The Story of Elizabeth Fry

The Story of Elizabeth Fry

The Power of a Poured-Out Life

by Leslie Ludy | September 11, 2014

In 1813 a tall, slender Quaker woman named Elizabeth Fry went to the governor of Newgate Prison in London and asked, ‘Sir, if thee kindly allows me to pray with the women, I will go inside.’  Permission was granted and when the prison doors closed behind her, she felt she had entered a den of wild beasts.  Three hundred women with their numerous children were crowded into four small rooms, without beds or bedding or extra clothing, without classification or employment.  There was only one male attendant and his son to look after them.  In these crowded quarters the women lived, cooked, washed, and slept.  The odors were foul and the language obscene.  At the window gratings they begged of passers-by and used their shillings to buy liquor in the taproom, the only recreation provided for them.  The closeness of the rooms, the wickedness, the nearly naked condition of many of the women—all this was too horrible to describe, and Elizabeth Fry was appalled.  She had to bear with the most hardened criminals and help them know that she had not come in a spirit of judgment but of mercy, not to condemn but to comfort and relieve.  She began to see in them a few remaining sparks of nearly extinguished spiritual fire which might yet be ‘fanned into a flame’ (from Great Women of the Christian Faith, by Edith Deen).

Elizabeth Fry was the wife of a clergyman and the mother of eleven children.  But even with her many responsibilities, she continually made herself available to become God’s hands and feet to the weak and vulnerable.  She was always on the lookout for the “good works” that God had prepared in advance for her to do (Eph. 2:10).

From the time she first gave her life to Christ, Elizabeth made a habit of waking up in the morning with the same question on her lips: “Lord, how can I bring You glory today?”  The moment she set foot in that local prison, she knew that God wanted her to minister hope to these women who were being treated like animals and had lost their desire to live.

As I’ve studied this amazing woman’s life, I have been personally convicted and inspired by two key qualities that she demonstrated:

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1.  She didn’t operate in her own strength.

1 Peter 4:11 says, “If anyone ministers, let him do it as with the ability which God supplies.”  How easy it is to attempt to “do big things for God” in our own strength—pursuing our own dreams for ministry and promoting our own ideas for how to change the world.  Yet when we fail to become a catalyst of His Spirit, all our good works will amount to nothing and we will quickly burn out.  Elizabeth Fry understood this principle well.

Great Women of the Christian Faith describes Elizabeth’s approach to ministry:

“Both inside and outside of her prison work, Elizabeth constantly prayed:  Lord, may I be directed what to do and what to leave undone, and then may I humbly trust that a blessing will be with me in my various engagementsenable me, O Lord, to feel tenderly and charitably toward all my beloved fellow mortals.  Help me to have no soreness or improper feelings toward any.  Let me think no evil, bear all things, hope all things, endure all things.  Let me walk in all humility and Godly fear before all men, and in Thy sight.’ ”

Because Elizabeth relied upon the Holy Spirit to operate her life and decisions, she was able to accomplish far more of lasting value than anything a mere human could do in her own strength.  Relying on the enabling grace and strength of God, Elizabeth literally transformed the Newgate prison with the Gospel.

She opened a classroom for the children and their young mother’s to receive education.  She supplied the women prisoners with material for handwork.  Some people argued that these women were so accustomed to vice and violence that they could not be trained to work, but Elizabeth inspired them with a desire to create.  She persuaded the prison authorities to hire a female matron to supervise the women prisoners, the first such matron in new gate’s history.  The prison began to take on the appearance of a well-regulated family.  After six years of Elizabeth’s tireless work, a congressman from America came to visit London.  He reported to a friend:

“I saw the greatest curiosity in Londonaye in England toocompared with which Westminster Abbey, The Tower, Somerset House, the British Museum, nay Parliament itself, sink into utter insignificance.  I have seen, sir, Elizabeth Fry, in Newgate, and I have witnessed there, sir, miraculous effects of true Christianity upon the most depraved of human beings.”

As the congressman pointed out, nothing but true Christianity could accomplish such a miracle.

Elizabeth’s ministry is a profound reminder that when we attempt to “change the world” by our own wisdom, strength or merit, we fall far short of what can be accomplished when we simply yield to the power of God to do His work in and through us.

I find it truly astounding to look at how profoundly God used this humble woman’s life to change the world.  With her eleven children and flourishing ministry to the local prisoners, it would seem her plate was quite full.  But Elizabeth put no boundaries around God’s ability to use her life, energy, and resources.  She didn’t have the attitude, “I will go this far and no further” but rather, “I will follow the Lamb wherever He leads!”  As a result of this surrendered attitude, Elizabeth became a catalyst of prison reform all around the world. 

2.  She was a Christian, not a humanitarian. 

In modern Christianity, liberal thinkers both in and out of the church have hijacked the concept of standing up on behalf of the weak. Gospel-centered rescue work has been replaced by humanitarianism. While at first glance the idea of humanitarian aid might seem positive, it is opposite of God’s message. Just take a look at this definition of humanitarianism from dictionary.com

a. the doctrine that humanity's obligations are concerned wholly with the welfare of the human race

b. the doctrine that humankind may become perfect without divine aid.   

The idea behind being a humanitarian is to showcase the good side of humanity and to celebrate our human ability to make the world a better place without God’s help or involvement. It has nothing to do with the glory of God, and everything to do with the glory of man. If you are a humanitarian, you are not rescuing the weak as an extension of God’s sacrificial love toward the world. Rather, you are serving and rescuing in order to proclaim, “Look at the good we humans are capable of!” That is why so many celebrities and icons have taken up humanitarian causes. They look to humanitarian acts to somehow prove that they are “doing their part” in this world and to convince themselves that they are spending time on worthy causes.

While there is nothing wrong with many acts of humanitarianism, such as feeding the hungry and creating fair trade work opportunities for the impoverished, humanitarianism cannot provide the true solution to the world’s problems. Why? Because it seeks to provide a solution outside of God.

Contrary to popular belief, what this suffering world needs is not primarily food distribution programs or fair trade employment opportunities. The true solution is Jesus Christ. The hope and transformation that the Gospel brings offers the only permanent solution to the problem of human suffering, both in this life, and in the life to come.

Elizabeth Fry understood this.  The Christian principles by which she transformed the Newgate prison soon led to prison reform all around England, and into Australia, and eventually affected the way prisoners were treated in all of Europe.  Her concern for the suffering and needy “knew no bounds,” says Edith Deen in Great Women of the Christian Faith.  For example, within six hours after learning that a man had frozen to death on the streets of London, she and her team set to work preparing shelters and food for the homeless so that such a tragedy might never happen again.

Elizabeth built hospitals, started schools, established libraries, and ministered, both practically and spiritually, to countless needy people.  But no matter how many practical needs Elizabeth tended to, she never forgot that the deepest need in every person’s life was the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  She was constantly reading the Scriptures and sharing the Gospel with those she served—tending to their need for eternal hope, and not just temporary comfort.

When the King of Prussia came to visit England he asked to visit Newgate Prison with Elizabeth Fry.  “In his presence, she read to the prisoners from Romans about the surrendered life…when she knelt, the king followed her example and listened attentively to her beautiful, extemporaneous prayer.  The scene was a moving onethe monarch of a great nation, dignitaries of England, and common prisoners all praying to their common Creator.  When they rose, the king offered his arm to Mrs. Fry and they walked out together” (Great Women of the Faith).

Elizabeth’s example is a poignant charge for us to reclaim the Gospel-centered rescue opportunities that God has waiting for us all around the world. May we not let humanitarians redefine what it means to “make the world a better place.” As Elizabeth’s ministry so powerfully demonstrated, the only way to improve this world is to introduce it to true Christianity.

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As American women, we often choose not to give much thought or energy to rescuing the orphan, the slave, and the impoverished. We don’t mind “doing our Christian duty” by going on a two-week mission trip every couple of years or giving money to an orphanage fund at our church,  just as long as it doesn’t inconvenience us too much. But few of us are willing to fight for the cause of the vulnerable with even half as much passion and dedication as Elizabeth Fry did.  May this pattern change, and may the change begin with us!

My prayer is that, by God’s grace, we will follow in this astounding woman’s footsteps, so that on judgment day our beloved King may say to each of us:

“I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me” (Matt. 25:36) and “Well done, my good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:21).