I WAS in prison, and ye came unto me" (Matt. 25:36). God has always reserved for Himself men and women who would minister to every need of His children. The history of the Christian church abounds in loving humanitarian service. No need has been overlooked and no area excluded. This was true when Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845), a Quaker minister, became burdened for the inmates of Newgate Prison in London.
Having been granted permission, she entered the institution to pray with the women. She felt she had entered a den of wild beasts. Three hundred women with their children were crowded into four small rooms. They had no beds, bedding, or extra clothing. They had no real employment and were unclassified. In these crowded quarters, lacking ventilation, they lived, cooked, slept, and washed. Odors were foul and the language was obscene. At the window gratings of the prison the women begged of passers-by the shillings they would soon spend to buy liquor in the taproom. This was their only recreation. In those days prisons lacked supervision and standards.
It was no fleeting fancy that envisioned these motley, judgment-bound creatures trans-formed into better specimens of society. The grace of God stirred Elizabeth Fry and eleven Quaker women to organize "The Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoner in Newgate." They saw in those degraded outcasts an occasional spark that might be fanned into a flame for a clean and profitable life. It meant more than teaching the Bible to these women inmates; clothing must also be provided, and training in a new way of life. To establish habits of law and order, sobriety and industry, required courage and patience on the part of Christian workers. This small band must be expanded by many of the privileged rich, who would share the same interest in the needs of their neglected fellow citizens. First of all, those behind locked doors and barred windows must be visited by those who had influence and power to change their soul-destroying prison conditions.
The success of this humble prison reform was dramatic. It soon attracted the attention of England's civil servants. Here was a band of a dozen women with a real sense of practical godliness. They undertook drastic reform measures that became the basic formula for better penal institutions around the world.
Elizabeth Fry was a Bible instructor at heart. Removing her Quaker bonnet, she faced these now-curious women, who soon crowded around her. Anything for a change! might describe their attitude toward this "female reformer." Introducing her Bible study with Isaiah 53: 6, 7, "All we like sheep have gone astray," she revealed the One who would bear our iniquities.
Here was no harsh condemnation but rather common ground for prisoners. Other scriptures included Psalm 24:3, 4; Psalms 27 and 69; and thoughts from Matthew 7 and the Sermon on the Mount. Christ's parable of the Vineyard, Matthew 20:1-16, provided an effective climax, setting forth to all God's gifts of courage, justice, and holiness. This was a change for these women prisoners, and their children quieted down as they too sensed something different was happening that day.
Next, classrooms for the children were opened, and regular instruction periods were begun for their mothers. Then orderly matrons were trained to guide and supervise these outcasts. The love of God in the hearts of these Quaker leaders inspired Christian volunteer sendees, until prison areas underwent not merely reforms but drastic revolutions. A new day dawned for penal colonies everywhere.
After Elizabeth married Joseph Fry, a prominent, wealthy Quaker merchant in the East India Company, their large home became a meeting place for Quakers. It sheltered large groups when Christian hospitality was called for. By nature Elizabeth was a gracious hostess. Eleven children came to their home, seven receiving interesting Bible names, but not one prevented Elizabeth from doing her work for prisoners. The Frys were indeed a powerful team for prison reform. Later, when Joseph's business began to fail, they accepted their reverses as God's providential leading to free them to do the work He had planned for them. More and more they spent their love, strength, and remaining means for the downtrodden.
Elizabeth believed in catching up with wickedness and vice by finding ways to prevent it right at the base. Various projects followed the initial prison reforms, such as shelters for London's homeless, nurseries for the children, soup kitchens, warm-bedding stations, and employment bureaus. The services of government officials were sought and obtained. Soon the Sisters of Devonshire Square came into being, a pioneer school for training nurses to care for the sick. Elizabeth Frv succeeded in glorifying such humanitarian service in the. eyes of the snobbish. In the spirit of the Master she taught that the greatest was he who served the lowest. The Frys often regretted that talented and privileged women would want to waste their time in entertainment and entertaining. Service for the less privileged and a selfless philanthropy was now popularized.
When Elizabeth's lifework was drawing to a close she gathered her six daughters, her five daughters-in-law, five sons, and twenty-five grandchildren to her bedside. Warning them against the love of riches, too many indulgences, extravagances, and "vanity and immodesty in dress," she pointed out to them that these were dangers that would quench God's Spirit. She reminded them that ever since God had touched her heart when she was seventeen years of age, with her first waking thought each day she had renewed her dedication to that task the Master had in mind for her. What a testimony of a useful life!
Seventh-day Adventist women are likewise committed to a great reform program. Has this prison work been overlooked by us? More and more our denominational journals are stimulating interest in such distinctive missions throughout the world. Hundreds more workers in this field should be inlisted, because the need today is greatly multiplied. Elizabeth Fry's work for prisoners in her day should be an inspiration to the church today. There is dire need now for many more candles to be lighted in prisons where gloom and wickedness still exist. Also juvenile delinquency has progressed until it is out of bounds. In this connection the church needs more young couples to plan useful play and recreation for the children. Let us stand by our communities in the development of future citizens. Vice and wickedness must be prevented—and in the language of Elizabeth Fry—handled at the base. Are our shepherdesses ready for such important tasks?
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Froom, L. E. Harry Orchard. Nashville: Southern Publish-in? Association.
Holland, Norcen. "Inasmuch." Washington, D.C.: The Youth's Instructor, June 27. 1961.
Smith, Cecil Woodham. Florence Nightingale. New York: McGraw-Hill Company, Inc.
Tucker, Park. Prison Is My Parish. Westwood, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell Company.