SAN JOSE, March 25, 2016 – As Easter weekend is upon Christians throughout the United States, most of the devout will likely choose to attend Easter services, especially on Sunday, and remind themselves of their relationship to Jesus Christ.
Since both Easter and women’s history month occur in March this year, it is fitting to focus upon Florence Nightingale, who became one of the most devoted women in history to put into practice Jesus Christ’s message of service to mankind. Unfortunately, most Americans, perhaps many Christians throughout the world, would not make such a connection between Florence Nightingale and Jesus Christ. This is because the life of Florence Nightingale is not taught well.
Sadly, what has been lost about Florence Nightingale is that she was more than just a woman who became famous as a nurse, hospital administrator, and writer. Today, although Americans are not too familiar with Florence Nightingale, she is considered a respected English social reformer and the founder of modern nursing. Nightingale had given so much of herself throughout her life that she became an inspiration to future generations. She truly viewed her life as a fulfillment of her dream, and near the end of her life she wrote to a friend, “God has blessed me with the fulfillment of my heart’s longings, I only hope I may see Him soon to thank Him for all the gifts He has given me.”
To revisit Ms. Nightingale as a woman of God is illuminating in connection to the Easter holiday.
Christians remember that one of the most essential stories associated with the Easter period is related in the book of John with regard to the time in which Jesus and his disciples went to the upper guest room to partake of the day of Unleavened Bread and to eat the Passover meal. In that place, Jesus removed his outer garments and knelt before each of the twelve and washed their filthy feet. This part of the activities surrounding the Last Supper is not often remembered in many Christian traditions; certainly, not nearly regarded as much as the communion meal of bread and wine. However, Jesus was making a very specific point to those who were present. After finishing the effort, it is recorded that Jesus explained to the twelve:
Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and what you say is well, for I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, how much more should you wash one another’s feet? For I have given you this as an example, so that just as I have done to you, you should also do. Truly, truly, I say to you, There is no servant who is greater than his master; and no apostle who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. (John 13:12-17 – Lamsa’s Aramaic translation)
This part of the activities in the upper room was not recorded in the other gospels, but as if in a way of clarification, Luke’s account of the Last Supper reveals a dispute that arose between the disciples as to which should be regarded as the greatest. Again, Jesus instructed them as he explained, “…let him who is great among you be the least, and he who is a leader, be like the one who serves… But, I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:24-27 – Lamsa’s Aramaic translation)
Florence Nightingale’s life represents the life of a woman divinely inspired to serve humanity in her best possible manner. She lived at a tumultuous time in human history, from 1820 – 1910, and she left an indelible imprint in her day and age. However, rarely her life is described as one in which she had been inspired by Heaven.
Personally, she described four “calls” from God beginning in 1937 when she was 17 years old. She sincerely believed she was called by God for a divine purpose, and to focus upon nursing as her calling of service. She wrote in her diary, “God called me in the morning and asked me would I do good for Him alone without reputation.”
Unfortunately, her parents, especially her mother, did not share her inspiration. Indeed, her parents were concerned about their daughter’s reputation, as well as the reputation of their affluent family. Florence Nightingale was from a very privileged background, yet her story was not an easy one.
Ms. Nightingale was born into a very wealthy and prominent British family that belonged to elite social circles with very high social standing in England. Her father, a wealthy landowner, took it upon himself to personally provide Florence and her older sister with a classical education, including studies in German, French and Italian. Yet, her parents, like most protective parents of daughters during the Victorian Era, expected her to follow the societal norms established for young women of such social stature.
The main conflict in Florence Nightingale’s early life was the clash of wills between the young lady and her parents. They essentially forbade her to pursue what was viewed as lowly menial labor and ultimately spurned by the upper class. Her parents expected her to find a nice wealthy gentleman, and get married and raise a family. But, this was not for Florence, as when she was 24 years old, she turned down a serious marriage proposal from such a fine young man named Richard Monckton Milnes. To Florence’s parents, rejection of such a marriage proposal was a significant blow, and they felt her youthful dream to pursue nursing was basically nonsense, and essentially stood in her path to pursue what she felt was her divine calling.
Her parents strongly opposed her desire to become a nurse for several reasons. They considered such a choice to be beneath the reality of the social stature of her family and their prestigious name. Also, the nursing profession in this time was not considered a substantive career, especially it did not represent a suitable profession for young women of the upper class. In the 1840s in England, nursing was considered lowly employment and few qualifications or little training was required as nurses mainly received on the job training. In addition, public perception regarded it as the kind of job women took when they were not able to find a good husband to care for them.
After a struggle of many years, from the time of her first vision until she turned 32, Florence Nightingale eventually freed herself from her family entanglements. During this time she struggled with her identity as a person to serve others, and with her womanhood with regard to the proper Victorian and feminine ideal of a woman growing to marry and become a wife and a mother. In the course of her struggles, she fortified her genuine relationship with God, and this gave Florence Nightingale the strength and the courage to fight against the “normal” expectations for women of Victorian England, and to also help transform the world of healthcare in her time.
One of her diary entries in this period revealed an important resolution during this time of struggle:
I am thirty, the age at which Christ began his mission. Now no more childish things, no more vain things, no more love, no more marriage. Now Lord, let me only think of Thy will.