Lemuel Nelson Bell was born near Waynesboro, Virginia, USA, in 1894, the son of dedicated members of the Southern Presbyterian Church. He attended Washington and Lee University in Leesburg, Virginia, intending to study law.
He had always been interested in foreign missions, but had thought that one must be ordained to serve overseas. When a friend asked, “Have you ever thought of being a medical missionary,” Bell know immediately that this was what God wanted him to do, so he switched his major from pre-law to pre-medicine.
A star baseball player in high school, college, and during medical studies at Medical College of Virginia, Bell turned down an opportunity to play in the major leagues in order to serve God as a medical missionary with the American Southern Presbyterian Mission.
He married Virginia Leftwich, a childhood sweetheart, in 1916, beginning a happy marriage that eventually issued in four children, one son and three daughters (another son had died in infancy). The newly-wedded couple sailed to China a few months later, settling in where Bell began service as a physician in the “Love and Mercy Hospital.” A gifted and hard-working linguist, Bell became proficient in spoken Mandarin, to the point where he could actually tell jokes in Chinese. His ready humor endeared him to the people, who loved his joyful spirit.
At the age of 23, Bell took over administration of the hospital when the senior missionary left for furlough. He soon became known for his remarkable ability to diagnose and treat illness and to perform restorative surgeries on those who had no hope. Even more notable was his kindness and attentive care for each patient, in return for which he was soon given the nickname Aihua - “Lover of the Chinese people.” Nor did they withhold affection from him when he insisted on bold action that might lose someone to lose face, for his decisions usually turned out to be right.
In time Bell opened clinics in the countryside in order to serve more people with both medicine and the Gospel. His colleague wrote, “Nelson is a born preacher; he loves to tell the Gospel.” Friends attributed his effectiveness as a preacher, and his joyous, self-giving life, as the overflow of a daily quiet time with God, which he described as:
“A time when I surrender my mind, will, and body to the supernatural teaching of God my Heavenly Father, Christ my savior and lord, and the Holy Spirit my comforter and Guide. It is a time when I can rest on Him, wait on Him, and talk with Him.”
Bell continued to improve his abilities as a physician by reading and by visits to leading hospitals while on furlough; he always sought the highest standards of medical excellence. Nevertheless, he made his priorities as a missionary quite clear:
“The primary object of our work is to win souls to Jesus Christ. I am more and more convinced that we must stress this. You do not necessarily have to preach, but I would say that you must have the love for souls and desire to win them to the Mater if you are to be a successfully missionary.”
To enhance the evangelistic impact of medical ministry to Chinese, Bell compiled a simple book that was given to each patient; organized the hospital filing system so that discharged patients could be followed up by Chinese evangelists; and held an evangelistic week each January, at which Chinese preachers were given the pulpit. One of these, Leland Wang, made a great impression on Bell; another was Andrew Gih, who was invited to bring the Bethel Band to preach to an annual meeting in 1931.
In addition to work in the hospital and rural clinics, Nelson Bell visited the local prison to provide aid to the inmates, many of whom had been horribly tortured. His kindness and sympathy won their hearts, leading to a great openness to the Gospel.
Nelson Bell believed strongly that both the hospital and the local church should be led by Chinese and independent of foreign funding. To that end, worked assiduously to train Chinese physicians, required patients to pay as much as they could, and abstained from giving large sums of money to the church. A nursing school provided helpers for the mission hospital and for other places as well.
On the other hand, Bell would often pay the expenses for unusually indigent patients who could not afford even the minimal fee.
Like many other foreigners, the Bells evacuated their mission station during the Northern Expedition in 1927, but they soon returned to a warm welcome. The 1930s were a period of warfare, banditry, and general disruption in China, which may have been one factor in the increased receptivity of the people to the Gospel.
Bell’s fame as a surgeon and physician spread around the world, particularly after he helped to improve the treatment for black fever (kala-azar). Additions of buildings, staff, and patients eventually turned the hospital into the largest Presbyterian medical facility in the world, with 380 beds. He regularly performed fifteen operations a day, usually with success. His work earned him membership as a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons.
Nelson Bell always enjoyed cordial relationships with local officials, who treated him as an honored guest. Sometimes, they called upon him to mediate in political and even military disputes; on more than one occasion his diplomacy averted conflict between rival armies and saved the city from destruction.
Though fully aware of the many failings of the Nationalist government, Bell greatly appreciated the improvements which that regime had begun to bring to China before the Japanese invasion. Reports of Chiang Kai-shek’s Christian faith and daily Bible reading encouraged him greatly, despite the failure of the Generalissimo to eliminate rampant corruption and graft, even among his close associates. He would later contrast the KMT (GMD) rule with that of the Communists, whom he considered to be ruthlessly anti-Christian and dictatorial.
The Bells’ style of life resembled most Protestant missionaries, in that they lived in a large, Western-style home that had been built with funds donated by friends at home. A swimming pool and tennis court would seem luxurious today, but they enabled Bell and his colleagues to engage in daily exercise, thus releasing stress and providing strength for long-term service.
In at least one respect, however, Nelson Bell and his family stood out: Their home was always open to their Chinese friends and colleagues. Such was the sense of solidarity with the Chinese that their children never felt that they were in any way superior.
In 1931-32, Nelson Bell entered vigorously into two controversies roiling missions in China and the North Jiangsu Mission in particular. The first revolved around the Nationalist Government’s insistence that all schools offering academic degrees must register; that the teaching of the Bible should be optional; and that faculty and students must participate in a ceremony which included bowing down to the picture of the president, Sun yat-sen.
Under Bell’s leadership, the mission refused to compromise, closing its schools instead of registering them.
The second controversy stemmed from a report by a theologically-liberal Laymen’s Foreign Missions Inquiry, which urged that evangelism cease and medical missions focus entirely on physical healing. Bell insisted that, even though he and his colleagues exerted every effort to provide the best medical care, the salvation of souls was still the primary aim of Christian missions. Nelson Bell would re-visit this dispute in later years.
Despite an order from the American ambassador for all missionaries to evacuate China after Japan’s attack in 1937, the Bells insisted that they must remain at their station, demonstrating God’s love and care to the Chinese as they shared with them the dangers of wartime. Their decision to stay flowed from faith and evoked even greater respect and affection from the Chinese. For the next several years, they ministered amidst plague, violence, bandit attacks, civil war, and Japanese occupation, always with strong faith and calm confidence in God’s providence.
Finally, in May, 1941, mostly because of Virginia’s poor health, the Bells left China for furlough. They settled in Montreat, North Carolina, near Asheville, where he established a medical practice, soon becoming nationally famous as a versatile surgeon. He was very quickly elected to the Board of World Missions of the Southern Presbyterian Church, being re-elected repeatedly until he retired after seventeen years.
During those years, Bell traveled all over the world to visit missionaries, whose interests he tried to represent on the Board. He also assiduously advocated independence for indigenous churches, deploring the weakening effects of subsidies from America. When leadership of the Southern Presbyterian Church urged union with the Northern Presbyterians, Bell objected, on the grounds that the other denomination had compromised essential tenets of biblical faith. He was successful in delaying the merger for two decades, but finally resigned from the Foreign Missions Board in protest over its subsidization of national churches and discouragement of pioneer evangelism.
In 1972, he was elected Moderator of the Southern Presbyterian Church in the U.S.
He had already founded The Presbyterian Journal to argue case for traditional Christianity in the face of growing theological liberalism. In 1956 he joined Billy Graham and Harold Ockenga, to begin publication of Christianity Today, with noted theologian Carl F. H. Henry as Editor. This fortnightly journal soon gained prominence as the leading evangelical voice; foreign missions were always prominently featured as a core element of Christianity and of the church’s existence.
(Nelson Bell’s daughter Ruth leveraged her childhood in China to enable her husband Billy Graham to make several visits there; their son Ned later became the leader of East Gates International, which works closely with the China Christian Council and Amity Foundation to provide Bibles and leadership training to China’s Christians.)
Perhaps the real reason for Nelson Bell’s remarkable success as a missionary was expressed by a Chinese nurse whom knew him well: “The thing above all others that he put into the hospital was love.” More effective even than his skill as a surgeon or writer was his moral resemblance to Jesus Christ.
- John Pollock, A Foreign Devil in China (rev., 1988)
- Christianity Today (memorial), Aug. 31, 1973.