Cloud of Witnesses: Elizabeth Gurney Fry

Picture a young woman, filling her diary with her angst.

She slowly slumps against the wall and a sorrowful sigh escapes from her mouth. The journal opens, and the desperate words quickly fall from her pen: “I am now seventeen, and if some kind and great circumstance does not happen to me, I shall have my talents devoured by moth and rust.”

It could very easily be today. The emotions of youth often push us to feel that we will never amount to anything, never get the chance to use our talents and gifts.

Yet the words in that journal were penned more than two hundred years ago by the woman Elton Trueblood said “…became the most famous of all Quaker heroines.” [The People Called Quakers, p. 168] Where did she find meaning? How did she defeat the devouring moths and rust? Elizabeth Gurney Fry’s life as prison reformer, minister, and philanthropist demonstrates to men and women today the wonderful blend of faith and social action that arises out of a love for Jesus Christ. 

I first discovered and wrote about Elizabeth Fry when I was in seminary, and she piqued my interest precisely because of that blend of faith and social action. Two weeks ago, I spoke about Billy Graham, and his influence as an evangelist in our cloud of witnesses. And Elizabeth’s kind of influence is just as important! The work of acting to improve the lives of others out of love and obedience to Jesus Christ is as world changing as Graham’s ministry.


Who was this woman?

Elizabeth was born in 1780 into the Gurney family, a family of Quakers widely respected in the banking world of England. Her brother, Joseph John Gurney, became a powerful preacher on both sides of the Atlantic, while Elizabeth herself became most famous for her work in reforming the brutal condition of women’s prisons in her time.  Before her death in 1845, her obedience to God led her to accomplish much more.

Her actual achievements were extraordinary.  Mother of ten surviving children, she had gatecrashed into public life, into an exclusively male preserve, when the very idea was unthinkable.  Through her passionate crusade, she succeeded in rousing the world’s conscience to the pitiable state of women in prison and created a glimmer of sympathy for the mentally ill and the poor.  She also instituted an order of nursing sisters.

What permeates her personal journal, however, is not an account of her many deeds, but rather a lifelong struggle to understand God and herself.  Her passion for the Lord, her deep mood swings, her fiercely critical and honest introspection are all intertwined in the pages of her journal.  Writing at the age of twenty, she sets out what can be described as the goal of her life and relationship with God:

“Religion is a deep inward working of the feelings and of the heart; we must not look too much for the bright light on the surface of things, but we must humbly and quietly try to seek deep; attending to the day of small things, trying to be faithful in the little…”

It was precisely her striving to be faithful in the little things, not a desire to be a world-renowned reformer, which brought her into the bright light of public acclaim.

I think this is an area where Elizabeth has a lot to speak to today’s world.

We want to change the world. In many ways, the young adults of today live and breathe to be world reformers. Elizabeth demonstrates the kind of day in, day out obedience…a “faithfulness in the little things” which is what leads to making such a large impact on the world.

In Luke 16:10, after telling some stories about taking good care of what we’ve been put in charge of, Jesus said this: “If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones. But if you are dishonest in little things, you won’t be honest with greater responsibilities”. Elizabeth’s wisdom shows in her words and actions: attending to the small things, trying to be faithful in the little.

What changed between 17 and 20?

What brought about the maturity that could see that the Christian life essentially boiled down to being faithful in the little things? In part, it was the providential intervention of two Quaker ministers into Elizabeth’s life: William Savery and Deborah Darby.

“Plain Friends” of her time held on to all the old images many of us have of Quakers. Plain Friends stuck with Quaker gray, not brightly dyed colored clothes, dressing and living as simply as possible. The Gurneys, however, were a wealthy family and enjoyed fine clothes, music and many other things which Plain Friends despised as a hindrance to an intimate relationship with God.

Elizabeth, on the other hand, grew up despising the Plain Friends.  She found them utterly boring and saw their religion as lifeless and without feeling.  She was looking desperately at the age of seventeen for a relationship with God which she could feel.  Savery, an itinerant Quaker minister, arrived from America that year and showed her the power of a true relationship with God; the radical, intimate, and necessary connection with Christ that is the true heart of Quakerism, both historically and in the present.  His preaching in their meeting helped Elizabeth feel God for the first time in her life.

Slowly, and not without difficulty, Elizabeth found herself rejecting her family’s lifestyle and began becoming a Plain Quaker herself.

I give myself this advice: Do not fear truth, [though] it be ever so contrary to inclination and feeling.  Never give up the search after it: and let me take courage, and try from the bottom of my heart to do that which I believe truth dictates, [whether] it lead me to be a [plain] quaker or not. [Quoted from her journal in Janet Whitney’s Elizabeth Fry: Quaker Heroine, p. 78]

Savery had opened Elizabeth’s eyes to the wonder of experiencing personal communion with God, and her journal reflects her lifelong struggle to grow in Christ. Later that year Deborah Darby was another human instrument in the divine plan.  Elizabeth met with others for worship in Darby’s home and in the silence of a meeting “…felt myself under the shadow of the wing of God…[Deborah Darby] then spoke.  I…fear she says…what I am to be– ‘a light to the blind, speech to the dumb and feet to the lame.’  Can it be?” [ibid. p. 72]

“Can it be?” 

Those words fall as easily from our lips as they did from Elizabeth’s when we experience the wonder of the promises of God. Darby’s prophetic word would indeed become true, but it began with Elizabeth being obedient in the simple things. She immediately began to teach poor children in her area how to read and write. Her newfound intimate relationship with God began expressing itself at once in an outward manner. When she left her home in 1800 to marry Joseph Fry, she had already developed a lifestyle which responded quickly to the needs around her.

She fed the poor in London; she nursed sick family members back to health; she opened her home to many visitors. Even her large work of prison reform began simply, in response to a need.  Stephen Grellet, yet another travelling Quaker minister, brought the plight of the women in Newgate prison to her attention in 1813.  She went that very day with a friend to clothe the babies in the prison; her description of the conditions of the prisons of that time are almost incomprehensible to us today. She wrote:

All I tell thee is a faint picture of reality; the filth, the closeness of the rooms, the furious manner and expressions of the women towards each other, and the abandoned wickedness, which everything bespoke are really indescribable.”

The key to the start of all her reforming work is simple: she heard Stephen Grellet talk about how bad things were in the prisons; she let it move her heart; and she acted immediately, going to see for herself, even spending the night in the prison to understand what the women were living through.

From that first visit came later a committee of Friends to visit the prisoners, a school for the children, job training for the women prisoners, and the establishment of a whole new form of supervision in prisons across England and Europe.  She saw as few did in that time the humanity of the prisoners, and shared with them her faith in Jesus.

In 1819, Elizabeth wrote a book that began making an impact throughout the British Isles, titled Prisons in Scotland and the North of England. Noticing then a distinction in philosophy of treatment of prisoners, a distinction still present today between punishment and reformation, she gave her life to the reformation side. It was an uphill battle, as she wrote in the book: “It must indeed be acknowledged, that many of our own penal provisions, as they produce no other effect, appear to have no other end, than the punishment of the guilty.”

In her desire to bring change, she became the first woman to ever give evidence at a House of Commons committee.

Elizabeth trained others, multiplying herself by establishing associations across England. When she would come to a prison, she would find the women most able to bring positive change and equip them to make a difference in the prison. She founded the first nationwide organizations for women, the British Ladies’ Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners, with the following goals:

“To provide for the clothing, the instruction, and the employment of these females, to introduce them to knowledge of the holy scriptures, and to form in them as much as lies in our power, those habits of order, sobriety, and industry which may render them docile and perceptible whilst in prison, and respectable when they leave it.” 

The pattern was set, and it continued for her entire life.

When she saw a need, whatever the size, she looked for a way to be faithful in the little things to make a difference. Seeing the body of a homeless child in London in 1819, she worked with others to establish a homeless shelter there. In 1824, she visited Brighton and helped establish a society there which coordinated volunteers to visit the homes of the poor and help and provide care however they could. It was so successful, it was copied in many towns and villages across England.

In 1840, she opened a school for nurses, inspiring the famous Florence Nightingale, who took a team of Fry’s nurses to care for wounded soldiers in the Crimean War.

See a need, work with others, start small, make a difference.

Near the end of her life she spoke before a Committee of the House of Lords, explaining the impact of Jesus Christ on the prisoners.

I have seen in reading the Scriptures to those women, such a power attending them and such an effect on the minds of the most reprobate, as I could not have conceived.  …[That power is needed,] for though severe punishment may, in a measure, deter them and others from crime, it does not amend and change the heart. [Quoted in June Rose’s E. Fry, p. 158-9]

The change in the heart that she saw in the prisoners was the same change in her own heart that compelled her to do the extraordinary.  

Unfortunately, the change that God brings to people does not necessarily make life work out perfectly.  Her life was not an easy one.  As her public role of prison reformer and minister in the Friend’s Church grew, so did the pressure and opposition. June Rose writes, “Throughout her life Elizabeth Fry…tried to reconcile her role of wife and mother with her work as a reformer.” [ibid., prologue]  She suffered from periodic bouts of depression, criticism that she was neglecting her family, frequent sickness, and the embarrassment of her husband’s bank failing.  She wrestled to live simply, while fighting her own desire for wealth and public accolade.

Rose interprets this incorrectly as hypocrisy. I simply see it as refreshing honesty. She isn’t a perfect heroine, she is human like you and me. Sometimes our goals and desires show more clearly in one area than another, and our wrestling to be faithful in all things doesn’t always mean hypocrisy. It demonstrates instead Elizabeth’s openness to be in touch with that part of herself that was so very much unlike God.  Her journal is an example of both the extreme difficulty and contented joy that makes up the life of faith.

And that is precisely what she has to offer us today.  It is neither easy nor impossible to live a life pleasing to God.  We need both the commitment to obedience and the understanding of our own weakness that Elizabeth Fry demonstrated.  The world we live in is a big one with big problems, and that realization sometimes freezes us into inactivity.  The clear picture of Elizabeth’s life and the beauty of God’s plan frees us to live a life of faithfulness in the little things.  The picture of the body of Christ, with each person doing his or her God-given part, is a picture our world needs to see and feel and experience today.

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