29 May 2005 by Geoff Muirden - slightly edited version



Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve titled this talk "Florence Nightingale: handmaid of the Lord" because Florence Nightingale was a highly religious individual. She termed herself "Handmaid of the Lord" and wanted nurses also to be "handmaids of the Lord". She would not have been satisfied with the Melbourne Unitarian Peace-Memorial Church’s motto of: "seek the truth and serve humanity", the product of a more secular age, maybe also influenced by Victor James, former Unitarian Peace-Memorial Church Minister. She would have wanted it to be " seek God and serve humanity".


Florence Nightingale is generally known as the "Lady of the Lamp" because of her actions in Scutari, taking care of British soldiers during the Crimean War, 1854-56, but this deals with only about 36 months of her life, and leaves out a much longer period when she worked on various social reforms, not only in nursing and public health, but issues such as poverty and crime in England as well as sanitation, irrigation and education in other countries, notably perhaps in India.


If you look about the church you’ll see various signs commemorating famous Unitarians, but so far I’ve not seen a sign commemorating the celebrated nurse and social reformer, Florence Nightingale. * I would recommend that such a sign be put up in the church to celebrate her memory. It is all the more appropriate, as this church is hemmed in by the Mercy Hospital and the Freemasons, symbols of the Medical-Industrial Complex. I’ll be speaking mainly as an historian, but making passing reference to medical beliefs.


There is a sign in the church commemorating another famous Victorian, Charles Dickens, who came up with a fictional character, in Martin Chuzzlewit, called Sarah Gamp, who is portrayed as a drink-sodden and slatternly nurse, which was the image of nursing before Florence Nightingale’s reform efforts made nursing respectable. But Nightingale was more than a nurse. She was a social reformer.


If Unitarians want to read about Nightingale’s theology, Florence Nightingale: The Making of a Radical Theologian, by Val Webb. St Louis, Miss., USA, Chalice Press,2002, ISBN 0-8272-1032-9,  is a good book to get. I would also recommend Florence Nightingale in Egypt and Greece; Her Diary and "Visions", by Michael D. Calabria. Albany, NY, State University of New York Press, 1997. ISBN 0-7914-3115-0.  I’ve written an article on Nightingale in the historical magazine, The Barnes Review, Vol. X #6, Nov/Dec., 2004, which includes much from Val Webb’s book.


Florence Nightingale had Unitarian roots, although she examined many other religious traditions of her time, and cannot be said to be only a Unitarian, but it had a strong influence on her thought. She was a strongly religious individual, and had what she regarded as four calls from God, one in 1837, that called her to some kind of service to humanity which wasn’t yet clear; another just before working at Harley Street (1853); before Crimea (in 1854) and after Sir Sidney Herbert’s death (1861) and, as well she recorded many prayers and conversations with God in her writing.


She was born in 1820, in Florence, Italy, and was given the name of the city of her birth. She had what might now be called a politically and theologically incorrect background.


A politically correct background of Victorianism would be: support of the monarchy , the Empire, and the class structure, and theologically correctness would be support of the Church of England and the Thirty-Nine Articles. 


Despite this, Florence’s mother, Fanny, was granddaughter of Samuel Smith, an Englishman who was politically incorrect enough to send money to support the American War of Independence, despite losing his Georgia investments. Fanny’s father, William Smith, was a Unitarian who campaigned in the House of Commons against slavery, religious intolerance, and in favour of the poor and needy.


Unitarianism was a recent development in Florence’s day, growing out of the activities of Joseph Priestley, an important scientist, who rejected Christianity’s supernatural claims, including Christ’s Divinity and the Atonement, in favour of a religion based on reason. Priestley believed that instead of concentrating on atonement for sin, God’s Spirit was incarnate in everyone, and one should work for social and religious reform being guided by God’s Spirit within. Florence accepted this viewpoint and worked it out in her life, doing all she could to help the poor. In 1791, Priestley formed the Unitarian Society, which fostered dignity for all, including the poor and destitute. Many agreed with Priestley’s ideas for reform, but his ideas were theologically incorrect, according to the prevailing Church of England opinions. Later on, Florence developed these ideas into a kind of theology of her own, expressed in her book, Suggestions for Thought, in which the solution to ill health was to obey God’s Laws, and to work with God for the betterment of mankind. Florence’s ideas were consistent with the Unitarian emphasis on "deeds not creeds", that would reform mankind.


Florence’s mother, Fanny, grew up a Unitarian, but decided there were social advantages in being C of E. and had Anglican ideas taught to Florence, but Florence’s career shows she favoured Unitarianism. She did not favour the C of E’s endorsement of class distinctions and rejected Anglican theology. The prevailing attitude at the time was "oh, bless the squire and his relations, and keep us in our proper stations." That is not a philosophy that Florence accepted.


Florence had a bad relationship with her mother and her sister, Parthenope, and was closer in spirit to her father, William Edward Nightingale, usually known by his initials ‘WEN’. WEN had political ambitions and tried to be elected to Parliament. He failed, but he introduced Florence to political and legal institutions that paved the way for her later effectiveness as a power behind the government and the opposition.


She accepted WEN’s ideas of a social conscience and his political ambitions, and also there was a Unitarian emphasis on education for daughters greater than that in most C of E households. Florence was no slouch academically. WEN treated her like the son he never had, and taught her Greek, Latin, German,French,Italian, History, Grammar, Composition and Philosophy. Her Greek was so good that in later life, she helped translate Plato for Jowett, an Oxford don. When women were first admitted to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1834, Florence joined, at the ripe old age of 14. Although women were not admitted to University until much later, Florence had the equivalent of a university education.


This had the disadvantage, though, of helping Florence become more discontented. She had academic learning, but no career to go with it. Later, in her book, "Cassandra" she wrote about the frustration of upper class women being meant by society to sit around in a ladylike fashion, and do nothing much of value, and much of that dates back to her experience with WEN, discussing serious academic issues with him, while her mother and sister occupied themselves with trivial pursuits. Florence wanted to devote her life to a Cause, and one that had the support of God.


Florence experienced other religious traditions, including Catholicism, but rejected it mainly on the grounds of its disciplinary demands for obedience. She had an independent attitude that would not accept uncritical submission to any religion, but wanted to explore for herself and make up her own mind, which is a largely Unitarian attitude. While she was in Egypt, she had mystical experiences and visions, and in fact, was also attracted to mysticism - much of this is in Calabria’s book. But her mysticism was not just contemplating God, it was part of an activist philosophy in keeping with Unitarian reform.


Her reforms of nursing are still her best-known accomplishment, and it’s true that she won soldiers’ hearts at Scutari, but there was another side to her, not so saintly, that could be ruthless in pursuing goals she found important, where she could become a battleaxe brooking no opposition. These were conflicting sides of her nature: her tender care for the sick and unfortunate, but also a harsher side of domineering behaviour. A large part of her historic importance is that she made nursing a respectable profession, devised rules to follow and standards to observe. The problem was, that she acted like a drill sergeant and created a rigid hierarchy for nursing that is now being challenged by some nurses now. There is a saying that "nursing was born in the church, and raised in the army" and her nursing career illustrates this. Her significance goes beyond nursing into areas such as reform of the army medical service, attempts to improve health in India, and even association with other spinoffs of her activity, including the Red Cross, which she did not directly create, but which she inspired.


A brief note about the state of medicine and nursing today could be made. Just as there is a military-industrial complex in the United States generating the economy, so there is a medical-industrial complex in medicine now, called by cynics the Ill Health Industry, which creates such money spinners as the Cancer Industry, the AIDS Industry and others, largely treated by drugs. Florence died before the medical industrial complex came in, but if she were alive today, I think she would denounce it in favour of naturopathic and herbal remedies. The emphasis on sanitation and hygiene would, I believe, be more compatible with her beliefs.


In summary, Florence Nightingale was a difficult and complicated woman,a workaholic who laboured in private and in secret as part of a theology that accepted Christ’s words that good deeds should be done in private and not trumpeted to the world. A problem with her theology was that it seemed to be based on "salvation by works". As we all know, the problem with "salvation by works" is that no one can know how many works are sufficient to merit salvation. But her goal for reform was salvation of the world, not just salvation of the soul, and to that end, she laboured to good effect.


* (A church official later promised to put up a tribute to Florence Nightingale in the church and maybe mentioned in a church newsletter)


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