As historians write the story of American religion in the 20th century, they will continue to focus on out-front figures such as Billy Sunday, W. B. Riley, and Billy Graham. But countless others had major influence on how the Christian faith was preserved and extended, both in the United States and around the world. One was Lemuel Nelson Bell.
Best known as the father-in-law of Billy Graham, Nelson Bell was a significant figure in his own right: missionary surgeon to China, founder of two magazines, and leader for southern Presbyterian conservatives and American evangelicals. In many ways he represented the thought, hopes, and aspirations of the new evangelicalism of the mid–20th century—for there was a time when it appeared that God was going to revive America once again to reach the world with the gospel. That was Bell’s longing and vision as a missionary to the world.
Missionary to China
Born 120 years ago today on July 30, 1894, in Longsdale, Virginia, Bell was the child of hardworking Presbyterians: his father the superintendent of a mining company, his mother a doctor’s daughter. He grew up in Waynesboro, Virginia, where he gained a reputation as a straight arrow, a sharp student, and a strong athlete. He was especially good at baseball, developing a curveball that eventually brought him an offer to play in the minor leagues.
Central to Bell’s identity was his personal commitment to Jesus Christ. In 1906 he went forward at an evangelistic meeting at his home church, First Presbyterian in Waynesboro, and committed himself to be a disciple of Jesus. That commitment ultimately led him toward medicine with the intention of serving as a medical missionary. He graduated from Washington and Lee College in 1912 and the Medical College of Virginia in 1916. He was not yet 22 years old.
The year of his medical school graduation brought other gifts—marriage to his lifelong love, Virginia, and an assignment from the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) mission board to Tsing-kiang-pu, China. There, the Bells would join a medical team led by Dr. James Woods. As Woods handed off leadership of the medical work to Bell, the Love and Mercy Hospital (as it was called in Chinese) at Tsing-kiang-pu would expand to become one of the largest medical dispensaries in the region.
This medical mission aimed to support evangelistic outreach and church planting. Each year the hospital hosted a week of evangelistic meetings. A church developed in connection with the mission work, soon overseen by a Chinese pastor and elders. They launched regular evangelistic forays into the countryside. Bell’s love for the Chinese he served brought him the native name “the Bell who is the lover of the people.” His passion for the mission work brought him into contact with Benjamin Clayton, a wealthy layman from First Presbyterian Church in Houston; through this connection, thousands of dollars would be directed to sustaining the mission.
While in China, Bell’s family multiplied: Rosa was born in 1918 and Ruth in 1920. After the family lost their newborn, Nelson Jr., in 1925, Virginia was born two years later. In 1934, the last child, Benjamin Clayton, was born. With a growing family came new risks, especially as the political situation in China deteriorated—both because of internal battles and external Japanese military threats. In 1927 the family was forced to evacuate because of the advance of the Nationalist army, and again in 1937 in advance of the invading Japanese army. In 1941 the Bells returned to the United States for good.
Missionary to America
Simply because they returned to America did not mean the Bells ceased to care about evangelism, missions, and the church. Even prior to returning permanently to Asheville, North Carolina, where he set up a surgical practice, Bell had grown concerned about the spread of theological and social liberalism in American Protestantism generally and in the PCUS in particular.
In order to combat this he helped start the Southern Presbyterian Journal in 1942. Although listed as the associate editor, Bell was the mainspring: he wrote more than anyone else, solicited articles, committed financial resources, and guided the policy of the board of directors. The magazine offered a blend of American religious and political conservatism. From the first issue, Bell and the other writers hammered American religion for replacing the gospel of redemption with a program of social reform. He believed that if the church would simply preach the good news faithfully, it could provide “the spiritual and moral stamina which is essential for world stabilization.” The result would be spiritual awakening and revival.
Alongside this longing for revival he was determined to buttress American civilization, which was being undermined by a range of social and political enemies. One great enemy was global communism: Bell would write countless articles attacking the advance of communism in Russia and especially in China and castigate American political leaders for their policy of containment. Another enemy was racial integration: in numerous articles Bell laid out a case he considered racial moderation—no one should force integration; at the same time, within the boundaries of a segregated society, individuals should be treated equally before the law and violence should be eschewed. (One wishes that Bell’s love for gospel expansion around the world had translated to a more multiethnic vision for the church in the States.) A third enemy was moral license: as youth culture began to go astray, Bell blamed popular culture, especially movies and novels, that titillated and ultimately destroyed moral fiber. His defense of social conservatism would earn him seven awards from the right-wing Freedom’s Foundation of Valley Forge.
In order for America to be rescued from these enemies, God needed to send Spirit-filled evangelists who would turn America to God and fit her for a special place in worldwide evangelization. Bell had little idea that one such evangelist would be part of his own family when in 1943 Billy Graham married Bell’s daughter Ruth. However, as the Youth for Christ crusades drew stadium-filling crowds at the end of World War II and as Graham drew national attention during his 1949 crusade in Los Angeles, it appeared God was raising up such an evangelist.
Bell supported his son-in-law in every endeavor and became his private confidant and public defender. Eventually, their partnership would birth one of the most significant institutions of the new evangelicalism: Christianity Today, a magazine launched in 1956. Bell served on the original board of directors, secured financing from wealthy supporter J. Howard Pew, and contributed a regular column entitled “A Layman and His Faith.” It was part of an effort to provide a counterweight to Protestant liberalism and spark a spiritual renewal that would transform America.
Missionary to the World
Yet the work was never ultimately about America for Nelson Bell. His passion was for the gospel to spread throughout the world. That’s why his most thrilling times were the international crusades led by his son-in-law, especially the 1954 Harringay Crusade in London. When more than 36,000 people filled out decision cards at that campaign, it appeared God was on the move. Bell would challenge southern Presbyterians to pray “for a world-sweeping revival which will solve the problems of individuals and of nations.” And though the revival did not fully come in his time, he did not stop praying or working for it.
Bell served from 1948 until 1966 on the PCUS Board of World Missions, making a number of trips to encourage missionary workers: not only to Presbyterian works in Brazil and Korea, but also to a number of countries in Africa, Europe, and Palestine. Moreover, through his role on the board of directors of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Bell played a role in the developing 1966 World Congress of Evangelism in West Berlin, Germany. And he supported Graham’s evangelistic efforts around the globe.
Even as his own denomination was fragmenting, Bell worked as a statesman to maintain a platform for global missions. To honor his efforts, the PCUS elected him to serve as moderator of its 1972 General Assembly. He used his moderator’s year to seek peace in his denomination, but also to promote the revival he knew must come if the church would be an agent for global evangelization. Two months after his term as moderator ended—on August 2, 1973—Bell died in the confidence of his Savior’s ultimate victory through the cross and empty tomb.
Bell’s significance to 20th-century evangelicalism is vastly underrated. He represented both the deep longing for revival and the passion for evangelism that has characterized the movement at its best. He also served as an example of the marriage of religious and social conservatism that has sometimes undercut evangelicalism’s gospel mission. Above all, Bell’s commitment to Christ’s cause gave him a global vision that made him a missionary to the world and faithful in his own generation.
Sean Michael Lucas is senior minister at the First Presbyterian Church, Hattiesburg, Mississippi. He taught previously at Covenant Theological Seminary and currently teaches for Reformed Theological Seminary-Jackson. He is the author of several books, including On Being Presbyterian: Our Beliefs, Practices, and Stories.