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The Faith of Florence Nightingale

1. The Faith of Florence Nightingale

Niagara Anglican, May 1999:15

Nightingale’s religious philosophy underlay all her work as a social activist, notably in the promotion of nursing as a trained profession and the establishment of a public health care system. She believed in God as the Creator of the world, who ran it by laws. We were not to pray to be delivered from “plague, pestilence and famine,” as the litany has it. No good God (and Nightingale’s God was perfect in love, mercy, wisdom etc.) would wish plague, pestilence and famine on us anyway. Rather we were to study the operations of the world, both natural and social, to learn its (God’s) laws. We could then intervene for good, thereby becoming God’s co-workers. Nightingale often used the Greek expression “synergii”. God was always the initiator, but we had the privilege of seconding God’s work in the world.

Nightingale was appalled by the common portrayal of God as a megalomaniac demanding praise from obsequious humanity. Rather, God was infinitely good, gracious and loving. As His children our duty was not to praise God in any toadying, cowering fashion, but to acknowledge His goodness and work to extend it in the world. In her as yet unpublished Suggestions for Thought she argued:

[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!”

She scorned the portrayal of God as angry and vengeful. Although the Book of Common Prayer has the priest informing the people that God “does not desire the death of a sinner,” Nightingale asked: “Could anyone ever think He did? Do we take Him for a murderer? the Creator?”

All Nightingale’s writings, both her shorter published work and her much more extensive, yet-to-be-published biblical annotations and journal notes, make much of the greatness and goodness of God. The high, transcendent, almighty God and Judge is always at the same time a God of infinite love, mercy, kindness, forgiveness. A letter to her aunt called the “Father almighty irresistible—for love is irresistible.”

Nightingale constantly saw the interweaving of the qualities of greatness/transcendence with love and intimacy in God. God was generous in using His power, for good. Her Old Testament is laced with annotations of the Hebrew names for God: Al Shaddai, the All-Sufficient Strength, Elohim. She cited the psalmist: “His goodness is His glory,” and thought it our duty to reflect this goodness to the world.

Where 1 John 3:19 states that “we love Him because He first loved us.” Nightingale commented, “It is not, God will not punish, we shall therefore not surely die. It is, God loves us, therefore why will we die? One says that God is careless, the other that He is loving.” In an unpublished sermon she insisted on God’s “real personal interest in our welfare,” not just His “mercy generally.” It was hard to believe this, she acknowledged, “But if this belief once takes possession of our hearts, then are we redeemed indeed.”

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