She wore plain clothing, a white dress, a white bonnet, and a rather drab shawl, but her Christian life was vibrant, colorful, and focused on the work of the gospel. When, in the early 1800s, Elizabeth Fry dedicated her life to the pursuit of a Quaker life, her family was not pleased. Only her brother, Joseph Gurney, really stuck by her side through it all. In her supposed radical devotion, Fry struggled intensely between her desire for the comfortable and prestigious life she was used to and her desire to promote only the glory of Christ. This accounts for her seemingly constant state of depression evident in her journal and sometimes weight loss.
Fry is best known for her prison reform, call for fair treatment of the insane, and opposition to the death penalty. Her famous work began with her visit to Newgate Prison. Two friends of hers, Stephen Grellet and William Forster, had just visited Newgate, and discovered its appalling conditions. Many were imprisoned without trial, and many executed for the weakest of reasons – England at the time had about 200 offenses that called for execution. Guards often treated the women’s ward like their own personal brothel. Women prisoners gave birth and raised children within in their cells and many existed in relative nakedness and poverty. Though it was the nineteenth century, it was still common for crowds to gather and cheer at the executions of these prisoners. The governor himself would sell tickets to the front row and even enjoy his breakfast over a good hanging.
When Grellet and Forster left Newgate, Grellet went immediately to Fry, feeling she – above anyone else – could effect true change in the prison. Fry and her close friend and relative, Anna Buxton, went to Newgate to check it out for themselves. When they arrived, they found women crammed into the cells, fighting over food, nursing infants with their own emaciated bodies, sometimes trading food for alcohol and carrying on wildly. One striking memory for Fry would be two women taking the clothes off of a dead infant to put them on a live newborn. Fry was shocked that prisoners were treated worse than animals. There was no doubt in her mind that Christ was offended by the conditions at Newgate.
She and Anna gathered clothing and food and passed them out to the inmates. But, Fry recognized that the women needed more than bread and shawls; they needed education, a useful occupation, and above all the gospel. She found herself preaching to them on a daily basis, and they hung on her every word.
In fact, it was her new celebrity status in the prison that caused Fry to question her work. She found herself enjoying the attention too much. She wondered how much of her work was for her own benefit – to give herself props – and how much of it was for the cause of Christ. Afraid of sinning against her devout Quaker principle of humility, Fry withdrew from her work in London for a time and moved back to her country house.
From there, her husband Joseph Fry handled his business and her nine children received an education, the boys from the tutors and the girls from the governess. Joseph, an egalitarian by the standards of the day, was very supportive of her work and demanded little from his wife in the way of domestic duties. This freed Fry to employ her leadership gifts in the community, and she started a school for poor girls in her home. But, tragedy precipitated deep depression. Fry suffered the death of a brother and her favorite daughter, Betsy. The family business lost money. Eventually, they were forced to move back to London, where Fry again visited Newgate and renewed her commitment to the women inmates. She finally saw her role there as that of a minister of the gospel and took lasting joy in this work.
Through strategy, winsomeness, and social position, she convinced the authorities to let her start a school in the prison for children of the inmates and young convicts. The inmates themselves offered to give up one of their already crowded cells to provide the school space the authorities insisted upon. Soon the children and the women were learning to read. They reinstituted regular worship services. She helped them start a sewing business and arranged for product sales outside the prison.
Fry’s work at Newgate turned into a lifelong pursuit – even in her own relative poverty late in life – of changing the way English people understood their responsibility toward other human beings. Due to her work, laws were enacted for the improvement of the conditions of prisons and hospitals and the treatment of the insane, even bringing changes to the death penalty.
Bringing human equity to the hearts and minds of others requires putting our hands to the plow. Egalitarianism, as a call for human equality, requires the dedication of our time and our pocket books. We must, as God has blessed us, use our gifts to advance the cause of the gospel. There are many Elizabeth Frys in the world (maybe you) who need our support. Find one and help her create change.