Before we begin, I will give you a disclaimer. We will not agree theologically with most people on this list. The point is not to hold them up for role models about what to believe about the Bible. Some of them are very wrong in their understanding of God. The point is to show you that these individuals’ beliefs in the God of the Bible affected and drove their contributions to society. Most of these people’s influence remains with us today.
My plan for this series is to put the entire content in book form. I have examples of Scriptural influence from the Arts (i.e., music, sculpture/paintings, literature), science and technology, the medicinal field, education, U.S. politics, and social issues (i.e., slavery, women’s rights). For the sake of space, I will condense the area of medicine.
With limited resources, why should the weaker take up valuable assets that could be used for people that could actually add benefit to society? This may sound like Nazi Germany ideology, but it is also the basic tenet of evolutionism – the strong survive, or survival of the fittest. Herbert Spencer, a polymath(1) of the Victorian era, applied Darwin’s theory of natural selection to sociology and ethics by stating: “This survival of the fittest, which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr. Darwin has called ‘natural selection’, or the preservation of favoured [sic] races in the struggle for life.” (3)
With evolutionism as the foundation for one’s beliefs, what causes people to help others in need? History is full of examples of the poor, weak, and sick being despised. For example, during the 17th century in England, the poor were shuffled into workhouses, which were bare bones facilities designed to make poverty seem even less attractive. The food was unpleasant, the conditions were unsanitary and overcrowded, and the occupants were forced into hard labor. This practice also carried over into the New World. The vendue system even allowed cities to auction off poor individuals to the highest bidders. (4) In fact, when researching poverty, much of the time we see that relief and care were assigned to “parishes” or religious organizations. The idea of helping the poor, downtrodden orphans, and widows is a concept that does not fit with “survival of the fittest”, but with the system that believes God created humanity in His image – that all life has worth.
Certainly, we can look back in history where it speaks of “Christianity” causing harm and acting on biases. Man needs to be concerned with God’s expectations. What does the Bible say? During Jesus’ earthly ministry, He told a rich, young ruler to sell everything that he had and give it to help the poor (Lk. 18:18-30). He used the example of the Good Samaritan, a rich man despised by the Jews, who gave of his wealth to help a Jew (Lk. 10:25-37). Before this time, the Law had provided for the provision of the needy (Lev. 23:22). The Bible does not speak of fitting ourselves to survive; it speaks of loving our neighbors (Lk. 10:27). The prophets’ messages held words of chastisement for neglecting the poor (Isa. 1:16-17; Amos 2:6-7). Even the poetical books sing of caring for the needy (Ps. 10:2-3; Prov. 14:21). The Kingdom church provided for one another (Acts 4:32-35). Our apostle Paul spoke of caring for those in poverty and illness (Gal. 2:10; 2 Cor. 8). It is the Bible that takes one’s focus off of himself and onto the God who cares for others (Rom. 13:8; 1 Thess. 4:9; 1 Jn. 3:16), including enemies (Rom. 5:8; 12:20-21). It even goes so far as to warn against the selfish greed of money and possessions (1 Tim. 6:9-10; 1 Jn. 3:17).
What in an evolutionary, atheistic worldview compels someone to be generous to another? Atheists say, “the common good” and “society decides.” This is all well and good until we realize that some societies say it is okay to castrate women or harmfully bind their feet. (By the way, it was a Christian missionary, Gladys Aylward, who convinced the Chinese government in Yangchen to end foot binding). Whose “common good” do we allow? What society is permitted to overrule the other? There needs to be an unchangeable, absolute standard. The Christians have one in the Word of God.
One example of a person whose faith led her to benefit society was Florence Nightingale. Miss Nightingale was reared in the Unitarian Church but later joined the Church of England. She did not seem to be overly evangelistic, and I would certainly caution people about some of her experiences (she often went into “trances” where she claimed to receive messages from God). However, we are not focusing on how people lined up doctrinally, but instead, we are showing that those who were convicted by the Scriptures have made positive contributions to society. Florence Nightingale certainly affected hospitalization due to her conviction that God had called her to the work. She was so convinced of this “calling” that she refused a marriage proposal from her beloved friend, remaining single for the rest of her life in what she saw as her service for her Lord.(6)
The revolutionary methods Florence Nightingale brought to hospitals in England influenced the improvement of hospitalization throughout the world. She introduced procedures that are still benefiting people in our present time, establishing schools for training nurses, and organizing a system of health administration that greatly improved the healthcare and supplies given to those serving in armed services. Florence also began an effort to broaden health care to include the poor living in the squalid city sections and, even, those involved in organized crime.(7) Her reforms were driven by her understanding that proper hygiene, sanitation, and organization were keys to preventing unnecessary death and improving health conditions.(8)
A series of diary entries written shortly before her seventeenth birthday, (May 12, 1820) reads: “On February 7th, 1837, God spoke to me and called me to his service.”(9)
In 1850, Florence, 30 years old, was struggling with health issues and went to Egypt to recuperate. Her diary entries from this time shed light on her motivation for serving in the field of medicine.
March 7 – “God called me in the morning and asked me would I do good for Him, for Him alone without the reputation?”
March 9 – “During half an hour I had by myself in my cabin, settled the question with God.”
April 1 – “Not able to go out, but wished God to have it all His own way. I like Him to do exactly as He likes without even telling me the reason.”
May 12 – “Today I am thirty, the age Christ began his mission, now no more childish things, no more love, no more marriage, now, Lord let me think only of Thy Will, what Thou willest me to do, oh, Lord, Thy Will, Thy Will.”
June 10 – “The Lord spoke to me. He said, ‘Give five minutes every hour to the thought of Me, couldst thou but love Me as Lizzie loves her husband, how happy wouldst thou be.”(10)
Another entry from her time in Cairo, Egypt declares: “O God, Thou puttest into my heart this great desire to devote myself to the sick and sorrowful. I offer it to thee. Do with it what is for Thy service.”(11)
In another letter, she wrote, “[If I could give you information of my life] it would be to show how a woman of very ordinary ability has been led by God — by strange and unaccustomed paths — to do in His service what He has done in hers. And if I could tell you all, you would see how God has done all, and I nothing. I have worked hard, very hard — that is all — and I have never refused God anything…”(12) It is obvious that Florence Nightingale’s positive contributions to the field of medicine stemmed from her conviction that it was her service for God.
Although there were hospital-like programs that can be found in a few civilizations – Greece, Egypt, and India had mystical learning centers and Rome had care centers for soldiers, we have Christianity to thank for the origins of the modern hospital system.(13) No other culture or religion had placed an emphasis on extending medical care to people of all economic classes until Christendom acted on its belief that God cares for everyone.
Christians played a crucial part in the building of hospitals and securing the funds to run them.(14) As “Christianity” grew under the Roman Empire during the third century, caring for the health of those in need was included in the charitable work performed by local congregations.(15) Credit for the first public hospital is given to Fabiola, a Roman nurse who converted to Catholicism. She poured her wealth into building a hospital in the fourth century for the poor and society’s rejects.(16) Hospitals have been described as “a specifically Christian institution that arose out of the philanthropic ideals of the early church” (Smith, p. 132).(17) Even today, many hospitals (e.g., St. Mary’s, Advent Health, Baptist Health, Bethesda, Bon Secours) and nursing homes (e.g., Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan, Presbyterian Home, Trinity Senior Living, Methodist Homes Corporation) have an origin of Christian worldview in their roots.
Many Christian medicinal organizations use Matthew 25:37-40 as their motivation for reaching out to all peoples, regardless of their economic status, with healthcare. While we understand the prophetic and future implications of these verses, the fact remains that these people, including Gladys Aylward and Florence Nightingale, were motivated by their faith in God to help others.
Aren’t you glad they didn’t leave their faith to themselves, but used it to make a positive contribution to society?
(1) A polymath is an individual whose knowledge spans a significant number of subjects. Spencer was learned in philosophy, biology, anthropology, sociology, and political theory.
(2) The period of the reign of Queen Victory of the United Kingdom from June 1837-January 1901.
(3) Spencer, Herbert. The Principles of Biology, Volume I. New York and London, D. Appleton and Company, 1910.
(4) Blakemore, Erin. “Poorhouses Were Designed to Punish People for Their Poverty.” History, A&E Television Networks, LLC., 28 August 2018, https://www.history.com/news/in-the-19th-century-the-last-place-you-wanted-to-go-was-the-poorhouse.
(5) Beal-Preston, Rosie. “The Christian Contribution to Medicine.” Triple Helix Spring 2000: 9-14. Print.
(6) Kiefer, James E. “Florence Nightingale, Nurse, Renewer of Society 18 May 1910.” Biographical Sketches of Memorable Christians of the Past, The Society of Archbishop Justus, 18 January 1998, http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bio/158.html.
(7) Coakley, Mary Lewis. “The Faith Behind the Famous: Florence Nightingale: Christian History Sampler.” Christian History, Christian History Institute, Issue #25 1990, christianhistoryinstitute.org/magazine/article/florence-nightingale-sampler.
(8) Green, Jackie, Lauren Green McAfee, Bill High. Only One Life: How a Woman’s Every Day Shapes an Eternal Legacy. Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan, 2018, p. 135.
(9) Abbot, Maude Elizabeth Seymour. Florence Nightingale as Seen in Her Portraits. Montreal, McGill University, September 1916, p. 19.
(10) Goll, James & Michal Ann. Compassion: A Call to Take Action. Shippensburg, PA, Destiny Image Publishers, Inc., 2006, p. 87.
(11) Hastings, James (Ed.). The Expository Times (Vol. 31). Edinburgh, England, Printed by Morrison & Gibb Limited for T&T Clark, October 1919-September 2020, p. 366.
(12) Florence Nightingale, Letter to Lemuel Moss, The Queen, November 21, 1868.
(13) Cilliers, Louise & Retief, Francois. (2002). The evolution of the hospital from antiquity to the end of the middle ages. Curationis. 25. 60-6. 10.4102/curationis.v25i4.806.
(14) Beal-Preston, Rosie. “How the Christian Gospel Changed the World.” God Reports. 8 February 2016, www.godreports.com/2016/02/how-the-christian-hospital-movement-changed-the-world.
(15) Ferngren, Gary B. and Ekaterina N. Lomperis. Essential Readings in Medicine and Religion. Baltimore, John Hopkins University, 2017, p. 102.
(16) Ingle, Alexander. Fabiola (D. 399 CE). In Encyclopedia.com. Retrieved from www.encyclopedia.com/ women/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/fabiola-d-399-ce.
(17) Smith, Virginia. Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity. Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 142.