SAN JOSE, Calif., March 25, 2016 – As Christians worship this Easter weekend and recollect their relationship to Jesus Christ, it is fitting to focus upon Florence Nightingale, who became one of the most devoted women in history at putting into practice Jesus Christ’s message of service to humanity.
Sadly, some 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 fully understood. Yet, Nightingale gave so much of herself throughout her life that she became an inspiration to generations. Revisiting Florence Nightingale as a woman of God is illuminating in connection with the Easter holiday.
After her struggle of many years, from the time of her first vision from God 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. Toward the end (1851–52) of this period, Nightingale wrote a polemical tract that examined such a struggle on deeper levels. Feminists point to this as a major work dealing with her rejection of the Victorian feminine ideal she experienced through her mother and her older sister, Parthenope. Yet, this work, “Cassandra,” reveals much about Nightingale’s relationship to God
“Cassandra” is much more than a feminist polemic, and Nightingale was more than a feminist activist; she reveals much more about herself as a Christian and one who was concerned with pursuing God’s will. This can be understood, especially, when one considers that the original title of her tract was “Suggestions for Thought to Searchers after Religious Truth,” a more typical wordy 19th-century type of title. The title “Cassandra,” the name of the virgin priestess of Apollo, is a serious statement in and of itself. The divinely inspired prophecy of the Greek priestess went unheeded by the people of her time, and she was stifled in her divine inspirations.
“Suggestions for Thought to Searchers after Religious Truth” has a great deal to do with Florence’s own experiences of being stifled by her mother, her parents and society in general, and it ultimately turns to very genuine concerns not limited to her time:
Jesus Christ raised women above the condition of mere slaves, mere ministers to the passions of man, raised them by his sympathy, to be Ministers of God. He gave them moral activity. But the Age, the World, Humanity, must give them the means to exercise this moral activity…
What should not be lost about Florence Nightingale is that she was more than just a woman who rebelled against her confinement within society’s straitjacket for creative and inspired women. Nightingale had developed a genuine relationship with God, and He had a mission for her – a means to exercise her moral imperatives. In the course of her struggles, her relationship only grew stronger, and this gave Florence the strength and the courage to do what she felt He was asking of her. This view is a much truer perspective on Nightingale than that of a mere feminist asserting her indignation with the right to vote or whatever rights denied to women that may arise.
In “Suggestions for Thought to Searchers after Religious Truth,” Nightingale relates a story about how Jesus handled a situation that had a great deal to do with her own reality, yet she explores the essence of the perennial struggle for all to break free of the “world’s” constraints:
People talk about imitating Christ, and imitate Him in the little trifling formal things, such as washing the feet, saying His prayer, and so on, but if anyone attempts the real imitation of Him, there are no bounds to the outcry with which the presumption of that person is condemned.
For instance, Christ was saying something to the people one day, which interested Him very much, and it interested them very much, and Mary and His brothers came in the middle of it, and wanted to interrupt Him, and to take Him home to dinner, very likely…and He, instead of being angry with their interruption of Him in such an important work for some trifling things, answers, “Who is my mother? and who are my brethren? Whosoever shall do the Will of my Father which is in Heaven, the same is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:33-35 – Nightingale’s approximation)
But if we were to say that, we should be accused of “destroying the family tie, of diminishing the obligation of the home duties.”
After Florence Nightingale freed herself from her struggle of many years with her family, the strong-minded young lady’s desire for education in practical nursing seemed insatiable. She persuaded her parents to allow her to study in Germany at a Lutheran facility called the Institution of Deaconesses at Kaiserwerth, which was a working hospital offering formal training for nurses. She also later received formal training in Paris with the Catholic Sisters of Charity at the Maison de la Providence, even though she was neither a nun nor Catholic. She continued to study and eventually was offered the position of superintendent of the Institute for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen in London, and she served in this position from August 1853 until October 1854.
Despite such success, Florence Nightingale’s life changed dramatically based on upheaval in the world in 1853, as the first Crimean War broke out when the Ottoman Empire declared war on Russia. By July, Great Britain became engaged in the war by supporting the Ottomans. By October 1854, the British had deployed thousands of men and boys to the Crimean front, and at least 18,000 soldiers had been admitted to field hospitals, which had been overwhelmed with the wounded and dying. Back in England, news of those hospitals’ being understaffed, unsanitary, and inhumane, generated public uproar.
During the Crimean War, Florence Nightingale became known as the “Lady with the Lamp,” one of the most famous women in England, if not most of Europe. By November of 1854, nurses she had recruited and trained had arrived at the main British camp and base hospital at Scutari, modern Istanbul. Yet, the horrendous conditions were worse than Nightingale and her nurses could imagine. They were not totally prepared for the reality the soldiers were forced to endure. Nevertheless, Nightingale’s nurses were undeterred in efforts to care for the soldiers, who kept crowding daily into the hospital. The tragic reality was that more soldiers were dying from infectious diseases like typhoid and cholera than from injuries sustained in battle. Mass infections were common, and many of them became fatal.
The efforts Nightingale and her nurses offered were incredibly needed in such a tragic time in history. The nurses soon discovered that the hospital at Scutari was overcrowded and understaffed; thus, the medical staff was severely overworked. In addition, there was also a severe shortage of basic supplies: bandages, medicines, and soap. Even clean water had to be rationed. The ladies found bugs and rodents scurrying across filthy floors. Even worse, the sewage and ventilation systems had broken down. Nightingale also found the lighting inadequate, and that there was no means to process nutritious food. Yet, when Nightingale voiced concerns about the stench and such unsanitary conditions, her concerns were met with indifference by male medical directors.
Nightingale, her nurses and less injured patients scrubbed the inside of the hospital from ceiling to floor. She had also sent a plea to the Times in England about the horrible facilities in the hospital. This prompted the British government to deploy the Sanitary Commission in March 1855. The commission pumped out the sewers and improved ventilation. The mortality rate decreased. The government also commissioned private contractors to design and build pre-fabricated, deployable hospitals and shipped them to the area, and the civilian-run facility achieved a lower death rate.
In addition to drastically improving the sanitary conditions at Scutari and other hospitals, Nightingale created a number of valuable patient services that improved the quality of a soldier’s hospital stay. She established a laundry so patients would have clean clothing and linens, instituted the creation of an “invalid’s kitchen” where the staff would cook appealing food for patients, and created a library for patients to receive intellectual stimulation and enjoyment. Also, Nightingale focused on individual care of patients. She was one of the first to rise in the mornings and one of the last to rest in the evenings.
Soldiers would call her ”the Lady with the Lamp” as she moved through the dark aisles of the hospitals late into the night, carrying her lamp as she made her rounds from one bedside to another. Soldiers were sincerely moved by her seemingly endless supply of energy and comforted by her real compassion. She truly set a high standard for those who would allow God to work through them to “do the Will of the Father,” and she should be remembered in that light.