"Nothing Short of the Holy Spirit"

Ann Spangler
Ann Spangler

One woman who embodied non-anxious leadership and impelled a whole society to grow was Elizabeth Fry, a nineteenth-century Quaker. Fry had heard about the appalling conditions of women inmates at Newgate Prison in the center of London. Inside the prison, 190 women and 100 children were housed together--prostitutes, murderers, and professional thieves alongside innocent women and children who had merely fled abusive homes. None of the inmates were given bedding or clothing, with the result that many were living in nearly unbearable conditions.

Fry had been warned that the prison was dangerous to enter. Those who made the mistake of straying too close to the iron grating separating the crowd of prisoners from the rest of the world would often find themselves in the steely grip of grimy hands thrust through the grating and holding them fast. Scratch marks on their faces were the only mementos of their unlucky encounter with those on the other side of the prison gate.

Despite the danger, Elizabeth Fry was determined to enter the women's section of the prison. She did so for the first time in January 1817. As a crowd of shrieking women surged toward her, Fry held her own, calmly explaining that she was a mother who wanted to know how to help the prisoners and their children. To the astonishment of the guards, the inmates halted their furious attack and listened carefully to what Fry had to say.

Later Fry formed a volunteer organization of women dedicated to feeding, clothing, educating, and praying with the inmates and their children. Through her work she sparked a worldwide prison reform movement, something that might not have happened without the empowering presence of God. She also set up a nurses' training school that influenced Florence Nightingale, the woman credited with laying the foundation for professional nursing. Fry knew that her work depended on God's guidance, remarking that "nothing short of the Holy Spirit can really help forward the cause of righteousness on earth."1

1. Information on Elizabeth Fry found in Catherine Whitmire, Practicing Peace (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin, 2007), 45-46.


Originally published December 17, 2019.