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City enthusiast’ is a challenging model

PUBLISHED: 09:31 12 June 2006 | UPDATED: 10:59 22 October 2010

AQuaker, prison reformer and born in Norwich . . . This was the extent of my knowledge of Elizabeth Fry. Having read a biography of her by Jean Hatton, I cannot believe I have been so ignorant all these years.

AQuaker, prison reformer and born in Norwich . . . This was the extent of my knowledge of Elizabeth Fry. Having read a biography of her by Jean Hatton, I cannot believe I have been so ignorant all these years.

What a woman! Against considerable opposition from her family, she put aside the natural inclinations of a young woman of her class and background, took off her fashionable attire and donned the outfit of a 'Plain' Quaker.

When she was still a teenager, she set up a small school for the poor children of Earlham. What marked her out, I believe, was that though she battled with fears of inadequacy, self-doubt and lack of confidence, she kept straight on pursuing God. In the terminology of the day, she was marked out as an "enthusiast" in the matter of her faith. As today, this brought mocking from her family and many of her friends, but it did not deter her from living a life set apart for God.

She was in good company in the late Georgian era. Wilberforce was a contemporary, as were the other members of the Clapham Sect. They all had a big vision, the transformation of their society.

Reading through what life was actually like in the late 18th and early 19th century, I was appalled by the amount of drunkenness, licentiousness and its effect on the whole of society. Obviously, I have seen prints of Hogarth's "Gin Alley", but I had no idea just how bad it was.

Imagine, in 1750 11m gallons of spirits were consumed. It led to cruelty, poverty, immorality and debauchery among the ruling classes as well as among those at the bottom of the heap. Prisoners were kept in overcrowded, inhuman conditions, with scant clothing, food or comfort.

More than 100 crimes carried the death penalty, and female prisoners were often used as prostitutes by jailers and male convicts alike.

This was the pit of hell that "Betsy" walked into. Eventually, she won the respect of the women and their jailers alike. Slowly the conditions in prison changed. What is truly amazing though is that she did more than this. She, and others like her, changed the heart of their society.

The common denominator of this remarkable collection of "enthusiasts" was that they put aside everything to follow God. Many of the members of the Clapham Sect gave away large proportions of their wealth to set up schools, campaign against slavery and relieve poverty.

They used their considerable skills as writers, bankers, merchants, politicians to lobby for changes in the law. And though they succeeded, it was not without considerable cost to their health, wealth and comfort.

That's true transformation and it only came about after each one of them allowed themselves to be transformed by their relationship with Jesus. They truly reflected him back into their society. I believe that each one of them had to overcome their natural fear of man to do so. Being taunted with the jeering title "enthusiast" cannot have been easy for the diffident Elizabeth Fry nor for the wealthy bankers and merchants who worked together to change the mindset of their contemporaries.

They were frequently shunned by polite society, misunderstood and misrepresented in Parliament, but they had their eyes set on a different goal.

What I realise with Elizabeth Fry and her contemporaries, is that their consuming passion was Christ and in him all their differences melted away. What happened in those 50 years in the overlap between the Georgian era and the onset of the Victorian one was truly miraculous.

God was at work and once he saw their hearts were seeking him above all else, he brought about the transformation they were longing for.

I'm pretty energetic.

I like rolling up my sleeves and getting on with the job, but this book, and the other one I have quoted, called The Wilberforce Connection, have brought me up short.

My dream, too, is to see our nation transformed; for it to be a safe place for all, not just for those who, like me, can afford the luxury of a nice house in a nice area; a dream for Norwich to be a place where drugs, alcoholism, poverty, acute loneliness and fear no longer hold sway. But I have realised, as never before, that this transformation will not happen through sheer hard work.

Rationally, why should seeking after God make any difference? Surely, if we all just work hard together, change will come about. But that's been tried and although we can make a difference to a few, it will take the power of God to bring about the multiplication of what we humanly can bring.

Norwich has given me a challenging role model in Elizabeth Fry. The question is "Am I up to it?"


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