Virginia Leftwich was born in Waynesboro, Virginia, the daughter of devout Southern Baptist parents. She lived not far from Nelson Bell, whom she married in 1916, after studying at Nurses’ Training School at St. Luke’s Hospital, Richmond, Virginia.
An accomplished organist and pianist, she was also, like her husband, a skilled tennis player.
She married Nelson Bell in 1916, beginning a very happy home life that eventually included one son and three daughters, one of whom, Ruth, later married the evangelist Billy Graham. (Another son died in infancy.) Virginia and Nelson Bell enjoyed a loving marriage that served as a model for many who witnessed their life together.
Shortly after their marriage, the Bells sailed for China as members of the Southern Presbyterian Mission, settling in Tsingkiangpu, Jiangsu, where they became part of the staff of the mission hospital. Though fully committed to ministry among Chinese, Virginia agreed with her husband that for a mother the children must come first, and must not be neglected for missionary work. Like others in the Southern Presbyterian Mission, she also educated her children at home, rather than sending them away to a distant school, in marked contrast to the practice of other missions, such as the China Inland Mission.
In addition educating and sewing for her daughters, Virginia taught them music, tended a large garden, and served as hostess to a constant stream of house guests.
She also played a vital role in the work of the mission hospital, however. A trained nurse, she superintended the work of the nurses and assumed responsibility for all of the women patients. She was known as a very efficient worker, like her husband, who wrote that “she is the best manager in the mission, always thinks ahead and plans ahead.”
She did not enjoy the robust health of her husband, but was plagued by frequent migraine headaches, despite which she continued to serve her family, other missionaries, and the Chinese.
She and Nelson cherished deep affection for each other. On several occasions when wives were urged to take the children to a safer location, Virginia Bell would insist upon staying with her husband, ready to suffer anything with him. Her feelings for him are evident in her statement that “It is indescribably lonely when he is away.”
Her courage and calmness in the midst of the dangerous and often violent conditions of China in the 1920s and 1930s impressed all those around her, as did her dedication to minister to the physical and spiritual needs of the Chinese.
It was with great sadness and reluctance that the Bells left China in the summer of 1941 for what would become permanent residence in Montreat, North Carolina, USA. Virginia Bell supported her husband in his work as a surgeon, active churchman, and editor.
Their daughter Ruth’s early life in China led eventually to several visits to the land of her birth with her husband Billy Graham; their son, Ned Graham, later worked closely with the Amity Foundation, thus extending the missionary influence of Virginia Bell to the third generation.
Virginia Leftwich Bell represents the thousands of missionary wives whose contribution to the ministry of their husbands, plus their own loving service to Chinese, was crucial for the planting of the church in China.
- Betty Drummond, Women of Awakenings: The Historic Contribution of Women to Revival Movements.
- John Pollock, A Foreign Devil in China.