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Elizabeth Gurney Fry: A Quaker Mess

Barbara Birch
On Conflict (January 2023)
Inward Light

Friends are doing a lot of reevaluation these days, reexamining our past and our venerable Quaker ancestors. In some cases, when moral inconsistencies emerge into the open, reexamination means that some iconic Friends are losing their luster. In other cases, stories of early Friends’ messy lives help us to see their humanity, which can lend greater depth and nuance to their spiritual writings. This happened for me when I read Chad Thralls’ May 2011 article in Friends Journal on the “embodied” life of Thomas Kelly. Learning how Kelly confronted his inner demons through surrender to Spirit increased my appreciation of his lyrical testimony.

Similarly, in studying the life of the venerable Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845), I found that as I learned more about her messy humanity, I grew to see her accomplishments as even greater, knowing that they were accomplished despite signs of “mental health issues.” The contradictions in Fry’s life also raise some interesting questions about embodiment and spirituality.

Elizabeth Gurney Fry was a tireless prison reformer and recorded minister, well known inside and outside the Religious Society of Friends. At the same time, she also met and fulfilled the demands of her roles as wife and mother. She dealt with ill-health, depression, anxiety, and a dependence on alcohol and opium throughout her life.

Messiness is the norm in human life, not the exception; going and growing through inner conflicts can be life-enhancing. Studying the lives of early Friends together, recognizing and exploring the contradictions in their lives, might help us better acknowledge our own messiness together, might help us better support one another humanely. We might become more faithful Friends, our monthly meetings might be more Friendly, and our Society might grow more welcoming if we would recognize the inevitable turmoil we experience and help each other uncover and grow the seeds of self-love and peace.

First, a little history. The first generation of Friends advocated an embodied and demonstrative faith. They were convinced that “the Second Coming” had already occurred, and Christ was present in convinced Friends as the Light Within. Many early Friends exhibited extreme forms of public ministry (the most famous example being James Nayler imitating Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem), and early Quaker leaders soon realized they needed to show by their actions that they were not dangerous seditionists, so they began to discourage enthusiasms and to conform to a strict code of behavior. As Rufus Jones wrote in 1946, “As an actual fact of history, [The Society of Friends] soon became a very conservative body. What was planned to be a vital, growing body, expanding to meet the needs and aspirations of each new generation, very soon congealed into a fairly rigid form which persisted for a long period . . .”

Furthermore, as Quakerism was influenced by Puritanism and Evangelicalism, it took on some conventional Christian and patriarchal values, which contributed to a culture of perfectionism and disembodiment. By the time Elizabeth Fry was born, Quaker spirituality minimized the body, treating it as nothing more than an earthly container or “dust wreath” for Spirit to inhabit. This inflexible, disembodied, and repressive culture contributed to the mental health issues Fry experienced during her lifetime.

Even as a child, Fry was plagued by irrational fears, sadness, and panic attacks, although her childhood was, to all appearances, comfortable and loving. Her health problems continued into adolescence, when she started self-medicating with alcohol and laudanum, which is a mixture of opium and alcohol and was a common remedy for many ailments at the time.

As Fry grew into adulthood, she felt deep internal conflicts between her expectations and her desires. For example, she grew up in a family that was “worldly,” but she felt longings to be “plain.” Then, even though she wanted to be “plain,” she wanted to be plain with the very best linens and muslins.

The tension between “Godly” behavior and “unGodly” behavior was a constant in Fry’s life. She worried how God would judge her after death and wondered how the vain and worldly pursuits she enjoyed, like dancing and singing, might affect her chances at immortality. Her susceptibility to peer pressure and the judgment of others, her difficulty forming her own opinions and setting boundaries, and her “people-pleasing” are common symptoms of social anxiety.

Fulfilling the expectations of her time, Fry married and gave birth to eleven children (and had several miscarriages). Unusually, ten of her children grew well into adulthood.

Fry took no part in the budding feminism of her time. She handled countless family responsibilities as a wife, mother, sister, aunt, and in-law within the large extended family she was born into and which was extended further by marriage. However, Fry also felt led to perform public work as a minister and prison reformer. At a time when women were supposed to be all-consumed by homemaking, children, and husbands, Fry set different goals for herself. Like other Friends, “doing good” gave her a sense of worth and agency. Unfortunately, her public interests and career were sometimes met with ambivalence from her family, relatives, the Quaker community, and the larger British culture.

In the early 1800s, British culture denied personal agency to women of Fry’s standing. She was denied personal agency over her body, emotions, time, work, movement, social status, and money. To survive in this alienating environment, Fry consumed alcohol and laudanum.

Ironically, Fry consumed these substances to help her to “be well,” and their effect was quite the opposite – an irony of which Fry seemed entirely unaware. As Fry’s biographer June Rose wrote in 1980, “. . .  Betsy [Fry] was firmly convinced that for herself drink was a necessity for health. ‘I sometimes think of leaving off malt liquor and wine . . . but it appears almost impossible if I do that to be well,’ she wrote in 1802. She knew drink made her feel heavy, languid, and stupid but apparently did not connect her own ‘medicinal’ intake with the cheap gin or beer that gave temporary oblivion to the laboring poor.” Alcohol dependence is both a symptom and a cause of disembodiment. Alcohol numbs the senses, closes the mind, and interferes with awareness of Spirit.

Fry’s faith was double-edged. On the one hand, it allowed her to enjoy a little more freedom than many women of her time and place. Even so, the contradictions she felt between the strict standards of plain Quaker culture and the life she craved – a life of freedom, purpose, comfort, and pleasure – caused her constant internal discord. Her journals are filled with self-improvement checklists – how to be a better wife, mother, Christian. She confided only in her diaries, which her daughters carefully edited after her death.

Whether alcohol and laudanum helped Fry cope with her fears, anxiety, and depression (and thus, enabled her ministry) – or whether they ultimately caused her more harm than good – is unclear. According to June Rose, by the end of Fry’s life, “. . . the wine and opium she took daily to allay her anxiety and soothe her pains were almost certainly contributing to her physical and mental distress. . . . [Yet as] her need for drugs increased . . . there was little hope of a return to public service that could lift her out of her depression.”

In today’s world, Fry could have found psychological relief in other drugs, ones that carry less danger of addiction and social opprobrium. She also might have avoided the patriarchy, perfectionism, and rigid social rules and boundaries that sucked away her sense of embodiment.

Fry is an enigma. Freedom from addiction is associated with positive embodiment. Sobriety keeps the union between mind, body, and spirit open, so that Spirit can fill a person with courage and joy. Yet Fry, despite her dependence on alcohol, was recognized and is still recognized as a spiritually gifted minister. Somehow, the Spirit seems to have used her well.

Messy paradoxes like this may be common. In fact, I recently came across a puzzle like this in the Bible. John the Baptist and Jesus are both described in the book of Matthew as suspicious characters. “For, when John came, neither eating nor drinking, people said, ‘He has a demon in him’; and now that the Child of Humanity [Jesus] has come, eating and drinking, they are saying, ‘Here is a glutton and a wine drinker, a friend of tax collectors and outcasts! And yet, Wisdom Sophia is vindicated by her actions.” (Matthew 11:18-19) These are slanderous allegations: that neither John nor Jesus was messiah material. The gossip alleged that John was mentally ill and Jesus was a glutton and heavy drinker. The gossipers judged John as insane because he lived ascetically and preferred isolation, and they condemned Jesus not only because he overconsumed food and wine at gatherings, but also because he socialized with sinners and impolite company. These insults imply that an “unbalanced” human like John or a “disorderly” human like Jesus must be flawed, and therefore, anything they say must be flawed as well. Anything such sinners would try to teach us must be suspect.

Most Bible commentators assume the gossip was untrue. John lived an ascetic life as a spiritual discipline, and Jesus was temperate and sober. But suppose the gossip were true? And does it matter if it’s true? Are prophesies and testimonies suspect if they come from messy humans? And actually, part of that gossip was not even slander. Jesus did eat with tax collectors and other “dregs of society.” No one denies that. On the contrary, a main tenet in Jesus’s forgiving ministry to messy humanity is that all of us deserve love and forgiveness.

I value these heretical ideas – that John may have been mentally ill, that Jesus may have been an occasional glutton and drunk. To take these ideas at face value puts a different light on the final words in that passage from Matthew: “And yet, Wisdom Sophia is vindicated by her actions.”

Elizabeth Fry, too – the Angel of Prisons – despite her private shortcomings, has surely been vindicated in history by the results of her ministry. ~~~

Barbara Birch is a member of Strawberry Creek Meeting in Berkeley, CA (PacYM). Her interests include the embodied spirituality of early Friends, its relevance to Quakers today, and Friendly Twelve-Step recovery.

[The original manuscript of this article, which includes careful referencing of sources, can be found online at: https://westernfriend.org/library/elizabeth-fry-a-quaker-mess/ ]

Elizabeth Fry mental health Substance Abuse Quaker history

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