Florence Nightingale’s Scientific Spirituality

Printed in the  Winter 2020  issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation:  Macrae, Janet"Florence Nightingale’s Scientific Spirituality" Quest 108:1, pg 20-23 

By Janet Macrae

Theosophical Society - Florence Nightingale’s Scientific Spirituality - Janet Macrae holds a doctorate in nursing research from New York University. She is the coeditor of Suggestions for Thought by Florence Nightingale and the author of Nursing as a Spiritual Practice: A Contemporary Application of Florence Nightingale’s Views.Florence Nightingale is best known as the Lady with the Lamp, who nursed British soldiers during the Crimean War (in which Britain and France fought against Russia, 1854–56). This image is not only factual but highly symbolic, for she brought an enlightened vision to the healthcare at the British military hospital. A pioneer in the use of statistics, she used her famous pie charts to show the reduction in the death rates from infectious diseases after a series of sanitary reforms had been implemented. (Reproductions and analyses of these charts can be found in Cohen.)

Unlike many of her contemporaries, Nightingale saw no conflict between science and spirituality. In her textbook Notes on Nursing she wrote: “God lays down certain physical laws. Upon His carrying out such laws depends our responsibility” (Nightingale, Notes, 25). Nightingale’s work in nursing and public health was based on a profound spiritual philosophy she had developed in her adolescence and early adulthood. It included three core concepts: (1) that the universe is regulated by scientific laws created by a higher intelligence; (2) that within all human beings there is a divine nature, an inner tendency towards goodness; and (3) that according to the law of evolution, all human beings will eventually actualize their divine potential.

 Nightingale was one of the most broadly educated women of the nineteenth century. Her father, a graduate of Cambridge and a liberal-minded Unitarian, gave her a classical education, which she furthered with lifelong studies in comparative religion, particularly mysticism, and statistical science. One of her closest friends was Benjamin Jowett, a classical scholar at Oxford whose translations of Plato’s dialogues are still used today. At his request, Nightingale helped him with his introductions and summaries, sending him many “hints” for revision. Jowett thanked her, with a touch of humor, in a letter dated April 30, 1874.

I cannot be too grateful to you for criticizing Plato . . . I have adopted nearly all your hints as far as I have gone (however many hints I might give you, my belief is that you would never adopt any of them). (Quinn and Prest, 257)

Nightingale discussed her spiritual views at length with Jowett, but expressed them most fully in an 829-page manuscript entitled Suggestions for Thought. She never published this work but, with encouragement from friends, agreed to have six copies privately printed. An edited edition with an introduction and commentaries was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 1994. All the quotations below, unless otherwise stated, are from this edition of Suggestions for Thought.

Nightingale looked upon spirituality, that is, the consciousness of a Higher Presence, as an evolutionary phenomenon. She wrote that all human beings are capable of profound spiritual experiences, because the highest level of human nature, its essence, is divine. The finest human achievements, such as religious and mystical experiences, creative insights and expressions, and acts of courage and compassion, all arise from this inner divine nature. In her view, spiritual development is a process of harmonizing the personal self with the inner God consciousness, thus “extending the limits of the divine in man” (117). Nightingale considered herself a Christian, a follower of Christ, because she felt he was perfectly harmonized with the divine nature. But, she believed, in the course of evolution all human beings will arrive at this same perfection: “Human consciousness is tending to become what God’s consciousness is—to become one with the consciousness of God” (58).

If Nightingale were alive today, she would feel supported in her views by the work of the Religious Experience Research Center at the University of Wales, which found similarities between the spiritual experiences of modern individuals and those of mystics throughout history (Cohen and Phipps).

In a way analogous to that of the mystics, who experienced an underlying divine order and unity, Nightingale saw patterns in her statistical tables that were invisible to her normal consciousness. To her, these patterns and connections revealed the mind of a Higher Intelligence who regulates the universe through law as opposed to caprice. She referred to the laws or organizing principles of the universe as the “thoughts of God.” Although Sir Edward Cook, Nightingale’s early biographer, referred to her as a “passionate statistician,” she could also be called a spiritual statistician.

In keeping with her scientific perspective, Nightingale did not accept any religious doctrine she felt was inconsistent with the concept of universal law. She was in full agreement with her friend Jowett, who wrote in Essays and Reviews that

any true doctrine of inspiration must conform to all well-ascertained facts of history or of science. The same fact cannot be true in religion when seen by the light of faith, and untrue in science when looked at through the medium of evidence or experiment. (Jowett, 348)

She was decidedly against the common practice of praying for miraculous intervention, on the grounds that, first, it is contrary to universal law, as all actions have consequences that cannot be arbitrarily dismissed, and second, it keeps human beings from exercising and developing their own faculties and powers.

It did strike me as odd sometimes that we should pray to be delivered “from plague, pestilence, and famine,” when all the common sewers ran into the Thames, and fevers haunted undrained land, and the districts which cholera would visit could be pointed out. I thought that cholera came that we might remove these causes, not pray that God would remove the cholera. (126)

From Nightingale’s perspective, every level of manifestation, including the spiritual, is regulated by divine law. As causes produce effects, spiritual progress cannot occur without the establishment of appropriate conditions. “To think that we can be good under any circumstances is like thinking that we may be healthy when we are living over a sewer” (123). One of her most pressing questions, asked throughout Suggestions for Thought, is this: how can life, in all its aspects, be knowledgeably organized so that it enhances spirituality, that is, human greatness? The God-given tendency toward spiritual integration is within everyone, but without support it will lie dormant.

 For centuries, religious orders have attempted to organize life around a spiritual purpose. Nightingale studied and personally investigated various orders, but was disappointed to find that they gave little support for the individual members’ unique talents, interests, and ambitions, and that the organizations had become insular, concerned mainly with upholding established dogma. From her point of view, spiritual revelation is an ongoing process. There are spiritual laws, as well as physical laws, that have yet to be discovered. Intellectual freedom and critical thinking are therefore essential for true spiritual growth. She wrote in a formal letter to the nursing students at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London:

“And may I say a thing from my own experience? No training is of any use, unless one can learn (1) to feel, and (2) to think things out for oneself” (Nightingale, “Letter,” 214).

 Although it is doubtful that Nightingale was influenced by Buddha’s teachings, her statement is consistent with his advice, as expressed by her contemporary Max Müller:      

Do not believe in what you have heard: do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations; do not believe in anything because it is rumored and spoken of by many; do not believe merely because the written statements of some old sage are produced; do not believe in conjectures; do not believe in that as truth to which you have become attached by habit; do not believe merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. After observation and analysis when it agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, than accept it and live up to it. (Müller, 114)

Nightingale respected the Bible as well as other sacred texts, but she felt they were all a mixture of truth and untruth. Religious beliefs, in her view, should be treated as working hypotheses and, when possible, tested by accurate observation and data analysis. For example, she found that the facts did not support the religious idea that poverty enhances spirituality. Her extensive nursing observations revealed to her that the poor were no more spiritual than the rich. Moreover, she observed in her statistical tables that poverty was associated with crime, disease, and high mortality rates. “Surely it is a mistake to recommend poverty,” she concluded (135).

From Nightingale’s point of view, spiritual development is an applied science. Intellectual effort, however valuable, is not enough, for she wrote that “unless you make a life which shall be the manifestation of your religion, it does not much signify what you believe” (116). Growing spiritually involves courageously accepting the consequences of one’s mistakes, learning from them, and making the appropriate changes. This is a challenging process, and Nightingale had no illusions about her society’s willingness to change.

Most people have not learnt any lesson from life at all—suffer as they may, they learn nothing . . . When they begin the new life in another world, they would do exactly the same thing . . . And not only individuals, but nations learn nothing. A man once said to me, “Oh! if I were to begin again, how different I would be.” But we very rarely hear this; on the contrary, we often hear people say, “I would have every moment of my life over again,” and they think it pretty and grateful to God to say so. (65)

In Notes on Nursing, Nightingale wrote about the importance of “ready and correct observation.” This is essential for the improvement of both physical and spiritual health, because we need to see what has to be changed. Our vision is hampered, Nightingale stated, by certain tendencies: habitual thinking, blindly accepting established ideas, not bothering to ask questions about seeming anomalies, taking the status quo for granted, and giving free rein to the imagination.

If she were designing educational programs today, Nightingale would probably include meditation methods such as mindfulness, which help one to observe reality, internal and external, from a less conditioned perspective. She wrote that we need to change our consciousness so that the hidden gradually becomes visible. Indeed, the ultimate goal is “to see as God sees, which is truth” (143).

 In the letter to the nursing students mentioned above, Nightingale wrote that a period of quietude in their own rooms, “a few minutes of calm thought to offer up the day to God,” was indispensable in the ever increasing hurry of life (Nightingale, “Letter,” 213). For her, this was the highest form of prayer: opening oneself to the inner divine nature. She wrote to Jowett that the closing prayer of Plato’s Phaedrus is unequaled by any collect in the service book: “Give me beauty in the inward soul, and may the outward and inward man be at one” (in Cook 2.32).

 Nightingale expanded on this idea in Suggestions for Thought, writing that work itself can become a form of prayer. Finding work for which one is suited, that holds one’s interest and love, and doing it “unto God” will deepen our alignment with the inner spirit. From her perspective, any type of work can serve a sacred purpose, for it is one’s intent or motivation that will transform it.      

Work your true work, and you will find His presence in yourself—i.e., the presence of those attributes, those qualities, that spirit, which is all we know of God. (143)

Although Nightingale was certainly realistic, she was also optimistic about humanity’s future. She had tremendous confidence in the universal laws, in the guidance of the inner divine spirit, and felt that in spite of all the difficulties on the way, humanity would become “the working out of God’s thought,” which is its destination.


Calabria, Michael D. “Spiritual Insights of Florence Nightingale.” The Quest 3, no. 2 (summer 1990): 66–74.

Calabria, Michael D., and Janet A. Macrae, eds. Suggestions for Thought by Florence Nightingale: Selections and Commentaries. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.

Cohen, I. Bernard, “Florence Nightingale.” Scientific American 250, no. 3 (March 1984): 128–37.

Cohen, J.M. and J.F. Phipps, The Common Experience: Signposts on the Path to Enlightenment. Wheaton: Theosophical Publishing House, 1992.

Cook, Sir Edward. The Life of Florence Nightingale. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1913.

Jowett, Benjamin. “On the Interpretation of Scripture.” In Jowett, Essays and Reviews. London: John W. Parker and Son, 1860.

Müller, Max. Three Lectures on the Vedanta Philosophy. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1894.

Nightingale, Florence. “Letter to the Probationer-Nurses in the Nightingale Fund School at St. Thomas’ Hospital and the Nurses Who Were Formally Trained There.” In Barbara Dossey, et al. Florence Nightingale Today: Healing, Leadership, Global Action. Silver Spring, Md.: American Nurses Association, 2005.

———. Notes on Nursing: What It Is and What It Is Not. New York: Dover, 1969 [1860].

Quinn, E.V. and J.M. Prest. Dear Miss Nightingale: A Selection of Benjamin Jowett’s Letters, 18601893. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Woodham-Smith, Cecil. Florence Nightingale. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1951.

Janet Macrae holds a doctorate in nursing research from New York University. She is the coeditor of Suggestions for Thought by Florence Nightingale and the author of Nursing as a Spiritual Practice: A Contemporary Application of Florence Nightingale’s Views.

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