Address for Commemoration of Florence Nightingale
12 May 2012, Derby Cathedral
by Lynn McDonald
Nightingale’s faith informed all the work she did as a nurse, public health advocate and hospital reformer, all her work on India, mentoring nurses and sending them out to the world, including the Derby Infirmary in 1867.
Her “call to service,” with a precise date 7 February 1837, when she was 16 years of age, is well known. Not so well known is her experience, the year before, of conversion, influenced by a book, The Cornerstone, by an American Congregational minister and school director, Jacob Abbott.
In other words, Nightingale first gave her life to God, and some months later perceived a call to serve, which she understood as meaning not so much to nurse, but to save live. Nursing was always a means to an end: the end itself was saving lives, which could also be done, and often better done, by administrative reforms, and safer hospital construction.
Nightingale’s deep faith was informed by her knowledge of natural and social science, and statistics. God made the world and runs it by laws, she believed. We can discover those laws by careful research—meaning rigorous quantitative research—and then act to intervene.
God’s creation was good, but things go wrong—disease, crime, war. However, we should not pray to be “delivered from “plague, pestilence and famine,” but find out their causes and intervene to undo them.
Nightingale is much quoted for saying “I sometimes wondered why we prayed to be delivered from plague, pestilence and famine, when all the common sewers of London run into the Thames.” Obviously we are to clean up the sewer system not pray for exemption from the consequences of disregarding the laws of the natural world.
God wants us to act, and gave us the means—intelligence and the resources to do so—and when we do, we become God’s co-workers in the world.
God is the initiator of good, but needs us to “second” it.
The passage read today from 1 John 4 tells us something of Nightingale’s understanding of the love of God—this was a favourite passage. God first loved us, and it is up to us to reflect that love back to the needy and broken world.
The gospel reading from Matthew 25 was another favourite. Nightingale liked to paraphrase “I was sick and you visited me” to the more pertinent “I was sick and you nursed me.”
For her, and for many nurses she mentored, faith was the backbone of their calling to nurse. Her school, however, was secular—for people of all faiths and none—for God’s love is for all creatures.
Nightingale found great meaning also in a passage in Exodus 33, where Moses asked the Lord to “Show me your glory,” and the Lord said, I will make all my goodness pass before you.”
Nightingale brought the two thoughts together:
- The glory of God is his goodness. He answers to “show me your glory,” I will make all my goodness to pass before you.
- God does not want to be praised, she said, no burnt sacrifices, but for us to co-operate with Him to repair the damage to His good earth:
- [God] does not want…to have His glory sung. We can scarcely conceive a good man…wishing it. How inappropriate, then, to Him all this praise!
- At a time when most people saw God as a harsh judge, Nightingale wanted people to think bigger and better of Him, a God even of unlimited goodness. In her Bible, at Romans 12:2, which tells us to be “transformed by the renewing of your mind,” and not conformed to the world, she asked:
- Shall we put a limit, which God has not put, to the degree in which even in this world the wonderful transformation shall be wrought upon us? This at least we know, that we cannot expect too much from God.
- Nightingale herself acted on this belief, confident in God’s care being so immense.
Perhaps the greatest contribution she made to health care was the introduction of trained nursing into the dreaded workhouse infirmaries. Again her faith guided her, for God was no respecter of persons, but loved the poor as well as the rich.
Nightingale long wanted to nurse in a workhouse infirmary, but her family would not permit her to nurse anywhere.
Even during the Crimean War she devoted some of her energy to thinking about how to reform these places on her return. She told her friend the mother superior of the Roman Catholic Sisters of Mercy at Bermondsey, Mary Clare Moore, that she could not keep visiting in workhouse infirmaries, because that only “breaks the visitor’s heart.”
When the opportunity arose to do something serious about workhouse reform, in Liverpool, thanks to the generosity of philanthropist William Rathbone, Nightingale jumped at it. As she explained, in 1864:
- There is no reason whatever why workhouse infirmaries should not be nursed and the sick cared for as efficiently as in the best nursed hospital.
- To her father, in 1867, she wrote:
- We should consider that the same tie really connects us to every one of our fellows as the tie which connects us with God. That to neglect or ill use the imbecile old woman, the dirty child, is the same crime of lèse majesté against the Almighty that blasphemy of God is.
- Nightingale’s ideas were bold for their time and indeed for decades. Only a start was made on workhouse reform in her lifetime and the full National Health Service, which had equality of care as a goal, came into being only in 1948.
Her ideas and vision of health care, as well as her faith, I suggest, are relevant to our issues today.
To conclude, let us go back to the Crimean War and a letter Nightingale wrote to the mother of a Derbyshire soldier, she nursed. For she wrote letters, as well as nursing hands-on herself, organizing the nursing, and starting kitchens to produce better food and laundries for clean bedding and clothing, coffee rooms and reading rooms for soldiers, Families appreciated these letters, clearly, for some sent them on to their local paper. This one, from a family in Spondon, appeared in the Derby Mercury.
In a very few words it tells us a lot about the conditions the ordinary soldiers faced, her respect for them, the care she gave them and her faith:
My brothers and sisters, let us, at Derby Cathedral, on May 12th 2012, remember her work and ponder her vision for today, and let us give thanks for the life, faith, work and vision of Florence Nightingale.