Born into a Scotch-Irish Presbyterian family that began and ended each day with family prayers, Nelson Bell committed his life to Christ at age 11. His mother often chose missionary stories as the family’s Sunday reading, but Nelson intended to become a lawyer. When a college classmate challenged Bell to become a medical missionary, “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.” Bell dedicated himself to beginning each day with Bible study and prayer. Within five years, he completed medical school and sailed to China with his bride, Virginia.
Nelson was just 21 when he began his career as a missionary surgeon in Huaiyin (then called Tsingkiangpu), and his sense of adventure included driving his Harley-Davidson over rural roads. He often encountered medical problems for which he had no background or training. Kala-azar (black fever) was a devastating scourge in northern Jiangsu, but after Nelson and a Chinese colleague developed a cure, their kala-azar clinic was the world’s largest. Despite many such impressive achievements, Bell always considered medicine a means to the end of saving souls. For him, there was no separation between his “secular” work in the hospital and his “sacred” work as a missionary. Jesus was Lord of all. His passion for souls spurred him to invite leading Chinese evangelists such as Ji Zhiwen (计志文牧师-Andrew Gih) and Wang Zai (王载弟兄-Leland Wang) to conduct revival meetings.
Like Wang Mingdao (王明道先生), Bell remained firm in his convictions without losing his godly love for his opponents. He advocated closing mission schools rather than accepting government registration that would jeopardize their religious character. He criticized an influential report encouraging missionaries to focus on social gospel activities and ignore evangelism. He even sent his children to school in Korea rather than enroll them in a school tainted by liberal theology in nearby Shanghai.
The Bells lived in Huaiyin for 25 years, but when Virginia developed malaria, they knew it was time to leave Japanese-occupied China. They left in May 1941, and God never opened a door for them to return. Nelson became a trusted advisor for his son-in-law, Billy Graham, and practiced medicine until his second heart attack in 1955. Thereafter he devoted himself to promoting orthodox evangelicalism by founding and writing for The Southern Presbyterian Journal and Christianity Today.
Nelson Bell and Virginia Leftwich were high school sweethearts who never fell out of love. The Bells buried their first son in China, but God gave them four other children to raise. As in Nelson’s childhood, morning and evening devotions were a regular part of life. Their daughter Ruth grew up wanting to be a missionary to Tibet and nearly broke off her engagement to Billy Graham over this issue. In the late 1960s, Virginia was severely disabled by two strokes. Nelson died in his sleep in 1973, and Virginia followed fifteen months later. Their old home, Jiangsu, now has one of the strongest churches in China.
“I am often overwhelmed with the goodness of our Father, how He will do through us if we but let Him. The hard thing often is being willing to be led by Him.”
A Foreign Devil in China: The Story of Dr. L. Nelson Bell. John Pollock. (World Wide Publications, 1988), p. 109.