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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 ...

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