Elizabeth Fry

Quaker Reformer (1780-1845)
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Portrait of Elizabeth Fry. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth Fry was born into a prosperous English Quaker family. At seventeen she encountered a Quaker abolitionist from the United States who stimulated her desire to pursue a path of godly service. Afterward, she wrote, “I wish the state of enthusiasm I am now in may last, for today I have felt there is a God.” 

After marriage her life was absorbed in the responsibilities of a growing family. She bore eleven children. But after twelve years she felt that she was missing out on her true vocation, noting, “I fear that my life is slipping away to little purpose.” 

Soon after this, she made her first visit to Newgate Prison, where the horrid conditions filled her with shame and indignation: women and children crowded into fetid cells, in rags and filth, sleeping on the floor. This was the beginning of a cause that Fry pursued for the rest of her life. With the support of a committee of other Quaker women, she launched a campaign for prison reform. Her efforts were criticized by those who felt that by humanizing prisons she was undermining their deterrent value. But Fry was motivated by the conviction that prisoners, regardless of their crimes, were human beings who bore within them the spark of the divine image. It was sacrilege to treat them with no more than punitive cruelty. 

She pursued her cause tirelessly until her death on October 12, 1845. 

“My mind too much tossed by a variety of interests and duties—husband, children, household, accounts. . .. I hope I am not undertaking too much, but it is a little like being in the whirlwind and in the storm.” —Elizabeth Fry 

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Robert Ellsberg

Robert Ellsberg is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Orbis Books and the author of several award-winning books, including All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time; Blessed Among All Women; and The Saints' Guide to Happiness.

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