Reflections on the Life and Faith of Florence Nightingale
First Evangelical Lutheran Church, Toronto, 26 January 2020
by Lynn McDonald
On the Bicentenary of Nightingale’s birth, 12 May 1820, what meaning does her life and work have for us today?
I was sick and you visited me….Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have done it unto me. (Matt 25:36 and 40)
For Nightingale: When we are nursing the sick, we may actually be sure that He says to us, “I was sick and you nursed me,” a paraphrase.
She told nurses: “Christ was the author of our profession.”
Nightingale’s faith informed all the work she did as a nurse, public health advocate and hospital reformer.
Her “call to service” is often cited. 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 from God to serve, which she understood to mean to save lives. Nursing was always a means to that end, which could also be done, and often better done, by safer hospital design, administrative reform and such measures as better housing and nutrition.
Nightingale’s Lutheran connection occurred during the unhappy time when she felt a call to serve God in nursing, but her family did not allow her to follow it. She was, however, allowed to travel, and she managed two trips to the Lutheran Deaconess Institution at Kaiserswerth-am-Rhein, the first deaconess institution in the world.
Her first trip was in 1850, for three weeks, enough to give her a glimpse of the life. For the second, in 1851, she stayed three months, formally enrolled as a deaconess-in-training. There was no nursing instruction there—rather the Bible and pedagogy—but she did get experience in the wards, apothecary and orphanage. It was challenging and satisfying work, with the camaraderie of dedicated deaconesses. Pastor Theodor Fliedner, the founder of Kaiserswerth, later said of her: “No person had ever passed so distinguished an examination or shown herself so thoroughly mistress of all she had to learn, as Miss Nightingale.”
Her first publication, in 1851, was on Kaiserswerth, to introduce it to English-speaking people.
Her 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, destitution, famine and war. However, we should not pray to be “delivered” from “plague, pestilence and famine,” using the words of the litany, but find out their causes and work to undo them.
Nightingale said it with humour: “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.”
God wants us to act, and gave us the means, “reason, memory and skill,” to do so. And when we so act, we become God’s co-workers “labourers together” in the world (1 Cor 3:9).
God is the initiator of good, but needs us to “second” it.
The reading 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 a needy and broken world.
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 God’s creatures.
Nightingale found great meaning 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 goodnesspass before you.”
She brought the two thoughts together: The glory of God is his goodness. God does not want praise, or burnt sacrifices–but rather for us to co-operate in repairing the damage done to God’s good earth.
[God] does not want to be praised, to be adored, 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 thought of God as a harsh judge, her God was wise and loving and encouraging. Nightingale wanted people to think bigger and better of God.
In her Bible, at Romans 12:2, which tells people 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.
Perhaps the greatest contribution she made to health care was the introduction of professional 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 those 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 workhouses, in Liverpool, thanks to the generous support of philanthropist William Rathbone, Nightingale jumped at it. As she explained:
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, 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…against the Almighty that blasphemy of God is.
She contended against the portrayal of God as
Always weighing and balancing our sins against our disadvantages, or listening to Christ, who is always asking Him to do what He would not do without such asking! Who would wish to have such a God?
She had a different understanding of the crucifixion, decidedly non-legalistic. She kept a print of Christ crowned with thorns in her bedroom. She complained about a revision of the Bible for children for omitting some of the words of Christ on the cross, on what was “the most important day that ever was in the world,” while Jesus was “the most important person that ever lived.”
The cross of Christ had a “practical meaning,” for Christ “voluntarily” gave Himself. Now quoting her, “not in the vulgar sense, as if it were to appease the anger of a perfect Being–but in the sense of willingly incurring any and all sufferings which come in the way of helping to carry out God’s will and work.”
The Father had sacrificed Jesus, for even “the irreplaceable, precious one could not be spared.”
Oh may we not try to be perfect (in giving) even as the Father in heaven is perfect–in giving Him our best, even as He gave us His best?
Jesus’s faithfulness and courage gave her courage in her own life, when she was confronted with difficulties:
Should I say, “Father, save me from this hour?” And immediately, as it were, recollecting Himself, “but for this cause came I unto this hour.”
Similarly she found comfort in the Beatitudes, for nowhere did Christ say:
Blessed are the fashionable, but blessed are the persecuted, that is, they who have to work against fashion and popularity.
This she often had to do, in working to improve conditions for soldiers during the Crimean War, and after it for decades in civilian life, for the destitute sick of the workhouses–the rich could pay for care–and then for oppressed peasants in India.
She told her mother in a letter in1872 (just after her birthday):
I only wish for God to make me what He wishes–that I may be able to do all He asks of me.
Nightingale especially liked the hymn we will next sing, by Bishop Hebert, a missionary bishop, she noted. His “The Son of God goes Forth to War,” is not so much warlike, but rather a call for heroic martyrdom, its stanzas ending with “Who follows in His train?” She cited it for people who had given exemplary service, such as the first trained matron in a workhouse infirmary, who died of typhus fever on the job.
Nightingale indeed used it to call for more recruits to this dangerous work, and they came. The hymn was sung at her own burial.
Before closing, let me read you a letter Nightingale wrote during the Crimean War to the mother of a soldier whom she had nursed.
Barrack Hospital, Scutari
12 April 1855
I am very sorry to have to communicate to you the illness of your poor son, Private John Cope, 95th Regiment, No. 2884. He was admitted here about ten days ago suffering from diarrhea. He was immediately attended to by surgeons, by one of my nurses and myself. He was fed in small quantities and frequently with port wine and arrowroot.
He often murmured, “dear, dear mother!” and tried to say many things to you–that he was well cared for and wanted for nothing–that he had no wish for anything. I sent for the chaplain, who came twice, and both times he was quite sensible and prayed fervently, and said he was quite happy in mind and could follow all that was said.
He spoke little after this, and sank rapidly and died at 2 o’clock on the morning of Easter Sunday, quite quietly and without pain, in the full hope of a resurrection with Him who rose again on that day.
I remain with true sympathy for your grief,
P.S. I would have sent you something of his, but he left nothing.
Nightingale did much of this letter writing late at night. The lamp she carried through the long corridors of the Barrack Hospital got her the name “the Lady with the Lamp.”
I think the light image works for Nightingale at many levels: shining a lamp at the bedside of a soldier, on to the celebration of Jesus as “The Light of the World” and her bringing the light of reason to all her work.
For me, this Bicentenary is a good time to give thanks for the life and faith and work of Florence Nightingale.