Twenty-two-year-old Lemuel Nelson Bell and his bride of six months, Virginia, first set foot in China December 1916. Bell had graduated from medical college only six months earlier but felt led to respond to a request for another missionary doctor at the Love and Mercy Hospital. Bell’s interest in missions began as early as age 4; Virginia’s in her teens. So the decision to go to Tsingkiangpu was not belabored.
In his biography A Foreign Devil in China: The Story of L. Nelson Bell, John Pollock notes that the Nelsons’ love for the Chinese was often not mutual, and people in pain would only come to the hospital in desperation. The yang kuei-tz, “foreign devil,” was not be trusted, at least at first.
But Bell cared deeply for his patients–mind, body and spirit. Unlike most ailments he might have seen in the States, he treated tropical diseases, wounds from family and bandit violence, and other cases resulting from civil unrest.
At one point, the hospital housed 50 patients simultaneously for gunshot or other wounds. Large tumors and elephantitis also were common–Bell once removed a 94-pound cyst from a woman who weighed only 90 pounds post-operation.
No wonder Bell’s mornings were bathed in things of the Lord–prayer and Bible reading with Virginia, prayer and Scripture memory with the Chinese household they lived with, then morning prayers at the hospital chapel.
Pollock writes the following: “This cycle of reading and prayer did not strike Nelson as formidable but vital. … ‘I am often overwhelmed with the truth of the goodness of our Father,’ [Bell] wrote after a particularly difficult operation. ‘How much He will do through us if we will but let Him. The hard thing often is being willing to be led by Him.'”
Bell’s prayers and willingness to be led and used by God bore much fruit, evidenced by his patients. One sought him out, years after being treated, to say he had come to Christ through the hospital’s ministry–and had become a preacher with the China Inland Mission.
Another patient recounts: “Dr. Bell moved around that great number of people who came in and out, and showed the same care and tenderness to each one. … [For] the early morning worship services, all who could leave their beds were urged to come and hear the message of the Gospel. This was declared to be the heart of the whole institution and the reason for its existence.”
After 25 years of loving service to the Chinese people, both the war and Virginia’s health–she had come down with a bad case of malaria–caused the Bells to return to the States.
During later years, in addition to his duties as a North Carolina surgeon, Bell went on to help found the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, become the editor of Christianity Today and moderator of the Presbyterian Church in the USA. But his heart was ever in China.
A few years before his death he told a TV interviewer: “Someday in heaven we will meet many who came to Christ at the hospital. What could be more worthwhile?”
It’s no surprise that among the Chinese, the good doctor was known as “The Bell Who is Lover of the Chinese People.”
Read more about Ruth Bell Graham’s Childhood in China
In her writing, speaking and simple acts of kindness–to neighbors, friends and anyone who needed a lift–she demonstrated the grace and mercy of the Savior she first met when she was a little girl in China.