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by Timothy Larsen

St. Flo

The improbable life of Florence Nightingale.

It is fortunate that Florence Nightingale had a clear and unwavering conviction that Almighty God had called her to be a nurse, because she was an awful preacher. Although she never delivered a sermon, "The Lady with the Lamp" wrote her first one at the age of nine, and apparently had recourse to this practice throughout much of her adult life. Only a few of her sermons have survived, but these are enough to confirm that she did not have the gift. One of the most eminent liberal clergymen of the 19th century, Benjamin Jowett, solicited her homiletic manuscripts and intimated that he would preach them himself, perhaps even in Westminster Abbey. One can hope he was only being polite.

Perhaps if the Church of England in Nightingale's day would have allowed women to occupy the pulpit, she might have grown into the role. As it was, her preaching was, well, too preachy. She continually berates her imagined congregation for not knowing what she knows and thinking like she thinks—a classic amateur's mistake. Her wince-worthy catch phrase is "no one," meaning no one but her, as in "no one" (but me) is bothering to study "the character of God."

Nightingale was raised in a wealthy, well-connected Victorian family, and she chafed against the expectations for what her life should be in such a milieu. Not for her the endless idle talk with fashionable ladies in the drawing room of her father's grand house. She viewed marriage equally unfavorably as a permanent perpetuation of this tedious existence. For the rest of her life she marked the anniversary of February 7, 1837, the day when God had called her—a 16-year old girl—to an active life of service for him.

She soon discerned that nursing was the concrete form of this call, but she had many years of family opposition ahead. Not even her only sister or her favorite aunt approved of her chosen vocation, let alone her parents. Nightingale found encouragement in her Bible, however: "Christ's whole life was a war against the family. From a child, he said he must be about his Father's business." Nursing at that time was largely the province of poor, unfortunate souls—deserted wives, "fallen" women, and drunkards. It was generally agreed to be an occupation unfit for a lady—and Nightingale was indisputably a lady. Nevertheless, her parents finally consented to let her pursue nursing. She began her chosen life in 1853 at the age of 33.

Now Nightingale's birthright of élite social connections proved itself capable of dramatically speeding her down her God-given path. After only a year of nursing, the secretary at war asked her to form a unit of nurses to go out to help the men fighting in the Crimea. There were a lot of soldiers who needed medical attention, and Nightingale became a heroic ministering angel. The war effort was hampered by poor planning, red tape, rank incompetence, and sheer foolishness, and Nightingale stepped into the gap as a whirlwind of organization and an influential voice for commonsense reforms.

After the war, she was a central force, not only in founding modern nursing and reorganizing the army medical service, but in a range of other reforming tasks that only government could tackle adequately. At the height of her influence, no newly appointed viceroy for India would dare to begin without first consulting Nightingale, who would duly barrage him with detailed irrigation and sanitation schemes for improving health on the subcontinent. Along the way, her example also helped to inspire the founding of the Red Cross and the drafting of the Geneva Convention. Finding favor with both God and man, Florence Nightingale was the first woman to be awarded the Order of Merit, and her commemoration in the Church of England calendar (on August 13), makes her as close as a Protestant can get to being officially recognized as a saint.

Historians are vile creatures. They weasel their way into the houses of the dead and rifle through their pockets and furniture. The Collected Works of Florence Nightingale faithfully records the founder of modern nursing's loathing of such behavior: "the publishing of private letters not only is a treachery and a theft but a treachery and a theft which recoils upon the head of the very memory, so sacred, which they are meant to exalt … . If I thought that letters in my possession were to be given up after my death I would destroy every letter I have at once, and I would never write another." In fairness to my profession, we scholars can share the blame with others. These volumes include numerous letters that are headed "private burn." Nightingale could not trust her closest relatives to obey these instructions—nor even an Anglican Sister or a Catholic Reverend Mother.

As for the spiritual leader of English Catholics, Archbishop Manning, he replied to her missive written specifically to plead with him to destroy her letters as she had a "well-founded horror" that they might be published after her death with this unequivocal promise: "be sure that the knowledge of your wish will prevent my giving them into any hand, and at my death every letter, paper and journal of mine will be burnt unopened. This charge will be religiously executed by the fathers of our congregation." If you are wondering if there was anything in those old letters to Manning that might have been particularly embarrassing for Nightingale, feel free to decide for yourself: they have been carefully preserved and are now printed in Volume 3.

Indeed, a staggering amount of Nightingale material has survived. The projected 16 weighty volumes of the printed Collected Works will constitute only a selection of it. Volume 1 is sprinkled with disclaimers such as this one for a section devoted to Nightingale's domestic employees: "Only a small fraction are published here." The editor, Lynn McDonald, promises that all the material will be available in the electronic version of the project. It will take either an extremely thorough scholar or an obsessively curious person to want more than the print version, which reaches down to record even the sentences in books that Nightingale underlined and recipes she gave to her kitchen staff. (If you have ever wondered how long she thought stewed roll of veal should be cooked, the answer is now readily accessible.) There is even an entire section on "Cat Care"—complete with feline menus. McDonald's introduction begins solemnly: "Nightingale, although a bird lover, was a devoted cat owner."

In a highly satisfactory new biography of Nightingale, Mark Bostridge candidly admits that he has found himself "occasionally wishing that the odd bonfire had actually taken place," and slyly confesses that he has cared enough for the preservation of his own mental health to have not set for himself the task of reading everything Nightingale wrote. On the other hand, Bostridge also demonstrates that even a pet cat can eerily wander toward the heart of the story: "In 1869 Tib strayed into the house of Florence's neighbour, Lord Lucan, ignominious leader of the Charge of the Light Brigade, from where he was hastily retrieved."

Indeed, if ineffectual sermons were the kind of thing Nightingale hoped would be thrown into the fire, and most readers might have been glad to have been spared conventional advice on how to roast a chicken, there is nevertheless much in these manuscripts to interest. Although Nightingale would have thought her playful remarks to friends and relations are none of our business, they do keep her from becoming a plastic saint. She was fascinated by the lives of Jesus and Paul, medieval saints and contemporary nuns, and she saw celibacy as a necessary part of fulfilling her own calling. Here is a delightful postscript in which she charmingly indicates that her fantasies are aligned to her God-given mission:

Behold the miraculous effects of bride cake! As some of Mrs Fred Verney's had been kindly sent me, for the orthodox purpose as I supposed. I placed a crumb under my pillow and dreamt. And I dreamt that I was under secretary for India with a balance of 10 millions on the right side of my sheet and that I was irrigating Orissa and draining the deltas of Hooply and Brahmapootra and famine was vanishing away and cholera almost extinct. Tell Mrs. F. Verney.

Or here she is at the age of seventy putting a young man in his place: "I shan't send you Burton's letter, my dear Arthur, if you call him a 'prig.' He is a pedant. So am I. But a prig is one who cannot believe in anything above his own level." She was a woman of action who was impatient with her social peers, who too often assumed that the way to address a challenge facing the nation was to write an essay for a quarterly review: "It used to be said that people gave their blood to their country. Now they give their ink."

But we must move on to more substantive thought. McDonald deserves the highest praise for recognizing that Nightingale's faith was central to her life, work, and thought. She is not at all apologetic about this, but just informs readers clearly and repeatedly that it was so. Moreover, she has shaped this whole project in the light of this truth. The first volume provides an introduction to Nightingale's life and family, and then the series moves straight into a 586-page volume on her "spiritual journey" followed by a 678-page one on her theology.

Unfortunately, it does not appear that McDonald has a good working knowledge of the contents of the Bible herself, and the editing has not been done meticulously. The first two footnotes for the first manuscript presented in the first volume are both citations of biblical texts and both are simply wrong. This false start does not set the standard for what follows, but there are enough mistakes to make one assume that too many footnotes were generated too hastily. For example, when Nightingale quotes the prophet Nathan's words to King David, "Thou art the man" (2 Samuel 12:7), the footnote reads: "An allusion to Peter denying Christ, Luke 22:58." When Nightingale refers to "Gehazi's leprosy," McDonald—having apparently skimmed the first story she hit upon with Gehazi in it—inserts this erroneous and irrelevant note: "Gehazi's child was raised from the dead by Elisha."

This cavalier approach extends to the historical context as well. McDonald claims that Nightingale lived "before the emergence of any peace movement," which must have been an assumption that went straight into the text, as the least investigation of the issue would have soundly refuted it. A note inexplicably asserts that Mark Pattison was "later a bishop" when actually he ripened into an agnostic, the real-life model for the eponymous character in the best-selling loss-of-faith novel, Robert Elsmere. Nightingale's gesture toward "Luther at Augsburg" is elucidated as referring to the Confession of 1530 rather than the Diet of 1518. I could go on in this way.

The "anxiety of influence," if my distant recollections of that notion have any validity, exposes a tendency we have to attack the works we most admire in order to make space to achieve something ourselves. Behind my cavils, there is immense admiration for Lynn McDonald. She has taken on a valuable scholarly task that, frankly, I would have found too daunting to pursue myself. The Collected Works of Florence Nightingale is an extremely ambitious project that is a great service to scholarship. Every general academic library should own the complete set. It pulls together material that has been hitherto diffused across more than 150 collections, some of them private ones, in places ranging from Germany to India and Japan, as well as numerous English-speaking countries. McDonald is pouring untold years into this project and, with sincere humility, she repeatedly requests that she be informed of any errors so that they can be corrected for the electronic version.

Bostridge, for his part, has written the one essential biography that anyone who wants to learn about Nightingale should read. It is a cliché for scholars to say that a great subject has been let down by his or her poor biographer. For Nightingale, the problem has been almost the reverse: she is too important a subject to attract only one biographer, yet the official, two-volume Life of Florence Nightingale (1913) by Sir Edward Cook was such a thorough and judicious piece of work that it has tempted subsequent scholars to champion extreme and untenable interpretations as a way to justify their contribution. Bostridge never overreaches himself, pays generous tribute to Cook, and yet also gives readers information that Cook did not have or could not present at that time (such as that the poet Arthur Hugh Clough's widow blamed Nightingale for his death). He also includes material that is more interesting now than Cook must have deemed it then: I was enchanted to learn of Nightingale's energetic campaign to expose "the risk of death by fire to women wearing crinolines."

Bostridge is not preoccupied with religion, but he ungrudgingly acknowledges that it was at the core of Nightingale's identity. Moreover, when it does come into his story, he generally handles it in a sure-footed way that shows he has done his homework. Only rarely does a lack of nuance jar a little. For example, he refers flatly to Jowett's views as heretical. He also claims that Nightingale "saw prayer essentially as misdirection of human energy" and that she did not have "any time for the atonement" when her critiques were of petitionary prayer and substitutionary atonement. It is also curious that, although Bostridge is keen to mention all the major ways in which Nightingale has been honored since her death (from a Hollywood film to a British bank note), he completely overlooks her commemoration in the Anglican calendars of several nations, choosing instead to aver that she has sometimes been presented as a "secular saint." Still, if you would like to read a biography of "the Bird" (as her enemies used to call her), choose without hesitation Florence Nightingale: The Making of An Icon.

Nightingale's theology was unflinchingly liberal. Often sounding like a Deist, she believed in a God who was a law-giver. This meant for her that there could never be any such thing as a miracle or a special providence or anything going on other than the orderly course of general laws ("God does not send me a toothache to punish me for telling a lie"). What God would have us do in a time of plague is not to recite inanely "good Lord, deliver us" but rather to get out and fix the drainage system. She did not believe in the orthodox doctrine of the divinity of Christ and did not shrink from identifying ways in which Jesus was in error, even in his understanding of God. His resurrection never happened ("such a poor tale, so evidently put together afterwards"). Eternal punishment was a theological impossibility once one understood the nature of the Almighty.

On the other hand, she was a Broad Church Anglican rather than a freethinker. The latter she dismissed as merely negative—always tearing down and never building up. The important thing was to inspire people with what is true, not to expend the bulk of one's energy being iconoclastic. Unlike the true religious skeptics, she also tended to level up rather than down: Christ is not the only one who is in some sense divine or a savior; the Bible is not the only place to find inspiration and the mind of God.

Broad Church instincts meant that as a young woman she was bemused by the passion which the high and low church parties put into fights over vestments:

the question whether surplices are to be white, black or Oxford mixture is all our religion … . I do hope, my dear child, that Lizzie has been careful to have particular reference to this question in deciding the colour of her slippers, if unhappily that be not already settled. I tremble to think how materially she may otherwise impair her reputation for orthodoxy … . Think if the colour of the slippers were to undermine some rising man's religious principles! What would be her self-reproach—these things cannot be too carefully attended to.

The Ritualist Commission of 1867 hardened this response into contempt: "What would you have thought of me, if I, with my nurses, had sat for 'nineteen sittings' in the Crimean War to determine how we were to be dressed?"

One virtue of the Church of England, Nightingale believed, was that it kept one's private devotion private. She was not impressed with the Methodist practice of corporate extemporaneous prayer: "I am sure I do not want any dissenting minister I ever heard to express out of his own head my feelings towards my Creator." Those feelings ran deep. Saint or no, Florence Nightingale belies any assumption that a theological liberal is just a fundamentally secular person with a religious veneer. She sought the Lord day and night. Her devotional life was faithful and intense. Her self-examination, repentance of sin, dedication to divine service, praise and worship were authentic and unceasing. Her sense of being in an intimate relationship with a personal God was unshakeable and lifelong. She was deeply attached to hymns beloved by evangelicals, citing favorably even a variety of ones that had been written after her invalid status meant that she did not attend public worship. (She steadfastly arranged for a priest to come to her home and administer Communion to her and a few relations, friends, and servants.)

Sitting incongruously with her dismissal of special providences was her conviction: "I believe there is direct communication with God." Included in these volumes are records of visions that she had, and journal entries bear witness to specific words from the Almighty. Here is one from 1877: "7:00 a.m. The Voice: If I do what you want about the Indian irrigation, would you give up all your name in it? Yes, Lord, I think I would. Answer before 7:30: Yes, Lord, I am sure I would." These even came in the phraseology of Old Testament prophecy: "This is the word of the Lord unto thee London 7 May 1867: It is thirty years since I called thee unto my service."

Part of the husk that Nightingale dispensed with—so she saw it—was the virgin birth: "it is probable the Virgin never lived at all … certainly not as she is represented at the beginning of two gospels." In another sense, however, in her leveling-up sort of way, the great secret of her inner spiritual life was that under her official identity as a nurse she was really the Virgin. Her life verse (if that bit of evangelical jargon may be forgiven) was Luke 1:38: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word." She references this text in relationship to her own life and calling in season and out of season from decade to decade. It seems she even greeted her Heavenly Father with this text every morning as a prayer of dedication. In her writings, Nightingale repeatedly explains that she is a "virgin mother," meaning that she, a celibate, has influenced people as much as a parent does.

So far, Florence, at any rate, every generation has called you blessed.

Timothy Larsen is McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College. He is the author most recently of Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth Century England (Oxford Univ. Press), and he is at work on a book about the Bible in the 19th century.

Books discussed in this essay:

Mark Bostridge, Florence Nightingale: The Making of an Icon (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008).

The Collected Works of Florence Nightingale is an ongoing project. It is planned as sixteen volumes, the first ten of which are now in print.

Lynn McDonald, ed., Florence Nightingale: An Introduction to Her Life and Family, The Collected Works of Florence Nightingale, Vol. 1 (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2001).

Lynn McDonald, ed., Florence Nightingale's Spiritual Journey: Biblical Annotations, Sermons and Journal Notes, The Collected Works of Florence Nightingale, Vol. 2 (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2001).

Lynn McDonald, ed., Florence Nightingale's Theology: Essays, Letters and Journal Notes, The Collected Works of Florence Nightingale, Vol. 3 (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2002).

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