Christians in Practice?
Reference Group member Lindsey Hall recounts the story of Elizabeth Fry's faith and practice.
Famous for her prison reform work and many other services of care, education and support for the poor, Elizabeth Fry was well known as a woman committed to making the world better. By garnering the support of others and spear-heading campaigns, she was the catalyst for a significant amount of change at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century. Fry was also well known for being a Quaker.
Fry’s journey to faith was not entirely straightforward and happened gradually. It was difficult for her to shift the balance from the gaiety of worldly things and her present life to adopt the plain life of a Quaker. She frequently examined her own conduct and constantly found it falling short of the life she believed she was being called to, regularly agonising over whether she should go to plays and dances and being reluctant to adopt the simple dress of Quakers.
One evening at a Quaker meeting, a friend challenged Elizabeth about the gifts she could use in service of the Kingdom of God. She wrote in her diary:
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 … I know now what the mountain is I have to climb, I am to be a Quaker! (1798)
Even knowing she was to make this commitment was not enough. Fry continued to struggle with faith and felt that she was not consistent enough in her belief and discipline as a Christian. As she became more and more absorbed in the Society of Friends, and more and more involved in working directly with and campaigning for the poor, particularly children and prisoners, the solidity of faith that she had sought began to develop. In 1820 she wrote:
My sceptical, doubting mind, has been convinced of the truth of religion, not by the hearing of the ear, but from what I have really handled, and tasted, and known for myself of the word of life.
The things that Elizabeth Fry achieved, and the changes that she brought about in society were of a scale that seems vastly beyond the reach of most of us. She was an extraordinary woman, but perhaps she didn’t start with extraordinary faith. The work she did and her service to her community fanned the sparks of faith, as did her commitment to reading the Bible and to examining her conduct. But without the practical outworking, she felt that her faith was too often floating on the surface. It was the hands-on involvement in kingdom life that convinced her that her faith had really become part of who she was. Fry’s faith grew through service; it became real in practice.