Recently I have started volunteering at a Bible study in the women’s prison near where I live. It’s a little scary to go into the prison at first. After going through a metal detector and having your hand stamped, you must still face the huge iron gates. There are many rules about what you can and can’t say and do while you are with the prisoners – no gifts, no hugs, no contact outside the Bible study. The rules make you wonder what these women are like – and imagine the worst! But in fact, the women I met were friendly, thankful for the study, and excited to participate. They have a hunger for God that I have seen very rarely in other places. It has been a joy to work with them.
At the time that Elizabeth Fry lived, however, society had a definite view of those in prison – they were the lowest of the low in society, and there was no hope for them to become any better. Therefore, they were treated like animals, without adequate food, bedding, or medical care, no way to achieve cleanliness of any kind, and no way to learn any skill that would help them once they were released. Their children lived with them in prison and grew up with no idea that life could be different. All of this kept them in a cycle of poverty and reinforced the view that those in prison could never change.
Elizabeth Fry was the daughter of a well-to-do Quaker family who came to know the power of God at age 18. She married at 20 and eventually had eleven children! When she was in her mid-thirties, a fellow Quaker asked her to visit Newgate Prison in England to see the conditions, and she was shocked by what she saw. She began to visit the prison regularly, and helped the women to improve their conditions by asking for basic cleaning supplies and starting a school for the children. Eventually she made it possible for the women to learn basic skills, such as sewing and quilting, so that they could have a sustainable income once they left the prison. In every reform, Elizabeth made suggestions, but allowed the women in the prison to make the final decisions and organize themselves. This allowed them to grow in their ability to lead and even to function autonomously, rights which they had never been given before.
Many prisoners in that time were sentenced to “transportation”, meaning they were sent to Botany Bay, a settlement in Australia. While it may seem like the chance to “start over” would be welcome, they were put on the prison ship with no supplies for the long and difficult journey, and no skills to make a living in the new colony. Elizabeth Fry addressed these hardships as well, petitioning for prisoners to be given supplies for the journey, and teaching them skills they could use when they arrived.
But even more than those things, Elizabeth Fry brought the Gospel to the women in prison. Quakers strongly believe in the image of God in each person, and Elizabeth Fry saw the image of God reflected in the women she met at Newgate Prison. Because of this, she did not stop at social reform, but also taught these women about God. She believed God gave them worth and value, and therefore they should know the God who created them for His purposes here on earth. They became new women, not only because of the change in their environment, but also because of God’s power within them.
It was to the surprise of many that the women in prison transformed from angry and vengeful troublemakers into calm, respectable, and devout women. Other prison officials began to take her ideas and change the way prisons were run through England and all of Europe. Even today, many people follow her example in how to think about and treat those in prison.
I love that Elizabeth Fry is an example of how we can use social justice to transform lives with the Gospel. We begin by seeing the image of God in each person, which leads us to meet their physical needs. However, we must not stop there, but ultimately bring people to the truth of their Creator, who lovingly designed them for a purpose in His plan on earth. The only way to fulfill this purpose is by submitting to Christ.
Elizabeth Fry said, “It is an honor to appear on the side of the afflicted.” May we also stand for the afflicted, both on the earth and as we lead them to God!