The beginnings of medical evangelism can be traced to the ministry of Jesus and the Apostles as recorded in the Gospels and Acts. There are, however, few details in the remainder of the New Testament regarding the care of the sick. One reference in James (5:14) reads: Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. This verse would suggest that the church, or at least some within the church, continued to render service to those who were ill.
The New Testament clearly teaches that compassion and concern for others is a basic principle of Christian living. Compassion and care for the sick and needy by the early Christians no doubt continued through the early centuries.
As time passed and Catholicism gained control of the religious world, much of the care for the sick was carried out by monastic orders. Some of these orders became known for the care of a particular type of illness. The Order of St. Lazarus, for example, was known for the treatment of lepers and the members of this order established many hospitals (known as lazarettos) throughout Europe for the treatment of leprosy.1
Following the Reformation, Protestant churches slowly began sending physicians and others to serve as medical missionaries in places such as India and various parts of Africa, for example.2 Possibly the first of these was Dr. Kaspar Gottlieb Schlegemilch, who traveled to India in 1730 under German and Danish sponsorship. He died of dysentery, unfortunately, after only about a month in India. Other Danish and German doctors followed, but they also remained only a short time or also died of tropical diseases.3
In 1793 Dr. John Thomas was sent to India by the Baptist Missionary Society in England. Accompanied by William Carey, an evangelist, they established the first Protestant mission in India.4
The first American medical missionary was Dr. John Scudder, who went to Ceylon in 1819 and later moved to India. His work included not only medical care but also the establishment of schools and a college. Seven of his sons later worked in India also, several of them as physicians. Another member of this family, Dr. Ida Scudder, established the Christian Medical College in Vellore, India, and became herself somewhat of a legend among early medical missionaries.5
Another American, Dr. Peter Parker, was sponsored by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. In 1834 he traveled to China to begin a medical mission. As a surgeon, he treated patients and also performed many of the first surgical procedures in China. He also trained many young Chinese students in medicine, long before the establishment of medical schools in this country.6
Toward the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, some Protestant denominations provided training in basic medical care for missionaries before entering the field. Traveling to distant places, these missionaries were often the only doctor available for many of the native people. Dr. Paul Brand, for example, described the work of his parents who served as missionaries in India. Although they had little training and limited medical supplies, they served as the only source of medical care for many of the people living in remote villages. Dr. Brand himself received 12 months of medical training at a mission school in preparation to go to India as a builder. It was during this time that he decided to go to medical school and train as a physician. He finally did return to India as a surgeon and taught at the Christian Medical College at Vellore, eventually becoming a pioneer in the treatment of leprosy.7
The first half of this century saw the first medical missionaries from the Churches of Christ. In 1926 Dow Merritt went to Africa where he served as a missionary in Northern Rhodesia (later Zambia) for 50 years. Merritt had been trained as a medical corpsman in the Navy. His ministry involved not only preaching and establishing schools, but also he established a clinic and cared for the sick.8
Elizabeth Bernard, who had been trained as a nurse and served in the U.S. Army from 1918-1920, went to China to teach and care for the sick in 1933. She ministered to the sick, cared for orphans, and lived in China and later Hong Kong until her death in 1971.9
Alvin and Georgia Hobby were also missionaries in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia). They returned to the United States in 1962 to enter nurses training. Alvin completed a two year degree and Georgia both bachelor's and master's degrees in nursing. Returning to Zambia, they established a clinic at the Namwianga Christian School, which is still in operation. All together, the Hobbys spent about 40 years in Zambia. Besides their other work, Alvin also assisted with the translation of the Bible into the Tonga language.10
Dr. Marjorie Sewell, with the help of a nurse, Ann Burns, established a clinic at Nhowe Mission in Southern Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe).11 From 1947-1949 Dr. A. R. Brown and his wife worked at the Nhowe Mission. They were supported by the Central Church of Christ in Nashville, Tennessee. Their work was primarily evangelistic although Dr. Brown did treat medical emergencies and some maternity cases.12 At about this same time (1948-1953), Helen Baker, a nurse, went to war-ravaged Germany to care for the sick and the spread the good news of Jesus.13
Following World War II there was a surge of missionary efforts by the Churches of Christ. Many of these missionaries traveled to developing countries and were unprepared for the level of health care that they found. Dr. Maurice Hood, who has himself served at the Nigerian Christian Hospital, relates the experience of one such missionary:
Rees Bryant describes his first medical encounter on his first day in Africa. He and Patti encountered a Nigerian man carrying another extremely ill man on his bicycle. The Nigerian begged Rees to carry his brother to the Catholic hospital fifteen miles away. Rees felt at first that he was there to preach and was bewildered by this request, but doing what he thought the Lord would want him to do, he took the man to the hospital. He had a strangulated hernia and died in surgery. There were few automobiles or motorcycles in Nigeria at that time, so almost daily the people would come to the missionaries wanting help with carrying their sick to the distant facilities.14
Many of these missionaries, although they had gone there to do evangelistic work, saw the need for the establishment of clinics and hospitals to care for the sick and suffering that they encountered everyday. It is to the credit of these missionaries, and other medical professionals and non-medical workers who followed, that today medical missions is an important part of the evangelistic efforts of the Churches of Christ. Several clinics and hospitals sponsored by the Churches of Christ scattered throughout the world are assisting those who can not afford or may not have access to adequate health care. Often, these clinics and hospitals may also be the first opportunity for many to learn the basic principles of Christianity.
During the 1960s and early 1970s medical evangelism increased among the Churches of Christ. Most of this was long-term mission activities (i. e., missionaries moved to a foreign country for a period of time). At the same time there were few opportunities for short-term medical evangelism (i. e., relatively short trips of one or two weeks, for example). Desiring to be of some help to the sick and needy, yet unable to commit themselves for a long-term stay, some members of the Churches of Christ worked with other groups involved in foreign medical work. One such individual was Dr. Rugel Sowell, who spent short periods of time in Guatemala with the Catholic Mission Board (1962), the Presbyterian mission program (1965), and Project Hope (1968).15
More recently, the Churches of Christ have begun to sponsor short-term medical mission trips ranging in length from a few days to a few weeks. Each year many medical and non-medical personnel give of their time, expertise, and often personal finances to travel to various locations and provide basic health care for the needy through permanent clinics and hospitals as well as temporary and mobile medical and dental clinics.