Elizabeth Fry

Elizabeth Fry went to Prison
Luke 7:36-50, Isaiah 61:1-3, I John 4:16-21

Elizabeth Fry!  What a woman!  Two hundred years after her birth her name lives on around the world.  She will always be listed among the giants of her century.   She stands shoulder to shoulder with the biggest names in both politics and religion.   Her exploits are stunning.

  • When she was 28 she founded a girl’s school so they could take advantage of an education usually given only to boys.
  • When she was 30 she was elected to be a “minister” within the Society of Friends, known as the Quakers.
  • When she was 33 she went to Newgate Prison. This would lead to a reform of the entire Prison System across the civilized world.
  • Elizabeth Fry sowed the seeds for the creation of the “Nursing Sisters” – female nurses – which was later led and immortalized by Florence Nightingale.
  • When she was 39 she took steps to help in the rehabilitation of discharged prisoners so that they could return to normal life after their incarceration. Later it became the Elizabeth Fry Society.
  • When she was 40 she started the sponsoring of nightly shelters for the Homeless in London, and then established libraries for sailors She left a legacy of social change that changed the world in foundational ways.

The amazing thing is that this mother was raising her 11 children during those same years.  She blended together the responsibilities of her home and her calling to change her world.

How did this thing all begin?  Well there is a story worth the telling.

Betsy Gurney

She was born in 1780.  The great Evangelical Awakening had set the groundwork for dramatic changes across England.  The atmosphere had become rarefied.   But religion was still for many a matter of the head and a matter for the heart.  There was considerable deep theological thinking and deep heartfelt feeling, but the spiritual had not yet affected the social and the political worlds very well. That was about to change!

She was born in Norwich, England.  The daughter of a Quaker family, her father was a well-to-do banker named John Gurney. Though her parents always called her “Elizabeth”, she preferred the name Betsy.  Betsy Gurney. That was her name.  And those who knew her in those days knew that she did not try to endear herself to the rather glum Quaker community.

They had a very strict dress code.  The colour for clothing ranged from black to white with shades of gray in between.  But she refused to wear Quaker clothing.   She dressed in the best and brightest of clothes.  She rather enjoyed the impression she made in the Quaker meetings when she would go dressed in scarlet and purple.  The Quaker community was composed of rather homely folk.  Betsy was a beauty, and she knew it.   The young men gathered like flies around her, each one falling in love with her, each one getting his heart broken by this flirtatious young girl.

The Quakers not only dressed plain, they lived plain simple lives.  According to the Society of Friends “all fun was deemed to be folly”.  But Betsy considered life to be one long lark.  On one occasion just for the sheer fun of it, Betsy organized her sisters, pretending to be a band of highway robbers, and held up the Norwich coach.   She was in love with life, but she was not particularly keen on religion.

That was Betsy on the outside.  But on the inside something very different was going on.  Listen to her diary.  When she is 16 years of age this is the entry,
“My mind is in so dark a state that I see everything through a black cloud.”

This might have been the reason she dressed so brightly; to help chase some of the darkness away!

When she is 17 this is one of the entries:
“I am a bubble, a fool, idle, dissipated. Stupid.
All outside and no inside.
Merely a contemptible fine lady.
I feel like a ship at sea without a pilot.”

Night after night throughout her teen years there came to her one recurring nightmare. She dreamed of being among the rocks by the sea, trapped, with the tide rising to her knees, then to her waist, and then to her shoulders, only to awaken before she drowned.  She relived that dream over and over again.  Perhaps the reason she cavorted so much was to chase those dark dreams away!  But the church saw only the flippancy, not the fear. They only saw the daring deeds of youth, not the darkness that ate away at her soul

Then one day it all changed. William Savery, an American Quaker from Pennsylvania came to Norwich, and Betsy and her family went to hear him. Church was always boring.  Betsy always went reluctantly.  The speaker was long winded.  But Betsy was transfixed!  She listened with intensity.  The story being retold by the evangelist was the story about “The woman who was a sinner” from Luke’s gospel (7:36-50).

The story stunned Betsy.  She saw herself as the “Woman who was a sinner.”  For the rest of her life Betsy will point back to that event as the day she found new life in Jesus Christ.   From that day on, she never dreamed of drowning again.   Never again did she put on the scarlet and purple.  From that day on she became a good Quaker.  She was no longer Betsy Gurney: she became Elizabeth again.   A proper young lady.

Elizabeth Fry

At 20 years of age her name was changed again. She was married to Joseph Fry, a well-to-do London Merchant, and she settles down to raise a family.  And Elizabeth Fry gives birth to 11 children and raises them in good Quaker fashion, in a proper Quaker home.  It seems that the wild one has been tamed and domesticated!

She is involved in her church. One of her primary tasks is taking her turn at reading the scriptures at the Sunday service.  But as she reads the scriptures in public worship, it becomes immediately clear to the congregation that her gift for reading is quite remarkable.  Her ability to communicate is gripping.  When she reads, the hearers understand.  Soon she is getting invitations from surrounding Quaker meeting houses to come and read to their congregations too.  Oh, others can read, but not like her.  When she reads, people seem to hear the word of God without distraction.

And soon, no matter where she goes, she is asked to read from the scriptures.  In her home she had long read to her children.  But now, when her friends gather in her living room, they ask her to read to them too.  When she is in the homes of others she is asked to read there as well.  To the sick and dying, in homes and hospitals, she is called on to read.  In the wayside inns she reads to the arriving guests, in gypsy encampments she reads to the social outcasts.  She has found a gift that God can use.  When she is 30 years of age she is made a lay minister in a church that has no clergy. She takes her place among the leaders of her church.

Then when she is 33 her life changes again.  She hears someone speaking of the horrid prison he has just visited in London.  He describes the terrible conditions he found there.  Elisabeth is horrified and decides to go to Newgate Prison, to see with her own eyes if what had been described to her was true.

She is overwhelmed.  It is loathsome there.  Humans have been reduced to animals.  This is no place for a woman of gentle spirit.  This is a vulgar and violent world that she has entered.  This place contains the debris of human society.   She is sick at heart.  She sees enough never to want to return to this human nightmare again.

But she does. Again and again.  Almost every day in fact for the rest of her life.  She descends into that prison, again and again, armed only with a Bible and a love as large as the universe.  And there she reads the stories found in scripture.  She returns again and again to one story in particular.  It is the story of “The woman who was a sinner.”

And as she reads and returns to read again:
the hopeless begin to find hope.
the outcast find themselves loved.
the criminal mind is converted,
lions become lambs.
the pervert recovers purity and the debased become disciples of Christ,
and those on death row find new life in the face of their approaching death.

Newgate prison is being transformed and has become an extension department of the kingdom of God.

In her day, men and women and children, were all herded together in great holding pens.  Vicious criminals and minor offenders were all lumped together, with the worst preying on the weakest.  When she saw that, she asked some of her women friends to volunteer to be prison visitors, who would take shifts around the clock in that terrible prison, to safeguard the women from predatory prison guards and the male inmates.

  • Later she hired a matron to live in the prison to supervise the welfare of the women.
  • She began to lobby for the separation of female prisoners from male prisoners.
  • She lobbied to have female prison guards for the women.
  • She and her friends worked with the women personally, visiting them daily, teaching them how to sew, teaching them a trade.

The prisons also had children who were as young as 7 as inmates.  As soon as she could, she appointed teachers for the children and juvenile offenders.

It is not long before the atmosphere of the prison changed.  The noise of blasphemy and profanity gave way to quietness.   Fighting and arguing diminished.  Dignity was being restored to those who had lost everything.

Soon the word gets out of the transformed prison, and the politicians and the Lords and Ladies of high society start to visit this remarkable prison to see what God and Elizabeth Fry has wrought.  There they hear the pure word of God read and prisoners spell bound and in their right minds.  The politicians invite her to speak to government leaders to help bring about similar reforms across the British Isles.  Soon she is visiting prisons across Europe at the request of the governments of those countries.

But not all is well at home.  Most of the work she did, she did at her own expense.  Feeding the hungry, clothing them, hiring people to care for the prisoners.  When she was 48 her once wealthy husband went bankrupt.  A family’s fortune had been spent in caring for the outcasts of the world.  But her children and her husband are fine with that. She is still their mother and the mother to thousands of others.

She passed away at 65 years of age, leaving a priceless legacy, having changed the world for the good for the rest of human history.   To this very day The Elizabeth Fry Society works across Canada and around the world caring for women who have fallen afoul of the law.


So what word does her story have for us today?

Compassion is called for, in an increasingly vengeful world.  Recent headline on CBC “Canada’s prison population at all-time high. Number of visible minority inmates increased by 75% in past decade” In the USA in 1980  there were 500,000 incarcerated  in prison at any one time.  By the year 2000 that had increased to 2 million. By 2010 that had increased to almost 2.5 million.   It is being called a new growth industry.

There may be some who deserve imprisonment, but who still need redemption and hope and care.  Even wicked people who do terrible deeds need to know that even they are forgivable.  Not only by God, but by God’s people.   (Christians are not called to be “Law & Order” people. We are called to be redemptive, forgiving and loving.)

There is a second message that comes from the story of Elizabeth Fry.  She was committed to “doing something”.  Others in the evangelical awakening were quite content to think high thoughts and carry deep feelings.  But Elizabeth Fry wanted to do something about the evils she had encountered.

Her predecessor in Prison reform was a man called John Howard.  A few years earlier he heard an evangelist preach on the theme, “Whatever your hands find to do, do it with all your might.”  John Howard & Elizabeth Fry took that counsel seriously and as a result made a difference.   We too are to be doers and not just thinkers and feelers.  We must not only pray to God, but we are also to be workers together with God.

There is a third message that also comes from her life.  Little is much, if God is in it!   She had a very simple gift, the ability to read the scriptures, and when given to serve God, was used by God to transform the lives of many.  Elizabeth was a very simple person, a mother of a large family, who took that mothering skill and became a mother to the many.  But little is much if God is allowed to use it.

Let us imitate Elizabeth Fry as she imitated Christ, and both church and world will be better places.

Let me leave us with “A Prayer for Prisoners”

Prayer for Those in Prison

 O God, Our Father, much of our praying is for ourselves
and for those in whose lives we are involved.
Our praying is often myopic, focused primarily on our family & friends.
We are sorry for our self-preoccupation.
We know that our concerns are legitimate and should be brought to you,
but we quit our praying too soon and too often, and leave so many un-prayed for.

So along with answering our prayers for ourselves,
we also ask for people who have little or no connection with ourselves.
We pray for people in prison: We pray for:

  • Those who deserve to be there,
    but who need your help if they are ever to avoid their besetting sins,
    and to find your forgiveness.
  • Those who do not deserve to be there,
    and whose punishment is much greater than their crimes
    as they suffer from the injustice of our judicial systems.
    Grant them the ability to forgive us.
  • Those who are political or religious prisoners around this world
    who suffer for righteous reasons.
  • We pray for the families of all prisoners, wives, husbands, children, parents, brothers & sisters – who suffer the sad consequences along with those who are locked away
  • We pray for the chaplains in the prisons
    that they will sense our support as they minister in difficult places
  • We pray for those who work in prisons that they will do their work with human kindness and divine compassion

This we pray in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen!

(Thanks to F. W. Boreham for his telling of her story in “A Temple of Topaz”, Ch 18, p 213-224)