Feminist Icon Florence Nightingale Would Be Horrified at the Bible Museum’s Depiction of Her
In its effort to show how many famous "good" people were driven by the Bible, the museum has committed a grave historical sin.
I’m hard pressed to think of anyone who would be more horrified by their portrayal in the Museum of the Bible than Florence Nightingale.
The woman most people know as the founder of modern nursing was also many other things: one of the earliest statisticians, a consultant to the British government on public health, and a radical feminist theologian who spent decades revising her own approach to Christianity—one the Museum’s founders would be hard-pressed to find room for in their sprawling 430,000 square foot complex.
The majority of the second floor of the Museum is dedicated to an exhibit called “The Impact of the Bible,” a combination of historical artifacts and high-tech displays designed to show visitors that our founding fathers, greatest activists, and just generally well-known good people were driven by the book.
It’s a truly beautiful space, even if it contains some perplexing statement pieces, like an exact replica of the Liberty Bell. In fact, this is the very first thing that greets visitors to the second floor and one can’t help but feel primed to experience America’s “religious freedom” as the sort the Green family so adamantly defends (for example, in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby). The Greens have long denied that the museum has evangelical intentions, but readers of The Daily Beast will know that controversy has plagued the project and its founders for nearly a decade (there are not only reports of theft and forgery of artifacts to stock the museum, but detailed analyses of how the Greens have used their Hobby Lobby fortune to influence American politics). (Full disclosure, my former Notre Dame colleague and Daily Beast co-author Candida Moss helped break this story.)
Nightingale’s presence in the second-floor exhibit is no surprise—with an American bent, it is designed to be an international exhibit, and a Victorian heiress who was called by God to serve the sick makes for a nice touch. Her name, the briefest of bios, a quote, and a copy of her famous 1859 Notes on Nursing: What it is and What it is Not (arguably the first modern textbook on nursing) are tucked into a nook describing the role of the Bible in health care. Indeed, Nightingale was deeply influenced by the Bible, and scholars have described her research and writings on it for over 100 years.
But perhaps more importantly, she became deeply disenchanted with it. Her devotion was not to the book, but to Christ’s teachings on caring for the sick and poor. Her portrayal in the Museum of the Bible, even while fairly generic, leaves out important aspects of how both nursing and hospitals evolved as well as who this “lady with the lamp” really was.
According to the Museum, the history of hospitals at the Museum extends back to 651AD with the founding of the Hôtel-Dieu in Paris, but upon closer inspection we see the claim is just that this is one of the oldest continuously-operating hospitals in the world today. Depending on how generously one wants to define “hospital,” places that housed the sick in the name of charity responsibility have existed much longer than the Bible itself.
In fact, we need to leave the West completely to find the first real healing institutions that were more than just temples. Both textual and archaeological evidence trace the hospital back to India—Sri Lanka to be specific—perhaps as far back as 100BC. If you want to see a hospital as a curing institution with specialized wards and equipment, trained staff, and health training, our best example is actually the ninth-century AD bimaristans of Baghdad. But since Paris was never sacked by Mongols, it’s true that it wins the prize for longest-running "hospital." And while there’s no argument that religion and medicine have always been linked, the Museum’s complete neglect of the East could easily lead visitors to think that hospitals originated as European Christian institutions.
Interestingly, the Museum moves from hospitals directly on to nurses with no real discussion of doctors, but that’s an investigation for another day. There were, of course, nurses before Nightingale, and in the museum’s timeline they were nuns (the display is titled “From Nuns to Nurses”). Their story goes that Jesus tells his disciples that in caring for the sick and poor they are caring for Him, and that bishops embraced this notion and subsequently opened hospitals and hospices in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Moving directly on to Nightingale, we miss out on evidence for the first nurses in ancient India (most of whom were men) and any mention of Muslim nurses. This is one of many problems with trying to do history through the lens of just one book—all other context is left aside, the story is incomplete, and the gaps in people’s knowledge become voids ready to be filled by anything that sounds vaguely like the right type of information based on the little bit that they know. And if the curators at the museum claim they are neither trying to do history nor engaging in an evangelical enterprise, what are they doing?
When we begin the history of nursing and health care with Florence Nightingale, we also ignore the Protestant Reformation’s influence on closing Catholic hospitals around Europe—these were the places where nurses had come to be highly regarded caregivers and devout and charitable professionals. But with the Protestants rejecting the notion of salvation through suffering, the hospitals were closed or secularized, women were sent home, and the sick were expected to be cared for in the home, except in cases of war. Unless you stop to think about it, you can blink and miss the 300 years when nurses went from God’s agents to a group whose reputation needed to be redeemed by the likes of Nightingale.
When Nightingale was born in 1820, women cared for sick relatives in the home as part of their feminine responsibilities. Those who had no family or whose families did not have the resources were institutionalized in squalid conditions. This was the case all over Europe and the U.S., though the Germans had begun to revive the biblical notion of nursing in the first half of the 19th century. In fact, when Nightingale looked for training as a nurse, her only options were a smattering of Catholic institutions that survived or revived themselves after the Reformation or German institutions. She ended up in Kaiserwerth, a small Roman Catholic town on the Rhine River. The pastor of its small Protestant sect had built an institution there to care for the sick and was training women from all over Europe to become part of the sisterhood of “deaconesses.” Nightingale graduated from its “school” in 1851 and while her letters show an amusingly bad attitude about being there at times, that training was the backbone of the nursing program she would later build.
In the rest of Europe, nurses had reputations as fallen women—kicked out of their homes, too poor to live on their own, carrying a stigma that made it impossible to marry and raise a family. Many were prostitutes and alcoholics, no doubt driven to drink by their social circumstances as well as being surrounded by misery and squalor on a daily basis. In the most iconic image of Nightingale, she is a lithe young woman walking around the Crimean hospital ward late at night to check on her soldier patients. But in her most recent biography, Mark Bostridge makes a compelling case that her nightly constitutionals were meant to catch and punish nurses who were drinking and fornicating on the job: a detail we can’t really fault the Museum for wanting to leave out when they captioned their image of her. Anyone who has spent time reading any of the nearly 13,000 letters Nightingale left behind can attest to her rather snarky personality and short temper.
Despite her strong faith, close study of the Bible, commitment to God, calling to serve others, good deeds, and legacy, Nightingale still doesn’t add up to the woman the Museum of the Bible would like her to be—she spurned family life, marriage, and children and wrote bitterly of her immediate family and their expectations, lamenting that “Daughters are their mothers’ slaves,” “their parents’ property,” “from which marriage alone can emancipate them.” She defied her parents and drove her sister to multiple nervous breakdowns over her behavior. At age 30, she wrote of contemplating suicide daily for over a year and spent the rest of her life trying to free herself from the bonds of the biblical notion of familial responsibility.
Even her commitment to Christ’s teachings put her at odds with the Bible itself. She refused to accept the text as a whole and would never commit to a specific church because she didn’t feel any were disciplined enough in their spiritual training and expectations. She toyed with becoming a Catholic at one point, but was discouraged by her spiritual mentors since she freely admitted that she liked it more for its unrelenting structure than its central tenets.
Rather than join a church she wrote her own theological treatise titled “Suggestions for Thought,” which went through many drafts over the decades. She began writing it in 1850-51, at the height of her despair. A year later she said she “remodeled” her “whole religious beliefs from beginning to end” because her extensive Biblical study left her dissatisfied with what religion had to offer the poor, the sick, and the vulnerable. She was left with the impression that Christianity played a significant role in the class system that kept her oppressed. Friends who read early drafts of “Suggestions for Thought” were horrified and begged her never to publish it or share it more widely. What we don’t see in the portrayal of Nightingale in the Museum of the Bible is that she had to become a radical feminist theologian, reject her family responsibilities, lie to her parents to visit Kaiserwerth, and thoroughly refuse life as a proper Christian Victorian woman in order to play the role we’ve assigned to her in history.
It’s no surprise that Nightingale’s work is continuously misrepresented. She lived for 90 years and wrote almost constantly throughout her life. While Canadian scholar Lynn MacDonald has tracked down and edited nearly all of her letters and articles in her Collected Works, it makes for intimidating reading to say the least. At worst, the sheer volume of material makes it far too easy to cherry-pick quotes and use them to validate claims about the history of medicine in her name. Whoever the Greens hired to build the hospital exhibit at the Museum of the Bible hasn’t done a better or worse job than anyone else who conjures her image as a god-fearing founder of a truly admirable profession. Over 30 biographies have been written about Nightingale since her death, many of them subtitled with some reference to her Christian mission: Saint, Reformer, or Rebel? (1981); God's Servant on the Battlefield (1985); Nineteenth-Century Mystic (1998); Avenging Angel (1999); Making of a Radical Theologian (2002); Nineteenth-Century Apostle of Quality (2007); Mystic, Visionary, Healer (2009).
Now, here’s what the Museum of the Bible gets right—“Florence Nightingale’s commitment to nursing was profoundly affected by the Bible, which she studied throughout her life.” She was, in fact, a lifelong scholar of the Bible, reading it as well as any commentary she could find, and leaving behind thousands of letters and dozens of musings on Christian responsibility towards the poor and the sick. She wrote extensively about being called by God to her vocation as a nurse even though, at the end of the day, her legacy to the history of hospitals was entirely secular. It’s also true that “during the Crimean War, Nightingale supervised and trained nurses to care for the sick and wounded” and later established the world’s first nursing school in London, leaving “an enormous impact on public health care.” But, again, this is the problem with telling stories from history from just one perspective—do the quotes above do anything to improve our knowledge? Or do they just heap on one more poorly researched example of biblical influence? And if the latter, what good does that really do?
It’s fascinating to leave the exhibit with a final quote from later in Nightingale’s career, in 1870, one that falls rather flat in our current health care system and political climate: “I don’t think any words have had a fuller possession of my mind through life than Christ’s putting himself in the place of the sick, the infirm, the prisoner.” Below the quote is the Museum’s final note on health care: “A recurring theme in the bible is empathy for the less fortunate. Many biblical narratives and instructions focus on care for the sick and the dying…Today, many hospitals and health-care centers can trace their existence to dedicated people inspired by these biblical examples.” The exhibit does little to convince the knowledgeable visitor of anything other than the fact that some people who helped build our modern medical system also read the Bible, and perhaps that’s enough for some. But as I left, I wondered how my fellow visitors would assimilate those final notes into the world outside the Museum’s doors.