Christianity Today is the lengthened shadow of two men: one is L. Nelson Bell, the other Billy Graham. Together they had a vision for an evangelical journal, transdenominational, theologically orthodox, intellectually competent, and irenic in spirit. Dr. Bell did the footwork, wrote the letters, worked at the financial undergirding and acted as publisher. But that is only a part of the heritage he left when he died August 2 at the age of seventy-nine.

The professional man. By vocation Nelson Bell was a surgeon. And he was a good one. During a quarter of a century in China at a large Southern Presbyterian hospital he performed thousands of major surgical procedures. By necessity he was the “compleat surgeon.” Hard work, persistence, courage, and years of experience made him a skilled practitioner of the surgical art. He was a fellow in the American College of Surgeons.

When Dr. Bell was forced out of China, where he served from 1916 to 1941, he continued his practice of surgery in Asheville, North Carolina. Many of the city’s surgeons had been called to the colors in World War II. Nelson Bell helped to fill the gap and was as busily at work as in China. And as in China, he was known for his Christian testimony and respected for his surgical skills; patients traveled hundreds of miles seeking his ministrations. After some years he was felled by a coronary attack that eventually led him to retire from the practice of medicine and go on to other pursuits.

The family man. Dr. Bell told me recently that after fifty-seven years of marriage his love for his wife was greater than ever before. It was richer, deeper, and more rewarding, strengthened in recent years by the nursing care he gave unstintingly (his wife is confined to a wheelchair by a disease of the hip joints).

Nelson and Virginia Bell reared four children. All are dedicated Christians. Rosa Bell Montgomery, the wife of a scientist, lives in New Mexico. She contracted tuberculosis in China and was being treated in a sanatorium when God laid his hand on her body in a miraculous fashion. She was healed and has remained healthy ever since. Ruth Bell married Billy Graham, and there are those who say that what Billy is and has accomplished is in large measure due to Ruth’s Christian life, wifely competence, and spiritual and prayer support of her husband. Virginia, the youngest daughter, is married to John N. Somerville and has served as a missionary to Korea for many years. The Bells’ son, Clayton, is a minister of the Gospel. Recently he was called to the Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas, one of the most important pulpits in the denomination.

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Nelson Bell’s children looked up to him as a fair father, a good example, a standard-bearer, and a disciplinarian when it was needed. At the Bell homes, in China and in the States, love, warmth, and filial devotion were normative.

The Christian man. Nelson Bell learned of Christ at his mother’s knee. His love of Christ was reinforced by his love of the Word of God. He was a faithful student of the Scriptures and a man of prayer, filled with the Holy Spirit. He witnessed just as easily with a scalpel in his hand as with a Bible. Nelson showed the fruit of the Spirit in his life, and even those who opposed him theologically respected and admired him. He practiced what he preached; his life was conformed to Christ. For years he taught a Bible class in his church in Montreat that was aired over a local radio station. He involved himself in community affairs, and scores of people in North Carolina can testify to his compassion, concern, and giving of substance and self on their behalf.

Dr. Bell was deeply convinced that the mission of the Church is to preach the Gospel to every person. He passionately held that morality cannot be legislated. He had little patience with the so-called social Gospel, which he thought emasculated the real Gospel and conceived of social action as the mission of the Church. Some accused him of lacking a social conscience. His life and ministry were the best answer to this absurd charge. He served the people of China in a social as well as a religious sense. He bound up torn bodies and brought health and healing to thousands. But he did it within the context of the saving Gospel. To him service to humanity sprang out of the redemption he had found in Christ. He was a biblical humanitarian who exalted Christ and his salvation as the greatest need of mankind. Yet whether men accepted or rejected the Christ he presented, he used his medical skills for their healing.

The journalist. Nelson Bell got his start in journalism by writing letters. He wrote to his mother regularly and at length concerning his missionary life, and these letters formed a large part of the primary material from which his biography A Foreign Devil in China was written. During his ministry of medicine in Asheville he took on two ventures in Christian journalism. He was the founder of the Presbyterian Journal, a magazine devoted to the activities of the Presbyterian Church in the United States. His association with this magazine was to cause him some pain in the last several years. Because of a rising tide of theological liberalism in the denomination, some conservatives started a movement to create a new denomination. Dr. Bell was convinced that the movement was based on the wrong issue at the wrong time. The Journal was in the forefront of the battle to start the new denomination, and Dr. Bell’s conviction led him to resign from the board and stop writing for the paper. This was a painful step for him; many of his good friends were associated with the movement he felt constrained to leave.

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The second journalistic endeavor was CHRISTIANITY TODAY. This magazine was, as I have said, the brainchild of Billy Graham and Nelson Bell. Dr. Graham was so heavily committed to his evangelistic ministry that Dr. Bell took over the exhausting labor of getting the journal off the ground. He wrote hundreds of letters, interviewed scores of people, brought the staff into existence, located the offices in Washington, acted as publisher, wrote the “Layman and His Faith” column—one of the most popular parts of the magazine—and solicited funds to keep the magazine afloat. A member of CHRISTIANITY TODAY’s board of directors and its executive editor, he served the magazine from its inception to the day of his death.

I can testify personally that in my five years as editor I had no finer friend, no better advisor, no one more interested in the well-being of the enterprise, no one willing to do more than he in furthering the work at hand. His retirement from the practice of surgery in 1956 gave him greater freedom for his journalistic work until recent years, when the illness of Mrs. Bell and, during his last year, his position as moderator of the General Assembly of his church kept him in Montreat.

The churchman. Nelson Bell was a Southern Presbyterian. He loved his denomination and served it faithfully. He was involved in its boards and agencies as well as its institutions. In 1972 he became moderator, the highest post in the denomination. He did nothing of a political nature to be nominated for the post and nothing to get himself elected. His church was convulsed by the battle between liberal and evangelical forces. Dr. Bell’s health was precarious: he had suffered several coronary attacks, was experiencing fibrillation rather regularly, and had a diabetic condition. But he asked God to give him one more year of service to the church. He had expressed the opinion to some of us that he might die before the year was out but that he was willing to die in the harness for the church he loved.

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God let Nelson Bell finish his term and live for a few weeks longer. During that year Dr. Bell had given the job all he had and then some. He was on the go constantly. Although it is far too early to evaluate the results of his labors, we do know that the cause of evangelicalism was furthered during this past year. There have been shifts in the denomination’s boards and agencies that bode well for the future. But whether the denomination has turned the corner toward full orthodoxy only time will tell. Perhaps I may lift a quotation from The Year of Decision 1846, written by Bernard DeVoto some years ago. He described President Polk in terms that could well be applied to Dr. Bell in his service as moderator:

His mind … was powerful and he had guts. If he was orthodox, his integrity was absolute and he could not be scared, manipulated, or brought to heel. No one bluffed him, no one moved him with direct or oblique pressure. Furthermore he knew how to get things done, which is the first necessity of government, and he knew what he wanted done, which is the second. He came into office with clear ideas and a fixed determination and he was to stand by them.

That is the kind of man L. Nelson Bell was.

George M. Marsden is associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has the Ph.D. (Yale University) and has written “The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience.”

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