The Christian Faith of Florence Nightingale
Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), known as “The Lady With the Lamp,” was a British nurse, social reformer and statistician best known as the founder of modern nursing. Her experiences as a nurse during the Crimean War were foundational in her views about sanitation. She established St. Thomas’ Hospital and the Nightingale Training School for Nurses in 1860. Her efforts to reform healthcare greatly influenced the quality of care in the 19 and 20 centuries.
She was a legend in her own lifetime and one of the most famous women in British history. Her work in the Crimea set the standards for modern nursing. For the rest of her life, she continued to campaign for improved sanitary conditions in both military and civilian hospitals.
From a very young age, Florence Nightingale was active in philanthropy, ministering to the ill and poor people in the village neighbouring her family’s estate. By the time she was 16 years old, it was clear to her that nursing was her calling. She believed it to be her divine purpose.
Born into a wealthy family, Florence overcame the narrow opportunities offered to girls of her station. In 1851, despite the disapproval of her family, she completed a course of nursing training in Germany.
Moved by newspaper accounts of soldiers' suffering in the Crimean War (1854-56), Florence answered a government appeal for nurses. She was soon appointed Superintendent of the Female Nurses in the Hospitals in the East.
Florence and her nurses improved the medical and sanitary arrangements, set up food kitchens, washed linen and clothes, wrote home on behalf of the soldiers, and introduced reading rooms.
Florence gained the nickname 'the Lady with the Lamp' during her work at Scutari. 'The Times' reported that at night she would walk among the beds, checking the wounded men holding a light in her hand.
The image of 'the Lady with the Lamp' captured the public's imagination and Florence soon became a celebrity. One of the main creators of the Nightingale cult was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who immortalised her in his poem 'Santa Filomena'.
Although Florence stopped attending church in her early 30s, doing God’s will was still her deepest motivation. Her family had been Unitarian (a sect that denies the Trinity) before they switched to the Church of England, and Florence’s religious views were shaped by this heterodox background. She was influenced by rationalism, denying the possibility of miracles and rejecting the idea of hell, but her rationalism also pushed her towards action. Rather than seeking a mystical experience, she believed that the call of God on her life was to sacrifice whatever was necessary in order to do good. So despite her ruined health, she continued her work.
On her return from the Crimea, Florence immediately pushed for an investigation into sanitary conditions during the war. She subjected the data she had collected to close analysis. What she found disturbed her. The Barrack Hospital, which she had personally supervised, had the highest hospital death rate. This was almost certainly due to its location on top of a sewer, which was not her decision, but she was determined that lessons should be learned. When the government tried to suppress the findings of the Royal Commission, she threatened to go public, forcing their hand. Florence used her contacts to lobby for a second Royal Commission, this time into the sanitary situation in India after a mutiny there in 1858. She wrote to many officers in the field to gather statistics, and her recommendations transformed conditions for Indian soldiers and their families. She had a growing sense that the British were not managing India well, and that the Indian people should be allowed to handle their affairs for themselves. In later life, she became an activist for Indian independence.
While never seeking glory for herself, Florence was ruthless in using her fame and her social connections to advance her causes, even having sympathetic politicians appointed to influential positions.
Later in life she used a public fund that had been set up in her honour to establish the first professional training school for nurses, attached to St Thomas’ Hospital. She spearheaded the model for the classic Victorian hospital building, with separate wards and plenty of windows. She also wrote a number of books, including her hugely popular Notes on Nursing.
Once germ theory became established, she promoted the use of antiseptic techniques during surgery. And all of this she achieved while she was confined to her apartments by ill health. Florence eventually recovered from the effects of brucellosis and was able to make a few rare public appearances in the 1880s, but soon old age began to take its toll. She gradually went blind, and in her final years her mind started to wander.
She became the first woman to receive the Medal of Honour in 1907. In 1910 she died at the age of 90, having lived to see the success of many of her reforms.
When she broke from family expectations to become a nurse at age 30, she noted that this was the age when Jesus began his ministry. She clearly saw her work as a way of following her Lord. And what better way to commit one's life to the Healer than by devoting oneself to healing? She once told an assembly of nurses, "Christ is the author of our profession."
While working in the military hospital during the Crimean conflict, Nightingale wrote in a letter: "In the midst of this appalling horror there is good--and I can truly say, like St. Peter, 'It is good for us to be here'--though I doubt whether, if St. Peter had been here, he would have said so."
Finally, it was evident that she saw her life’s work as a way to follow her Lord. She lived her life, unselfishly, in the service of others. She understood the meaning of 1 Peter 4:10 which says ‘Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.”