This is episode 6 in a series examining the impact Christianity has had on history & culture. Today we continue our look at the impact The Faith had on the world’s view of Charity & Compassion, specifically in the founding of hospitals & health care.
In an earlier episode we noted how so many of what are called liberal ideals of modern society had their roots in the Christian transformation of culture, specifically in Western Civilization. Those ideas flowed from the Faith’s high view of the sanctity of human life, which was a radical departure from the pagan view of man and the strict classism that dominated the ancient world. The dilemma today is that secular liberalism wants to keep the advantages and rights Christianity brought w/o the moral and spiritual core that empowered them. Christianity’s exalted view of man is based on its higher & prior exalted view of God. Gut society of that view of God and its view of man is destined to decline. Which is precisely what we’re seeing in modern Western societies today. As one philosopher posed the question: “Can man be good without God?” The answer is; “Not for long.” As my pastor said years ago, “Is it any wonder that when schools tell children they are nothing but the chance result of random chemical reactions and descended from apes, they then begin to act by the law of the jungle while they live in Los Angeles, or London?
Those who assume modern charity and compassion, whether it be government welfare or voluntary assistance, developed on its own without the energizing influence of Christianity are misinformed. People need to understand that “civilization” isn’t some kind of mystical force that happens on its own. It’s not the product of social evolution where man keeps getting better & better. Christianity WAS the premier civilizing influence that shaped the modern world and gave Western civilization the benefits that have meant advancement.
The German historian C. Schmidt, a century ago said to disregard Christianity’s influence in civilizing the ancient world is “blind to the history of nations, and to the history of the Human heart. Both proclaim loudly that charity cannot be the product of egoism, nor a humility of pride; that without the intervention of God no new spirit could have regenerated individuals in the world.”
Carlton Hayes wrote, “From the wellsprings of Christian compassion our Western civilization has drawn its inspiration, and its sense of duty, for feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, looking after the homeless, clothing the naked, tending the sick, and visiting the prisoner.”
Who built hospitals? Who founded rescue missions in decaying inner cities? Orphanages? Soup kitchens? Who founded charitable societies, taught literacy, worked tirelessly to end slavery, campaigned for equal rights, ended child labor? Christians! Men & women who understood the sanctity of human life & the urgency of guarding human dignity – that’s who.
It’s been interesting watching the assault the New Atheists have leveled on religion in general and Christianity in particular. They say the Faith is standing in the way of human progress. Yet virtually every support that makes it even possible for them to say that was provided by Christians living out their Faith. Where, pray tell, are the atheist rescue mission and orphanages. Where are the atheist founded & funded hospitals?
Jesus was concerned for people’s bodies as well as their souls. In commending the faithfulness of the disciples in Matthew 25, Jesus lauded their feeding & clothing the needy. The Gospels tell us as part of His ministry Jesus went all over Israel healing illness & disease. The blind, deaf, palsied, lame and even the socially outcast lepers were all healed by Him. Indeed, Jesus’ ministry seemed to pulse between these 2 poles – teaching & healing. Frequently the text tells us He was moved with compassion as he looked on the crowds coming to Him. Since the goal of a disciple is to be just like his rabbi, when Jesus sent His boys out on their own ministry exercise, they went forth teaching & healing. When they returned they were stoked about the miracles they’d seen God work thru them.
Later, when the Apostles went out to continue Jesus’ mission of preaching the Gospel, they carried on the wholisitc task of expanding the Kingdom of God by both preaching & healing. This personal, literal, physical touch was a far cry from the cult of Gnosticism that a century later would reduce the Gospel to an esoteric message utterly divorced from the physical.
The Greco-Roman world the early Christians lived in was void of care for the sick & dying. Oh sure, there were doctors, there were even healing centers. But these were exclusively for the service of the rich & powerful. Dionysus, a Christian pastor of the 3rd C described the behavior of the people of Alexandria in a plague in 250 AD. He said they “thrust aside anyone who began to be sick, and kept aloof even from their dearest friends. They cast the afflicted out onto the public roads half dead, and left them unburied. The sick were treated with utter contempt when they died.” But the Christians, he reported, came to the aid of the sick and dying. They ignored the danger to themselves. He wrote –
“Very many of our brethren, while in their exceeding love and brotherly kindness, did not spare themselves, but kept by each other, and visited the sick without thought of their own peril, and ministered to them assiduously and treated them for their healing in Christ, died from time to time most joyfully… drawing upon themselves their neighbors’ diseases, and willingly taking over to their own persons the burden of the sufferings of those around them.”
As I noted in a recent episode, the Emperor Julian, who wanted to roll back the ground Christianity had made in the Empire, & reinstall paganism, lamented that pagans could not come close to the charity & compassion exhibited by even the humblest of Jesus’ followers. In truth, Romans considered helping the sick as a sign of weakness. They thought it manly to resist the inner urge to pity. When Christians stayed to help the sick during plague, it unmasked the Roman idea as weak while showing compassion was courageous.
Christians of the 1st thru 4th Cs rejected the callous & inhumane culture of the Greco-Roman world. They considered everyone as having an eternal & potentially-redeemable soul. It pleased God to tend to anyone, regardless of social status. Because eternal life awaited those who believed in Christ, life on earth wasn’t the ultimate value. If someone died while caring for the sick, a far better life lay ahead. And if a sick person came to faith in Christ because of the charity shown them, another soul was gained for heaven. That kind of thought & behavior was foreign to paganism.
Few of those early Christians who risked their lives to tend the ill had their names recorded for posterity. Few, but not none. One name that is known is Benignus of Dijon, a 2nd C Christian martyred in Epagny because he “nursed, supported, & protected a number of deformed & crippled children that had been saved from death after failed abortions and exposures.” Rescuing frail, unwanted children was an insult to the Romans. It violated their cultural norms. Remember the words of Seneca, the 1st C Roman philosopher: “We drown children who at birth are weakly and abnormal.”
Because of the pagan low-regard for human life and their de-valuing of the sick by not caring for them, there were no hospitals for the treatment or care of the general populace. A careful student of history may object & query, “What about the nearly 300 temples to Aesculapius, the god of healing? Weren’t those ancient hospitals?”
The answer is, Not really. Sick people went there but not to be tended by a doctor or receive treatment. They went there to ask the deity for healing and that he’d reveal to them what treatment might help. But no medicine was applied there. There were other places where doctors could be asked for assistance. But while people might be told what treatment to seek, they weren’t nursed at the temple of Aesculapius. The few places were the ill could convalesce were limited only to the recovery of people deemed worthy because of some benefit they provided society or their master. So there were treatment centers for wounded gladiators and soldiers. But there was NOTHING for the treatment & recovery of the lower classes; simply nothing.
In India of the 3rd C BC, King Asoka commanded that hospitals be constructed. But it’s not known who or what they were for. Because while the command was given, it was never carried out. When Europeans arrived in the 18th C, there were no hospitals in the land.
Simply stated, charity hospitals for the poor & needy did not exist prior to Christianity introducing them.
During the first 3 centuries, when Christians were the object of frequent and severe persecution, the most they could do was care for the sick where they found them or in extreme cases, take them into their homes. After Constantine removed the ban on the Faith in the early 4th C, Christians were able to direct more attention toward caring for the sick and dying. At the Council of Nicaea in 325 bishops were directed to set up hospices in every city with a major church.
Many of the early Christian hospitals were not what people understand by them today. While their most important function was to nurse and heal the sick, they also provided shelter for the poor and lodging for Christian pilgrims. These hospitals, known as xenodochia were prompted by Christ’s command to care for the physically sick and by the early apostolic teaching that Christians be hospitable to strangers and travelers.
The first real hospital was built by St. Basil in Caesarea of Cappadocia about AD 369. It was part of a large complex that included houses for physicians and nurses, workshops, and schools. The rehabilitation buildings and workshops gave those with no occupational skills opportunity to learn a trade while recovering. The compound’s comprehensive nature reveals additional humanitarian awareness. It’s difficult to argue this awareness had nothing to do with the spirit of Christ alive in St. Basil, the good bishop of Caesarea.
After St. Basil’s hospital was built in the East and another in Edessa in 375, Fabiola, a wealthy widow and associate of Jerome, built the first hospital in the West in Rome in about 390. According to Jerome, Fabiola donated all of her considerable wealth to construct it. She then brought in the sick from the streets. They later built another such hospital in the port of Ostia 50 miles from Rome.
Since this isn’t a podcast on the history of hospitals, I’ll drop the chronicle there. Suffice it to say more were built & staffed throughout the Empire & world, where ever Christianity gained a foothold.
While the Age of Discovery was more often than not a purely commercial enterprise, whenever new realms were opened, Christian missionaries followed and established bases to bring physical relief as well as spiritual light.
The 1st mental institutions were built & ran by Christians. Their later devolution into the hands of secular psychologists saw some of the most bizarre & inhuman treatments of the mentally infirm.
It’s important to note that nursing as a profession had its origin completely in the Christian impetus to help the sick & infirm and provide dignity for the dying. Florence Nightingale is world renowned in her care for the sick and wounded. At great personal peril & cost, she ministered to the physically needed – all in the compassion of Christ & for God’s glory.
In 1864, Jean Henri Dunant along with 4 others started the International Red Cross. While Dunant was a sometimes fierce critic of the organized church, he was driven by Christ’s example and call to take care of the physical needs of the poor, weak, sick and needy.
This brief review of hospitals & health care is enlightening in terms of what it says about the current health care system & debate. Modern society has come to view healthcare as virtually a RIGHT. Many believe it’s the government’s duty to provide healthcare as a basic privilege of citizenship. That’s a far cry from the Greco-Roman roots many of those people say they want to return to. It was Christianity, especially the Faith that developed during the Middle Ages to infiltrate & season Western civilization, that bequeathed to the modern world it’s exalted view of medical care – all based on the sanctity of human life, which rests on the foundation of a conviction man is created in God’s image.
One additional remark: As I record this episode, the United States, where I live, is engaged in a rather acrimonious debate over Radical Islam and terrorism. A mass shooting in San Bernardino took place just days ago a couple hours from where I live. The Syrian Refugee dilemma is in the news daily. President Obama held a national speech from the Oval Office of the White house to address these issues. He labored to make a distinction between Radical Jihadists and the larger religion of Islam.
Many of the listeners to CS are aware Islam has a long and checkered past. In the history of medicine, it has been a handful of Muslim physicians who’ve advanced the medical arts and bequeathed practices that shaped the origins of modern medicine. By digging a little deeper, we discover these Muslim doctors learned a good part of their practices from earlier Christian schools in the East at places like Edessa & Gundashpur. Those schools were conquered by Muslim invaders and their works were translated in Arabic.
As we end this episode, I want to say thanks to the many new subscribers to CS, for referring others to the podcast, and to all those who’ve popped by the Facebook page to give us a like.