Lemuel Nelson Bell was born in Longdale, Virginia, the third and youngest child of James H. Bell and Ruth Lee (“Cora”) McCue, who were distant cousins and descended from Scots-Irish immigrants. James Bell was head of the commissary of Longdale Mining Company. Nelson grew up in a home of strong Presbyterian piety, where Sunday was observed by public worship and family devotions at home. Each day, in fact, began and ended with family prayer. Even before entering college, he was a regular churchgoer, though he did not ever think he would be a minister of the gospel. He excelled at sports, especially baseball, which he loved.
At the age of sixteen, Bell became engaged to Virginia Myers Leftwich, whose family were Baptists. She had made a profession faith and been baptized by full immersion when she was nine years old. She and Nelson Bell sang duets together, played tennis, and participated in the church choir while in high school. Upon graduation from high school, Bell entered Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Virginia, where he continued to play baseball. During summers, he earned money as a travelling salesmen for clothing companies, as well as playing for local baseball teams. At first he intended to major in law, then attend law school before entering law as a profession. Although very active in Christian fellowship and service during his college years, he never thought he would become a foreign missionary, because he did not sense God’s leading to be a minister of the gospel. One day, however, a friend asked, “Did you ever think of becoming a medical missionary?”
He later said, “That very instant I knew what God wanted me to do. . . It was just as clear as if I heard God speaking in audible tones, ‘That’s what I want you to do.’ It was a sudden as a light striking through a cloudy sky.” He wrote Virginia that night and changed his major from pre-law to pre-medicine the next day. Accordingly, he applied to and was accepted by the Medical College of Virginia upon graduation from college, with a full tuition scholarship. Always abounding in energy, he managed the house of the medical fraternity, participated in church ministry, sang in the glee club, and wrote for the college annual. Having joined the Student Volunteer Movement, which encouraged members to have a “morning watch” of Bible study and prayer, he started a morning prayer meeting at the fraternity. For the rest of his life, he rose early every morning to pore over the Bible, taking notes and praying for himself and his friends.
He began to acquire what he described as “an absolute, complete confidence in the sovereignty of God, the fact that He is all-knowing, all-wise, all-loving, all-powerful; and for that reason, when you pray and seek His guidance, He’s got the answer.” In addition to his morning quiet time with God, he also prayed and the read the Bible before going to bed at. One night, he said later, “I had the most wonderful sense of God’s presence in the room and in my own heart: a sense of complete oneness with Him. God has been so real to me since a boy, and I have simply tried to know what His will was for my life and then to do it.”
A powerful baseball pitcher, he was offered a position that would have led to playing in the Major Leagues, but he turned it down in order to complete his medical studies and move towards China. China had been on his mind for years, for he had heard of God’s work there early in life, first from a missionary on furlough, and then through constant mention in his home of Jimmie and Sophie Graham, who served with the Southern Presbyterian Mission in Qingjiangpu. After graduation from medical school at the very early age of twenty-one, Nelson married Virginia (June 30, 1916), and moved immediately to the Summerlee coal mines of the New River Company in the mountains of West Virginia, where he served for several months to gain essential practical experience.
Less than six months later, on December 4, 1916, they arrived in Shanghai and, escorted by Jimmie and Sophie Graham, traveled immediately to their new place of service, Love and Mercy Hospital (Renci Yiyuan), in “Tsingkiangpu” (, Qingjiangpu, hereafter referred to by its modern name, Huai’an). Bell was surprised to find a recently constructed (1916) modern, relatively well equipped hospital, and astounded by the number of patients treated each day. The hospital compound covered six acres and was surrounded by a nine-foot wall. In addition to the hospital itself, there was a chapel, boys’ school, a Chinese-style house built for the “native” physician, and a western home for James and Bessie Woods. Not far away, another compound contained an orphanage for victims of famine, the Grahams’ home, and another Western-style house for Addison Talbot, who served as an evangelist, as did Jimmie Graham. Both Talbot and his wife were much loved by the Chinese, she because she constantly rescued babies who had been abandoned. Graham also served as pastor of the growing church, superintendent of the boys’ school and the orphanage but, like Talbot, often spent weeks at a time in the countryside. The foreign missionary contingent in the area also included two ladies with the China Inland Mission, Miss Waterman and Miss Saltmarsh.
Very quickly, Bell developed profound respect for Woods, whom he found to be an outstanding physical with a profound piety coupled with a scholarly mind. Though the two men, both strong-2willed, disagreed often and frequently had spirited arguments over policy, they remained close friends and never became bitter or resentful toward each other. Their cordial relationship defied the frequent pattern of conflict among missionaries. For decades, the team at Huai’an was known for their happy and harmonious relationships despite tremendous stress from work and the chaotic conditions of China.
Nelson Bell had come to China as a medical missionary, and he immediately plunged into the heavy responsibilities of a surgeon in a land torn by civil war and banditry, and plagued by conditions that only surgery could alleviate. For more than a year, while Dr. Woods was on furlough, he was also in charge of both the medical and surgical departments, as well as administrator of the entire hospital. Bell treated cataracts, which were common, and his success with one elephantitis patient, which he published in an important medical journal, gained him a worldwide reputation at the age of twenty-four. Despite the number of major operations he had to perform each day - sometimes as many as fifteen - and the constant crush of patients with serious illnesses or wounds, the Chinese observed his “his loving interest in each case and careful inquiry into the history and symptoms of each. . . He seemed to prescribe just the right medicine that would make them well.” Knowing that “a cheerful heart makes good medicine,” Bell also sought to inject humor and light-heartedness into situations that otherwise seemed hopeless, often dispelling gloom with a positive word or even a well-chosen joke.
His greatest fame, however, came from his development of an effective treatment for kala-azar (black fever), a tropical diseases that almost always proved fatal if not treated. This dreaded illness was taking the lives of thousands in Jiangsu. Existing drugs, while effective, were far too expensive for use in China. Bell, who was never shy about making the ministry’s financial needs known to potential donors, asked a wealthy supporter in Texas to underwrite what would become the largest kala-azar clinic in the world, at which the costly medicine was given along with other treatments to sufferers, with marvelous results. Partly through research at this clinic, the carrier of the disease was discovered to be the sandfly. In time, Bell became one of the world’s acknowledged experts on kala-azar. Bell kept careful records of his surgeries, and in 1934 sent a representative record of one hundred of them to the American College of Surgeons, receiving high praise from the reviewers and the designation as a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons as a result.
He later expanded his medical work to clinics in surrounding areas and to the local prison. The rural clinics became feeders for the hospital, as well as “evangelistic agencies.” One missionary evangelist whom he accompanied wrote that Nelson “was preaching along with his healing. Nelson is a born preacher. He loves to tell the Gospel, loves to share the religious experience.”
Nelson Bell did not go to China merely to help cure bodies, however; the human soul always remained his main concern. For him, medical work served principally as an auxiliary to evangelism and the formation of a fully indigenous church. In 1923, on furlough, he declared, “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 Master if you are to be a successful missionary.” Despite his dedication to excellence as a physician, and his unremitting labors to bring healing to Chinese, he never lost sight of the centrality of proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ for missionaries. Each patient treated at the hospital or a clinic received an attractive Christian book with his or her name inscribed in it; some attributed their later conversions to reading these. A book room was opened in the hospital, and proved to be very effective. Each patient was also referred to a local Chinese evangelist upon returning home, and every effort was made to follow up every individual. Bell also preached in the hospital chapel services in Chinese that was fully colloquial. He began a ministry to the local prison, which over the years resulted in scores of converts.
Another effective means of evangelism was the special evangelistic week held every year, at which guest speakers, including the famous Leland Wang and, on another occasion, Andrew Gih and the Bethel Band, addressed Chinese hearers in a way no Westerner could.
Evangelism alone would not build strong churches, however, so Bell and his team, including the Chinese pastor and other workers, taught the Bible regularly to inquirers and believers alike. “No one was admitted to church membership without careful examination.” Perhaps most important, however, was the atmosphere of prayer and love that pervaded the entire enterprise. Bell’s own joy, diligence, and evident love for each person he met influenced everyone around him, including Chinese and Western physicians and church workers. Patients, as well as prison inmates, knew that he cared for their body as well as their soul, and their soul as well as their body. In times of famine or danger, the Chinese all knew that Bell and his associates would stand by them and do all they could to help in practical ways. The cumulative effective of all their efforts, and of their faithfulness and love, resulted in many converts over the years and the steady growth of the church and other small congregations in surrounding areas.
Nelson Bell was not only a gifted surgeon and tireless evangelist, but also an outstanding administrator. Under his leadership, the hospital became the largest Presbyterian hospital in the world, and one of the largest in China. He attracted interns from the United States and saw to the training of Chinese nurses and doctors at the hospital. Buildings were added as needed, and screened in to protect against mosquitoes. High standards of cleanliness, record-keeping, patient care, and follow up were maintained. New medical practices were adopted as soon as possible, and modern equipment procured with the help of donations from home. Bell made sure to cultivate and maintain excellent relations with local officials, and was asked by them to help mediate between warring factions on several occasions. He was able to forge cordial relations with the Japanese general when his army occupied the city. When on furlough, Bell was tireless in promoting the ministry and needs of the hospital wherever he went; in China, he wrote letters home constantly, with colorful, detailed descriptions.
Though he was plagued by dengue fever, an enervating and debilitating illness, on more than one occasion, he never flagged in zeal or enthusiasm, nor did he allow sickness to keep him from serving his colleagues and the Chinese.
Nelson Bell and Virginia maintained a home filled with laughter, fun, and love. Each rose early to spend extended time with God; Bell led family prayer and Bible reading regularly, and taught his children to do the same. In keeping with Presbyterian policy, the children were educated at home until high school, rather than sent to far-off schools like many other missionary kids. After a hard day’s work, Bell would throw himself into a tennis game with colleagues or family. For several years they spent summers in Kuling to escape the awful heat in the plains, but later decided they could use that money to build a swimming pool and same time and trouble by staying home. As a physician, Bell knew the importance of a balanced life, and though he never turned down an urgent summons for help in the middle of the night, he did his best to maintain a regular schedule of work, rest, and play. Above all, he refreshed his spirit through his daily Bible study, which was systematic and thorough, and he avoided anxiety by a depth of trust in God that calmed both his own soul and the hearts of others when troubles came.
Despite recurring migraine headaches, Virginia not only taught the children and ran the household, but also extended warm and gracious hospitality to countless Western and Chinese guests. Like her husband, she refused to evince fear when the hospital compound was surrounded by hostile troops, gunfire and screams were heard all around them, or bombs fell from Japanese planes. Once, when Nelson decided to stay on after all missionaries had been ordered to evacuate, Virginia remained with him. Her indefatigable labors and indomitable spirit were a great source of strength to her husband, children, and all who encountered her.
She spent the early part of the afternoon in the women’s clinic, of which she had charge. After that, she enjoyed tending their large garden. The Bells had five children: Rosa, Ruth, Lemuel, Virginia,and Benjamin "Clayton". (One son, Nelson, Jr., died in infancy.)Their mother taught the girls music, and handwork: embroidery, knitting, crocheting, and sewing. The children learned the Bible well, and memorized many passages. Under the parents’ influence, they all became great readers. In the evenings, the family played party games, word games, and other pastimes popular at the time. Above all, they read aloud to each other, with Bell doing most of the reading. On Sunday evenings, they played Bible games, which Nelson always won because of his immense biblical knowledge.
Ever-present danger from bandits and fighting warlords was superseded by outright civil war when the Nationalists and their Communist allies began the Northern Expedition in 1926. As city after city fell, the left wing of the Nationalist Party (KMT) attacked foreigners, including missionaries. In Marcy, 1927, after Westerners had been killed in Nanjing, the American and British consuls ordered a general evacuation of all their nationals from the interior. The Bells did not want to leave, but finally realized that their presence would prove dangerous for their Chinese friends if the city were captured, so they reluctantly made the journey to Shanghai. Since Virginia was seven months pregnant, they went home on early furlough for the birth of the child, returning a few months later.
In 1930-31,a new crisis developed, as the Nationalist government required all Christian schools to register with the Ministry of Education. Henceforth, chapel would be voluntary and classes on the Bible could not be required. Furthermore, the government could change the curriculum or direction of the schools at any time. Perhaps most distressing was the requirement that all students and faculty must bow before a picture of Sun Yat-sen. The Chinese pastor of their church declared, “he would rather his son be a mason or carpenter ‘than to a school where Dr. Sun is worshiped and the Bible put out.’”
Despite great pressure from some missionary and Chinese co-workers, Nelson Bell refused to register the school, on the grounds that the Bible, which “should be in front of us as our active agent for Christian warfare must be hidden,” and because “the name of Christ must be excluded from the school in every way.” Though he fully recognized the need of the Chinese for education, he insisted this was not the duty of missionaries who had come to China to proclaim Christ. He also noted that “even the most ardent advocates of registration admitted that registered colleges and high school soon lost their distinctive Christian character, yet money was poured into them while countryside evangelism was cut back through lack of funds. This seemed to him as “misappropriation of funds.”
Another crisis arose when the National Christian Council called on mission agencies to hand over their schools and hospitals to Chinese to run. Though he believed in an indigenous church, and the Qingjiangpu congregation had been self-supporting for a long time, Bell thought, from observation and experience, that the Chinese were not yet ready to run the hospitals and schools.
A wider controversy soon engulfed the entire Western missionary enterprise with the Laymen’s Foreign Missions Inquiry report, Rethinking Missions, appeared in 1932. Fully steeped in liberal theology, it questioned the value of medical missions and denied that people are lost without faith in Christ. .A speech, later published, by noted author Pearl Buck also called for an end to evangelism. Aside from the obvious inaccuracies and slanders of the Report and of Mrs. Buck’s caricature of missionaries, Bell attacked this fundamental assault on the gospel, saying, “we are told that it is the preaching of the Cross, the Gospel of redemption from sin through faith in the shed blood of the Savior, which is thee ‘power of God.’” In all this he stood firmly with the “fundamentalists” (conservative evangelicals) in their controversy with “modernists” (liberal theologians) both in China and in America.
Under the Japanese
When the Japanese attacked in northern China, and then Shanghai, in 1937, and the American consul ordered all missionaries to evacuate, Bell ignored the order. But as the Japanese advanced father, the ambassador himself put pressure on Bell, who reluctantly left once again. Less than two months later, however, Bell took his wife and two youngest children back to their station, declaring that “the safest place is where He wants us to be.” He knew that to desert their Chinese friends at this time would be to deprive them of help and greatly diminish the force of what the missionaries had previously done.
The Japanese army entered the city in February, 1939. From the outset, they were courteous and friendly towards Bell and the foreign hospital staff, allowing him to report rapes of Chinese women by Japanese soldiers on several occasions, and even helping him to travel to Shanghai to fetch their youngest daughter and bring her back home to Qingjiangpu. The work of the hospital went on undisturbed. In May, 1939, the Bells went on a short vacation to the United States, from which they returned in August. Their normal routine continues as usual, as did evangelism, Bible teaching, and worship. In fact, the horrors of Japanese treatment of Chinese deepened the spiritual life of all the believers.
Under the constant stress of wartime living, Virginia’s migraine headaches increased in frequency and the pain grew worse. A debilitating attack of malaria convinced Bell that he must take her back to the United States to recover, so in May of 1941 the family sadly left their home and the people they loved so much.
Life in America
A visit to the Mayo Clinic brought relief for Virginia and for Rosa, who was attending Wheaton College with Ruth. The Bells then visited family in Waynesboro, Virginia, where they met Ruth’s fiancé, Billy Graham. They settled in Montreat, North Carolina, near Asheville, where Bell soon established a surgical practice which quickly brought him fame and love as a skilled physician.
Deeply disturbed by the inroads of liberal theology in the Southern Presbyterian Church, Bell founded The Southern Presbyterian Journal, later called simply The Presbyterian Journal, to warn against the dangers of theological vagrancy and rally conservative Presbyterians. He remained a faithful member of that denomination for the rest of his life, serving for seventeen years on the World Missions Board, where he argued strenuously for the centrality of evangelism and Bible teaching for Christian missions.
In 1955-56, he and Billy Graham joined to establish another, national, journal, Christianity Today, with a similar purpose. Bell became Executive Editor (with Carl F. H. Henry as General Editor), and contributed regular articles in a column called, “A Layman and His Faith” for many years. The magazine soon became the premier voice of scholarly evangelical news and opinion.
Nelson Bell died in 1973 after a long life of total and enthusiastic dedication to the cause of Christ and his gospel.
Bell’s legacy consists of his life story, told with liveliness and accuracy by John Pollock; his many writings; and his lasting influence upon Billy Graham’s career. Because Ruth had been born in China, she and her Billy Graham spoke in churches, met with public leaders, and visited leading house church pastors. Their son Franklin has preached in officially sanctioned churches in China, as has his son Will. Samaritan’s Purse, led by Franklin, engages in charitable work in China also.