. Hearing him speak she experienced a kind of religious conversion. She said “Today, I have felt that there is a God.” She would also describe that event as follows: “I think my feelings that night…were the most exalted I remember…suddenly my mind felt clothed with light, as with a garment and I felt silenced before God; I cried with the heavenly feeling of humility and repentance.”

In the wake of this experience she committed herself anew to the Society of Friends, and to the teachings of Quakerism. Over time, as her Christian faith deepened, she also adopted the traditional attire of Quakerism. She abandoned the more fashionable and expensive clothes that reflected her family’s status in society, in favour of the plain, traditional clothing of the Society of Friends. We can say that Elizabeth represented a more conservative Quakerism than that which she had experienced growing up – she was counted among those who saw modernization as emptying their faith of its significance and of its power to draw them closer to God.

Quakerism, from its earliest days, unlike the other dominant forms of Christianity, had a greater sense of the equality of men and women in the sight of God, and had always accepted that an implication of this was that God might equally speak to us through a man or a woman. Indeed, in that tradition the word ‘minister’ was used of any individual who were thought to have been singled out by God to speak on his behalf. As she committed herself to following and serving Christ, Elizabeth Gurney also began to consider that she herself might be called in this way. Elizabeth describes one particular Quaker meeting, and her growing sense of this calling:

“We had spent a pleasant evening, when my heart began to feel itself silenced before god, and…I found myself under the shadow of His wing, and I soon discovered that the rest were in the same state…After sitting a time in awful silence, Rebecca Young spoke most beautifully…Deborah Darby then spoke, and what she said was excellent; she addressed a part of it to me; I only fear she says too much of what I am to be. A light to the blind; speech to the dumb; and feet to the lame; can it be? She seems as if she thought I was to be a minister of Christ. Can I ever be one? If I am obedient, I believe, I shall.”

Not a long time after her religious conversion, and not long after developing this sense that perhaps she was called by God, Elizabeth Gurney met a young Quaker man by the name of Joseph Fry – he was a wealthy London merchant and he came from a family of Friends, or Quakers, much more strict than Elizabeth’s own family. They were married in August of 1800, at which time she became Elizabeth Fry.

And perhaps the name Elizabeth Fry will ring a bell with us in a way that her maiden name Elizabeth Gurney does not. The name Elizabeth Fry will resonate with us because it is a name that has been adopted by a Canadian organization committed to helping women who are incarcerated in Canadian prisons – women who come into contact with the Canadian criminal justice system. The Elizabeth Fry Society.

But why the connection? There must be a good reason that a modern Canadian organization such as the Elizabeth Fry Society has chosen to adopt the name of an early nineteenth century Christian woman – a woman who wrestled in her soul with that question, “can I serve as a minister of Christ.”

 Almost 20 years after her first feeling that she might be called as a minister of Christ, and 6 years after she official became a Quaker minister, in 1811, Elizabeth Fry began to worry that her life lacked significance. In her journal she wrote that she feared her life was slipping away to little purpose. But very shortly thereafter she met a French Aristocrat, a man who had become a Quaker during a visit to America – and he invited her to visit a prison to see the horrible conditions in which the women and men lived. It was a turning point in her life.

That prison visit set the stage for similar visits to Newgate prison in London – that first visit began what would be an almost thirty year career of visiting the women of Newgate prison and working to reform the British prison system.

When she visited Newgate, and the women’s ward, what did she find? What she found is well summarized in an article published by Christianity Today:

“At Newgate Prison, women awaitng trial for stealing apples were crammed into the same cell as women who had been convicted of murder or forgery (both capital crimes). Women ate, defecated, and slept in the same confined area. If an inmate had children, they accompanied her to prison and lived in the same inhumane conditions. For those without help from family, friends, or charities, the options were to beg and to steal food, or to starve to death. Many women begged for alcohol as well, languishing naked and drunk. The sight of children clinging to their mothers as they were dragged to the gallows was a scene replayed time and again.”

One of her biographers speaks of Elizabeth Fry’s response in this way: “She not only rebelled against the filth and cruelty of Newgate and a hundred other prisons: she also became the centre of a small group of people who responded with compassion to what we would now call the psychological needs of prisoners.” Elizabeth Fry established the Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners in Newgate. Through visits to the prison, this association provided fresh straw for the women’s bedding, provided clothing for children and poorly dressed women, and provided materials so that prisoners could sew, knit, and make goods for sale. They also arranged for a woman to be appointed as matron to supervise the prisoners. They took turns visiting the prison each day, spending time reading the Bible to female prisoners.

In this time period, Great Britain was exporting many of its prisoners to Australia, and the convict ships that carried the prisoners – male and female – were worse than the prisons themselves. The conditions were inhuman. For twenty years she regularly visited convict ships, ensuring as far as possible that prisoners were treated with respect.

Among the secularists of our day, there is a great tendency, in looking back on the likes of Elizabeth Fry, to simply ignore the reality of their Christian faith, and to ignore the reality of Elizabeth Fry’s Quaker identity. For example, on the website of the British Broadcasting Corporation, there is a children’s activity area which leads children through the main events of Elizabeth Fry’s life. It is mentioned that she was born into a Quaker family, but that’s it. In looking back on her life there is a severing of her faith from her life of social action. But from a Christian perspective – from the perspective of the gospel of Jesus Christ, no such severing of faith from social action is possible. For Elizabeth Fry herself no such severing is possible.

The contemporary silhouettes on the insert in your bulletin, reveal the necessary link between faith in Christ and our life of service and action is made apparent. Christ says:

            “I was thirsty and ye gave me drink.”

            “I was naked and ye clothed me.”

            “I was in prison and ye came unto me.”

Two of Elizabeth Fry’s daughters published a memoir of her life in 1845 – a memoir that includes extracts from her journal and letters. In their conclusion to the volume, the daughters write: “When our great Redeemer declared that in feeding the hungry and giving the thirsty drink, in receiving the stranger, in clothing the naked and visiting the sick, it was done unto Him, He added: ‘I was in prison and ye came unto me’. Our mother Elizabeth was one who felt the force of this commendation and she took it in its largest sense not as applicable only to those who suffer for conscience sake but to all the guilty and the wretched, in the spirit of Him who came to seek and to save that which is lost. Through weariness and painfulness she laboured to fulfil it.”

In her visits to the prisons, in her reading of the Bible to inmates, and in work of agitating for better living conditions, Elizabeth Fry drew together her desire to see prisoners comforted and cared for with her desire that they would know the hope and forgiveness of God in Christ Jesus. As her biographer puts it, her basic reason for going to Newgate prison, often was evangelistic, in line with her vision of herself as a minister of Christ. In an address to the prisoners on one occasion, Elizabeth Fry spoke of “that solid and undoubted, that only true and infallible hope for us all – the privilege of the children of God who, loosed from the bondage of their own evil nature, through the mercy of God in Christ Jesus, abide with him in a state of blessed peace and holy freedom.” She continued in speaking to the women: “A new prospect for you dawns upon my mind at the thought of which my heart rejoices, involving as it does not only your restoration to the esteem of your fellow mortals but peace to your own souls and a well founded hope after this life is ended of your participation for ever in that eternally blessed state to which we are all called by God.”

In the early 19th century there was almost no way for a woman to insert herself into political processes, yet Elizabeth perceived a kind of vacuum in the organisation and administration of prisons – so that she could intervene and take initiative for the reform of the prison system and for the wellbeing of prisoners. In 1923, a Prison Act was passed which incorporated many of her ideas for prison reform – a humanizing of the treatment of prisoners. Elizabeth Fry’s ideas spread across Britain and gained a hearing in corridors of power – she was given an audience with Queen Victoria, and later dined with the King of Prussia in her own home.

Let there be no doubt that Elizabeth Fry was a human being – that she knew failure both in her personal relationships and in her efforts to be attentive to the still small voice of God in her heart. There were suggestions from some Quakers that at time she was neglecting her own family – her own eleven children – in favour of her work in the prisons.

In her political activities there were also failure: In 1832 she gave evidence to a Parliamentary committee on the harmfulness of solitary confinement – but they chose to ignore her. By the later 1820s she was driven back from some of her responsibilities into what was considered an appropriate subordinate role proper to a woman.

Notwithstanding her personal failures, or her lack of success in some political endeavours, Elizabeth Fry is for us a vital reminder of the very real implications of our faith for social action and justice. Our faith in Jesus Christ, is faith in one who walked among the least of society – it is faith in one who touched lepers and dined with outcasts – it is faith in one who walked to the utter margins of society as he was crucified on a tree. This same Jesus of the marginalized is risen to new life – it is not some other Jesus who has risen – it is this same Jesus of the marginalized. And he invites us with him again to the margins of society – that we might become ambassadors of his hope and hospitality and healing, in a world of darkness.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


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