During Dr. Bell’s last visit to the CHRISTIANITY TODAY offices in Washington, six weeks before his death, he exhorted the staff to keep open times in their schedules for Bible reading and prayer. With characteristically gentle urgency he emphasized the importance of regular personal devotions and warned of the perils of neglect. He testified how much it had meant in his own life to commune with God regularly. It was not enough, he intimated, simply to attend the devotional period for CHRISTIANITY TODAY employees at the start of each day. Perhaps he realized that among younger Christians today there may be some subtle skepticism about the value of the prayer life. Whatever the reason, he felt constrained to call it to the staff’s attention. But he did it discreetly and lovingly, without giving offense or sounding judgmental.
That was just like L. Nelson Bell. Through his lifetime he stressed basics, especially in the realm of theology and ethics. He voiced apprehension whenever he saw tendencies to depart from the fundamentals. He had no time for ecclesiastical sophistication if it involved risking the traditional foundations of the faith. It was a trait he shared with many evangelical leaders.
What separated him from many other influential Christians, lay as well as clergy, was the unusually kind, positive way in which he was able to express his urgency. He was strong-willed, so much so that as a young ball player he had written into his contract that he would not play or travel on Sundays. But he was also very gentle. He was a man of intense compassion as well as integrity. He never harassed.
Dr. Bell’s own devotional life was exemplary. He was usually up by five, and sometimes earlier, to study the Scriptures and to pray. He felt it was the only way to start the day. A nurse remarked that as a surgeon he even “opened his patients” with prayer. He had a long prayer list and prayed for many people each day by name. Much of this reliance on intercession is borne out in John C. Pollock’s biography of Dr. Bell, A Foreign Devil in China. Dr. Bell’s favorite hymn was “All the Way My Saviour Leads Me.”
A person of prayer tends to be highly disciplined, and that is the way it was with Dr. Bell. He worked hard. He always walked quickly and ate quickly. With both pen and scalpel his output was phenomenal: his writings have yet to be counted, but it is estimated that in practicing medicine and surgery he treated about half a million people during his lifetime. While in China as a missionary surgeon he not only saw those who came to his hospital but went with a male nurse to the local jail each Sunday to give medication.
But again this is characteristic of many successful people. What singles out Dr. Bell was that he knew when to quit, and when to relax and enjoy a bit of fellowship with others. In the early days of CHRISTIANITY TODAY he would come from North Carolina every other week and spend three or four days in the office. On the days he was there he would stop in at a nearby pastry shop after lunch and buy an afternoon treat—distributed promptly at 3 P.M.—for the entire staff. In the evenings he would take in a movie or a ball game. And he was never so busy that he would fail to exchange pleasantries and inquire about the welfare of those around him.
The basic theological tenet he championed above everything was regeneration. His priority was always evangelism. As he reiterated in his sermon as retiring moderator of the 112th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U. S. (see August 10 issue) Christianity seeks man’s immediate welfare, but “beyond all else it seeks to bring the prodigal back to his Father through the Lord Jesus Christ.” Dr. Bell himself experienced the second birth at the age of eleven during an evangelistic service at his church. He would much rather never have had the first birth than to have missed the second. On the day before his death he spoke from a text often used in evangelism, Revelation 3:20.
The memorial service for Dr. Bell, a ruling elder, was highlighted by an eloquent yet candid tribute by the Reverend Calvin Thielman, pastor of Montreat Presbyterian Church. He called Dr. Bell the best-known and best-loved Presbyterian layman in the world, and he observed that “the fruit borne in a man’s own family is the most telling testimony of his own effectiveness.… Any of us could look at Dr. Bell’s family with admiration.”
Thielman was able to introduce a bit of humor and sense of joy into the service. Many a clergyman presiding over a funeral strives for the joyous element that is appropriate when an aged Christian has gone to be with his Lord, but few succeed. Dr. Bell would have appreciated deeply the way the somber spirit was dispelled, though he may have been somewhat self-conscious at the accolades. At a dinner in his honor several years ago Dr. Bell expressed thanks with the observation that “an ounce of taffy is worth many tons of epitaphy.”
Dr. Bell was a humble man all his life, despite his accomplishments, and this too had an impact upon others. His humility underwent some testing late in his life when his wife became an invalid and he took on a number of additional chores around the house. Thielman noted that he was the first moderator in the history of the church who an hour before his election was still at home doing the dishes.
Dr. Bell was born in the Appalachians, died, and was buried there. He was a mountain of a man who loved the mountains, perhaps because they symbolized confidence to him and he was a Christian who was sure of his ground. To his dying day he underscored the trustworthiness of the word of God as the source of individual assurance. He was absolutely certain of the immortality of the soul.
Billy Graham tells of answering the telephone in Dr. Bell’s home the morning he died. It was Ada Gilkey, religion reporter for the Memphis Press-Scimitar, calling to interview Dr. Bell for a story. She wondered why another man would be at his telephone and asked if Dr. Bell were available to speak to her. Graham, who had been a bit at a loss for words at first, finally replied that Dr. Bell had gone home to heaven. The startled reporter was then taken aback herself and said the first thing she could think of: “Are you sure?”
Her doubt, of course, was about his death and not his destination. Dr. Bell leaves many, many people around the world who are sure of their own destinies because of his life and testimony. Appropriately enough, the column of his chosen before his death for reprinting in this issue deals with the Resurrection.
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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