The Christian Origins of Hospitals

Contrary to Kevin Drum’s blog at Mother Jones hospitals, at least historically speaking, are not secular institutions. In fact, the modern hospital system owes its existence to people of faith.

Christians have been leaders in medicine and the building of hospitals because their founder, Jesus of Nazareth, healed the sick during his ministry on earth (see Matt. 9; 10:8; 25: 34-26). The early church not only endorsed medicine, but championed care for the sick.

Rabbinic sources often cite the second century BC apocryphal book Ecclesiasticus as a reminder that medicine owes its origins to God:

“Honor the physician . . . from God the physician gets wisdom . . . God brings forth medicines from the earth and let a prudent man not ignore them” (38:1).

Admittedly, the Greeks and Romans made great contributions to early medicine, but as Albert Jonsen, University of Washington historian of medicine, maintains:

“the second great sweep of medical history begins at the end of the fourth century, with the founding of the first Christian hospital at Caesarea in Cappadocia, and concludes at the end of the fourteenth century, with medicine well ensconced in the universities and in the public life of the emerging nations of Europe.”

This extraordinary, formative period in medicine was characterized by intimate involvement by the Church. Jonsen argues:

“During these centuries the Christian faith . . . permeated all aspects of life in the West. The very conception of medicine, as well as its practice, was deeply touched by the doctrine and discipline of the Church. This theological and ecclesiastical influence manifestly shaped the ethics of medicine, but it even indirectly affected its science since, as its missionaries evangelized the peoples of Western and Northern Europe, the Church found itself in a constant battle against the use of magic and superstition in the work of healing. It championed rational medicine, along with prayer, to counter superstition.”

St. Basil of Ceasarea (330-379), founder of the first hospital in 369.

As a means of caring for those who were ill, St. Basil of Caesarea founded the first hospital (c. 369). Christian hospitals grew apace, spreading throughout both the East and the West. By the mid-1500s there were 37,000 Benedictine monasteries alone that cared for the sick. It was not until four centuries after St. Basil’s hospital that Arab Muslims began to build hospitals.

Furthermore, as Charles Rosenberg shows in his volume, The Care of Strangers, The Rise of America’s Hospital System*, the modern hospital owes its origins to Judeo-Christian compassion. Evidence of the vast expansion of faith-based hospitals is seen in the legacy of their names: St. Vincent’s, St. Luke’s, Mt. Sinai, Presbyterian, Mercy, and Beth Israel. These were all charitable hospitals, some of which began as foundling hospitals to care for abandoned children.

Similarly, in Europe, great hospitals were built under the auspices of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Indeed, an ancient French term for hospital is hôtel-Dieu (“hostel of God”). In 1863, the Société Genevoise d’Utilité Publique called on Swiss Christian businessman Jean Henri Dunant to form a relief organization for caring for wartime wounded. Thus, the emblem of the Red Cross was codified in the Geneva Convention one year later. In Britain, Dame Cicely Saunders founded the hospice movement by establishing St. Christopher’s Hospice in the south of London in 1967.

So it seems natural that Christians might find it historically naïve to say they don’t have a stake in what goes on in hospitals and whether or not, especially in religious-operated hospitals, contraceptive distribution is mandated by the federal government.  See Michelle Malkin’s commentary “First, They Came for the Catholics”

*In 1800, with a population of only 5.3 million, most Americans would only have heard of a hospital. Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Hospital was founded in 1751, New York Hospital in 1771, and Boston General did not open until 1821. But by just after the mid-century mark, hospitals were being established in large numbers, and most of them were religious.  Charles E. Rosenberg, The Care of Strangers: The Rise of America’s Hospital System (New York: Basic Books, 1987), especially Chapter 4.

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10 thoughts on “The Christian Origins of Hospitals”

  1. Gary Fengren’s Medicine and Health Care in Early Christianity would lend further support and documentation to Jonsen’s statements. Fengren argues that Christianity advanced medicine beyond its Greco-Roman counterparts. He, likewise, shows that they countered superstitious views of magic. They were also the ones who were often concerned with showing the most compassion when the plagues hit cities.

  2. Interestingly enough, after a dry spell between private practice and a second career I find myself landing a job with the most ethical IT company for Doctors and their practices on America’s East Coast (US Department of Commerce). Moving to South Florida a decade ago I found myself living smack dab in the thickest area of Medical Fraud in the entire Country. How might I reach those Doctors who take ethics seriously and bring a strong moral approach to their practices as opposed to “the business of medicine”?

  3. Richard E. Bengtson

    I always wondered what happened to the Christian ethics in our American healthcare system. It had become a giant money sucking machine that is bankrupting America.

  4. Pingback: The Heart Of It All (Part 4): The Incarnation & The Life of the Savior - Healthy Theology

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