Elizabeth Fry

Rev Sue preached this sermon on Wednesday 12 October. Here it is again for you.

As Anglicans we don’t have any mechanism to declare people saints, so we remember a mixture of Roman Catholic saints from before the reformation alongside those from the last 500 years that have been judged worthy of appearing in the church calendar. Today is the day we remember Elizabeth Fry.

She grew up in a well to do Quaker family at the end of the eighteenth century. They used to go to the services on Sundays, but didn’t take their religion particularly seriously, wearing brightly coloured clothes and enjoying dancing and music like most people of the time. Betsy, as Elizabeth was known, was not particularly interested in learning, but was already developing a single – mindedness and skill at influencing other people. By the age of 17 she was beginning to feel that she had talents that were not being used, and that her pleasant daily occupations were not enough.

One day an American preacher, William Savery, visited the church, and Betsy was persuaded to make an effort to go. She shocked the more conservative members of the congregation by wearing purple boots with red laces! Something in Savery’s sermon struck home and she dissolved into floods of tears. God had touched her heart. In response she began to study more seriously, and then, wanting to share her education with the local children, she opened a school in her family home, brining 70 of them into the laundry twice a week to teach them. She began to wear the plain, dark, clothing of the Quaker’s and to avoid parties and entertainment. She was sad to leave the school children behind when at 20 she married another devout Quaker, Joseph Fry, and went to live in London. She had a very happy family life, eventually a mother to 10 children, but nevertheless found the time to become a Quaker minister. When she preached, she was criticised for leaving her children at home, but there was little opposition when she did pastoral work.

Another turning point came when she was 32. An American friend had visited Newgate gaol and was horrified at what he had seen, in particular, sparsely clothed children shivering in the cold. Betsy immediately organised her friends into a sewing group to make clothes for the children, which Betsy took into Newgate herself. She continued to visit the women prisoners and she was shocked at the conditions, but at the time her children were still very young, and the family was under pressure financially. But 5 years later she decided that visiting was not enough. She visited the women prisoners on her own (which was unheard of) and persuaded them that she was their friend by her concern for their children. On the next visit she began to lobby for a school and the facilities to teach the women to sew so that they could earn some money. She also began to campaign for an improvement in conditions.

There were no windows in the prison, and the women and children were crowded together in large rooms. The smell was appalling. There was no discipline, and the prisoners fought each other. They were often raped by the male guards, and babies were born into the squalor. The prison food was inadequate and only those with friends to support them by sending in food thrived. Betsy began to help the women organise themselves, and vote on their own rules, and her personality was such that she had a transformative effect on inmates. The American ambassador wrote that “he had seen the two greatest sights of London – St Paul’s Cathedral and Mrs Fry reading to the prisoners at Newgate”. She was also shocked at the way the death penalty was invoked for relatively minor offences like theft. So, she began to speak out to the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of London and was the only the second woman (the first was Queen Victoria) to give evidence at a House of Commons committee. Initially the authorities were willing to listen to her speaking about improving conditions but were horrified at the thought of reducing the use of the death penalty. Without such a deterrent they believed that the poor would run riot. Yet Betsy eventually, at least partially, won them over.

She died at the age of 65, dying as she lived, with complete confidence in her Lord.

In today’s gospel reading Jesus was very scathing about the Pharisees, the respected religious leaders who neither taught people to love God, nor worked for justice in the world. Elizabeth Fry was following in his footsteps by challenging the establishment of the day from outside the system. She was not just a non-conformist, but more shockingly a woman who dared to speak up for compassion and justice. We need people like Elizabeth Fry to challenge us today. Let us pray that God will call them as he called her.

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