The compassionate legacy of Christian women
Before she disappears from our £5 notes – to be replaced by Winston Churchill - it might be fitting to celebrate the life, work and legacy of Elizabeth Fry, one of the nation’s most important Christians and social activists. She was a deeply Christian disciple, a Quaker, and her faith led her into caring for the hopeless, following the life and teaching of Jesus. Elizabeth was a very practical disciple, full of costly, Christlike compassion, reaching out to the hopeless and helpless. She visited women prisoners in the dreadful conditions of Newgate Prison, offering reading classes to the prisoners and schooling for their children, often in prison with their mothers. She worked tirelessly for more humane conditions and dignity for the inmates.
This was the age of transportation to Australia for convicted criminals, and Elizabeth visited every ship taking women convicts, and their children, some 106 ships and 12,000 souls. The women were taken to the docks in irons in open carts, abused all the way by the hostile London mob. Elizabeth worked to get them taken in enclosed carriages, not manacled.
She taught sewing to the women, who would then have a trade to earn a living in Australia. She gave a bag of useful items for sewing patchwork quilts on the long voyage to each of the women, who would arrive with a quilt to sell. Such was her humanity, her faith, her very practical attention to the detailed needs of the suffering. And here is a wonderful role model for all of us. She cared so much as to reach out to the hopeless and shunned, and not just sentimentally but practically, with ideas and materials to help give hope for the future. This flowed from her personal faith, working at every level, personal to political, to bring care to the helpless.
Her legacy lives on in the Quakers. As we commemorate the Normandy Landings on 6 June, we also think of the holocaust victims and the survivors sent on the Kindertransport to the UK. They needed ‘jobs’ to be accepted, and the Quakers, and Salvation Army, were vital agents in working to get Jewish children such permits for their lastminute escape from death. This kind of Christlike personal care was also seen in the women who tended the dying Lee Rigby as he lay helpless on the streets of Woolwich, murdered by two Muslim converts on 22 May last year. This Christian compassion shows the world what true power is, the power of love that will not be bullied and in fact overcomes and transforms evil, rooted in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
As we hear of elderly patients being discharged at night from hospitals we cannot but recall also Florence Nightingale’s achievement in establishing modern nursing care based in compassion, again Christian praxis at work at every level. We thank God for such women, and pray for the return of such compassion in our institutions – it seems we need to renew their struggle to maintain it in all aspects of our national life.