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Collection 318 Papers of L. Nelson Bell

Identifier: CN-318


  • 1923-1973

Physical Description


Conditions Governing Access:

Anyone using the following folders until December 31 of the year fifty (50) years from the oldest document in the folder indicated must sign an agreement that he or she will maintain the confidentiality of these folders. No material in these folders may be copied.

7-2, 7-3, 7-4, 7-5, 7-6, 7-7, 8-1, 8-13, 12-22, 14-9, 15-18, 16-29, 17-11, 22-14, 23-11, 28-12, 31-12, 31-19, 34-21, 34-22, 36-8, 42-2, 47-26, 51-27, 52-14, 53-3, 54-1, 54-23, 71-5

The following folders are closed until after December 31 of the year indicated, except for persons with written permission from the person indicated

Folder  Closed until                              Person who can give permission

6-3          2023                                      none

6-10        2019                                      none

6-11        2020                                      none

6-12        2021                                      none

6-13        2022                                      none

6-14        2023                                      none

8-2          2023                                      Mrs. Ruth Dienert

8-4          2023                                      none

8-5          2023                                      Mrs. Ruth Graham

9-3          2023                                      Mrs. Rosa Montgomery

9-10        2020                                      Mrs. Virginia Somerville

9-11        2023                                      Mrs. Virginia Somerville

Administrative History:

Lemuel Nelson Bell was born July 30, 1894 in Longdale, Virginia, the third child of James Harvey and Ruth Lee McCue Bell. His older siblings were his sister Norma who was born in 1884 (and later married David Norris) and a brother McKim, who was born ca. 1887 and died in 1966. His father was the head of the commissary of the Longdale Mining Company. From both his mother and his father's sides, Nelson (as his friends called him) was descended from families with deep roots in Virginia society. His family was also a devoutly Christian one and belonged to the Presbyterian Church in the United States denomination (PCUS, popularly known as the Southern Presbyterian church).

In 1900 the Bells moved to Waynesboro, Virginia, where James was partner in a store for a while and then became a traveling salesman for men's clothes. Nelson committed his life to Christ in 1906 during an evangelistic service at his church. A few years later, in 1910, he became engaged to a high school classmate of his, Virginia Meyers Leftwich. The following year, after graduating from high school he enrolled at Washington and Lee University with the intention of becoming a lawyer. However, in December 1911 he felt a strong call from God to become a medical missionary. The next year he transferred to the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond and there joined the medical fraternity Omega Upsilon Psi. For one summer during his college years he worked as salesman of men's clothes, like his father. The following summers from 1913 to 1915 he was a player with the Richmond baseball club of the Virginia League. During his senior year he interned at the College's Memorial Hospital. Virginia enrolled in nurses' training school at St. Luke's Hospital in Richmond and took other courses in Christian work. At the beginning of June 1916, he graduated from the College and at the end of the month he and Virginia were married in Waynesboro. The following month he passed his state medical board examination.

Bell had previously become aware of a request from PCUS missionary Dr. James Baker Wood for an assistant at the hospital mission hospital in the city of Tsingkiangpu (Pinyin romanization: Qingjiangpu) in the province of Kiangsu (Pinyin romanization: Jiangsu), China. He and Virginia applied to the foreign mission committee of the church to become missionaries and were accepted. After a summer during which Nelson opened his first medical practice as resident physician for a mining company in Summerlee, West Virginia, they departed for China and arrived in Shanghai on December 4, 1916. A few days later they moved on to Qingjiangpu. The city had a population of over 100,000 and the area the hospital served contained approximately 3,000,000 people. James Baker Woods ( his Chinese name was Ling Si Hsien San, which means in English "Four Two-Trees" or "Woods") was the head of Ren Si I Uen (Benevolent Compassionate Healing Hall) Hospital. The church development and evangelistic work in the town was led by James and Sophie Graham. China Inland Mission also had workers in the city who cooperated with the Southern Presbyterian missionaries. Besides the work at Qingjiangpu, the doctors also made regular visits to the health clinic at Hwaian (Pinyin romanization: Huain), where James and Aurie Montgomery were missionaries. Over the next decades, Bell would occasionally run the hospital at Haichow (Pinyin romanization: Haizhou) when the doctor there was on furlough or otherwise absent. Among other missionaries who worked with Bell at Qingjiangpu over the years were doctors Kerr Taylor (and his wife Fannie), Sun, Chao, Chi'en, Ts'ao (last two joined staff in late 1920s), Wu (joined ca. 1930), Norman Patterson (1926-1931), Kirk Mosley (and his wife nurse Corrine, 1931-1934), Kenneth Gieser (and his wife Katherine, 1934-1941) and Chalmers Vinson (and his wife Olivert, who arrived in 1940). Other members of the staff over the years included Agnes Woods (nurse), Cassie Lee Oliver (nurse and anesthetist), Eli Liu (male nurse), and Elinor Myers Woods (lab technician from 1931 on). James Reed was an PCUS doctor at Haizhou. Other PCUS missionaries at Qingjiangpu engaged in preaching, teaching and Bible study included Ed and Rosalee Wayland. Miss M. E. Waterman, Miss A. I. Saltmarsh, and Ernest and Geneva Carlburg were all China Inland Mission workers who served in the area. Mr. Kao and Mr. Kang were elders of the church in Qingjiangpu (Kang was the Bells' Chinese language teacher). In 1923, Graham resigned as pastor of the church and a Chinese Christian took over. Every year the hospital had an evangelistic emphasis week. In 1926 the visiting evangelist was Leland Wang. In 1931 it was Andrew Gih. Ed and Gay Currie were PCUS missionaries at Haizhou, joined in 1924 by Ray and Mary Womeldorf. Special mention should be made of Virginia's activities. Besides maintaining the home and educating the children until they were high school age, she also led Bible studies and was in charge of the women's clinic, determining which cases were serious enough for the attention of the doctors. Bell, besides his medical duties, also often preached in the church and went on evangelistic missions.

In October 1917, Bell became temporary administrator of the hospital when Woods went to the United States on a long delayed furlough for two years. The next year the Bells' first child was born, Rosa Wertenbaker. On June 10, 1920 Virginia gave birth to their second daughter, Ruth McCue. Starting that same year Bell began opening dispensaries around the countryside, which increased greatly the number we were able to serve. The dispensaries sent the more serious patients to the hospital. Bell had acquired his Chinese name by this time, Chong Ai Hua, which has been translated into English as "the bell who is a lover of the Chinese people." In the summer of 1921 the missionaries briefly evacuated Qingjiangpu because of threatened violence from large gangs in the area.

In the summer of 1922, the Bells returned to the United States on furlough. One of the churches supporting their ministry in China was the First Presbyterian Church of Houston. Nelson visited there to speak and met a laymen of the church, Benjamin Clayton. Clayton was impressed by Bell's description of the work as well as Bell himself and donated large sums for new buildings and staff over the following years. The tenures of doctors Patterson, Gieser and Vinson were also financed through a fund set up by Clayton. During his furlough, Bell practiced briefly at Mayo Clinic, Massachusetts General Hospital and other institutions to hone his medical and surgical skills. He also took a course from Moody Bible Institute. By September 1923, the Bells were back at Qingjiangpu.

Once he was back, Bell took over Woods' responsibility as medical visitor to the local jail and prison. During the early 1920s, using funds supplied by Clayton, he supervised the addition of a new women's and administration wing to the hospital. Because of the increased use of the hospital by the Chinese and the improved facilities, the hospital was self supporting by the early 1930s. In 1925 the Bells' first son was born, Nelson Jr, but in October of the same year the baby died of amoebic dysentery.

The next year Woods returned to the United States because of illness and remained for some time. In his absence Bell was the superintendent of the hospital. The next year in April the missionaries evacuated the city to avoid the advancing Nationalist armies. The Bells went to Shanghai and then returned to the United States on furlough. They stayed in Waynesboro until the birth of their daughter Virginia in June. (She was nicknamed MaiMai and Giniong.) For the next six months Bell served as assistant pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Houston. Then for four months after that he was head of surgery at a hospital in Holden, West Virginia. At the end of 1928 the family returned to China.

When he returned, Bell and Dr. Ts'ao became quite well known in the Chinese medical community for their successful treatment of cases of kala-azar (black fever) with the drug stibosan. In the summer of 1930 there was another brief evacuation of Qingjiangpu by the missionaries. Woods had returned in 1929 and was heading the medical work, while Bell headed the surgical and administrative work. In 1931, the mission closed its boys school because of the demand of the government that it be registered and the possibility that it would have to eliminate the Christian message from the curriculum. At about the same time Bell resisted efforts to turn over the hospital to Chinese nationals, feeling that Western expertise was still needed. He supported, however, the transfer of leadership positions in the local church to Chinese. At about the same time he was a leading critic of the report Rethinking Missions published by the Laymen's Foreign Mission Inquiry, which characterized medical missions as inefficient and inept. Bell's own medical reputation was high in both China and the United States. In 1934 became a fellow of the American College of Surgeons.

The Bell children were educated at home by Virginia until 1932. In that year Rosa was sent to a Christian school for Western children in Pyengyang, Korea. Ruth followed her there in 1934. In December another child was added to the family when Benjamin Clayton (nicknamed Didi) was born. The family returned to the United States on furlough in 1935 and lived in Montreat, North Carolina, where the girls went to school. In August 1936, all the Bells returned to China except for Rosa, who enrolled at Wheaton College as a freshman.

There had been fighting and "incidents" between the Japanese and Chinese for years, but all-out conflict broke out in 1937. At the insistence of the American government, the missionaries evacuated Qingjiangpu in 1937 to avoid advancing Japanese troops. In October, Ruth sailed back to the United states to enroll in Wheaton College. The next month the Bells returned to Qingjiangpu. When the city was occupied by the Japanese in February 1939, Bell was able to persuade them to allow the missionaries to continue their work. In April of the same year, the family returned to the United States for a brief furlough. When they returned in September, they took Rosa back with them, since she was having health problems and they wanted to personally care for her. Rosa returned to the United States in May the next year. The Bells enrolled their daughter Virginia in the school in Korea in September but she had to return a few weeks later when the school was closed because of wartime conditions. In May of 1941, the entire family went back to the United States on furlough.

The family settled in Montreat again, after a visit to Ruth in Wheaton. (Montreat was also the site of the conference grounds of the PCUS, called the Mountain Retreat Association. Bell served on the board of the MRA for many years.) During the summer Billy Graham, a classmate of Ruth's in whom she was romantically interested, came to Montreat to meet the family. They married in August 1943 and Ruth lived with the Bells while Graham served as the traveling vice president of Youth for Christ in 1944 and 1945. Later the Grahams bought a nearby house in Montreat. Bell, realizing that because of the possibility of war between the United States and Japan it would be unwise to return to China, opened a surgical practice in the Asheville-Montreat area, with an office in Swannanoa. He eventually became assistant chief of staff at the Asheville Memorial Hospital. For several years he had become increasingly concerned about what he saw as liberal trends within his Presbyterian denomination. To help combat these trends he founded in March 1942 with five others a publication entitled The Southern Presbyterian Journal (renamed The Presbyterian Journal in 1959 when G. Aiken Taylor replaced Rev. Henry B. Dendy as editor.) In the decades that followed he was one of the primary shapers of the Journal, which was probably the most important voice for conservatives within the denomination. Bell resigned from the Journal in 1971 because of the role Taylor and the board were taking in forming a new Presbyterian church in reaction to the ultimately successful movement of liberal elements in the PCUS to unite it with other Prsbyterian denominations.

After the end of World War II, the Bells were kept from returning to China by Nelson's bursitis and family responsibilities, as well as discouraging reports from missionaries and Chinese Christians. The 1949 victory of the Communists in the Chinese civil war put a permanent end to any hopes the Bells had of returning. In 1948 Bell was elected a member of the PCUS' Board of World Missions. (C. Darby Fulton, a former missionary and old friend, was the executive secretary.) Bell continued to serve on the board, with one brief interruption in 1957-1958, until 1966. He was chairman of the Fields Committee 1949-1950, 1958-1966 and on the Executive Committee from 1964-1966. He also served on the Committee on Overseas Relief and Inter-Church Aid from 1962-1963. During this time period, he frequently traveled to the various mission fields to visit the workers there and see conditions first hand. For example, he visited Brazil, Africa and Europe in 1949, went around the world by way of Taiwan in 1951, saw Brazil in 1956, Korea in 1959, Japan and Korea in 1962, Palestine in 1963, and the Far East in 1964. He was very active in his local church and was twice elected moderator of the Asheville Presbytery. Starting in 1941, he regularly taught a Sunday school class at the local Presbyterian church. Eventually his lessons became a radio program broadcast to North Carolina and the adjoining states. From the late 40s on Bell was one of the main leaders of the opposition to continuing efforts to effect a merger between the PCUS and the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.

A heart attack in 1950 caused Bell to cut back on his responsibilities somewhat. However new claims on his energies soon developed. His son-in-law Billy Graham was developing a nationwide ministry as an evangelist and Bell became not only a member of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association's board of directors, but also an extremely influential personal advisor and trouble shooter for the preacher. Bell had for some time wanted to start a journal that would serve as a mouthpiece for conservative Protestant clergy in the United States, and present articles of Fundamentalist-Evangelical views in an intellectually respectable manner to Christian clergy across the theological spectrum. Other Evangelical leaders, including Graham, were discussing similar ideas. In 1954 Bell together with Graham began planning such a journal, to be entitled Christianity Today. J. Howard Pew, was one major backer, H. Maxey Jarmen was another. Theologian Carl F. Henry was selected to be editor. The first issue was published in 1956 and sent to all Protestant clergy in the country. Bell served as executive editor until his death, for many years flying up to the Washington, D.C. office of the magazine every other week. He regularly wrote a column for the periodical called "A Layman and His Faith." Two volumes of compilations of these columns were published, Convictions to Live By in 1966 and While Men Slept in 1970. Bell received seven awards from the conservative Freedom's Foundation of Valley Forge, Pennsylvania for articles and editorials. In 1964 he was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree by King College in Tennessee.

Bell had had another heart attack in November 1955 which caused him to retired from his medical practice. In January 1963 he suffered a slight stroke and in October of that year a fall in his home caused him to have headaches. There was a third heart attack in 1965 and a fourth together with a minor stroke in March 1966. These health problems forced him to cut back his schedule. Virginia also suffered strokes in 1968 and 1969 and Bell dedicated much of his time to caring for her. Still, he remained extremely active with his church work, magazine responsibilities, and assistance to Graham. He maintained as well an extremely wide correspondence with other Christian leaders and frequently wrote to government officials or American opinion leaders about issues related to Christianity in the United States or China or conservative political opinions. The English author John Pollock had interviewed him and gone through his papers to prepare an authorized biography of Bell entitled A Foreign Devil in China, which was published by Zondervan Publishers in 1971. (A subsidiary of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association also published an edition of the book the same year.) Also in 1971 he was appointed to his denomination's new Council on Evangelism. The following year Bell was elected moderator of his denomination on the second ballot, with 221 for him and the 212 votes split among his three opponents. (He had previously been nominated for the position in 1953 and 1955.) He succeeded Dr. Ben Lacy Rose. As moderator Bell was the executive head of the denomination. The PCUS was split into theological factions by the merger negotiations with the United Presbyterian Church in the USA, which provoked the threatened withdrawal of conservatives (including the editorial board of The Presbyterian Journal) as a consequence. The new conservative denomination was formed as the National Presbyterian Church in 1973, renamed in 1974 as the Presbyterian Church in America. (The PCUS and UPCUSA merged in 1983 to form the Presbyterian Church (USA)). Bell attempted during his term to maintain the unity and fellowship of the denomination, as well as place a greater emphasis on evangelism. He served the customary one year in office and retired after the 113th General Assembly of the church in June 1973. He was succeeded by Dr. Charles Kraemer. Two months later he died in his sleep. Virginia followed him the next year.

Rosa married C. Donald Montgomery in 1945, an engineer who worked for the Atomic Energy Commission. Virginia married John N. Somerville and they both went to Korea as missionaries in 1953, where John became a professor at Taejon Christian College. Benjamin (usually called Clayton) married Margaret Anne Alexander in 1954 and was ordained in the Presbyterian church in 1958. He became pastor of the Highland Park Presbyterian Church of Dallas in July 1973.


79 Boxes (79 DC) Oversize Material, Phonograph Records, Photographs.


The materials in this collection were given to the Billy Graham Center Archives in March 1988 by Rev. Benjamin Clayton Bell, the executor of his father's estate. Some materials, such as duplicate copies, two files about Bell's own insurance and insurance forms he filled out for patients and some patients' medical reports, were returned to the donor.

Accession 87-34

March 17, 1992

Robert Shuster

K. Cox

Physical Description

Collection 318 Papers of L. Nelson Bell
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Billy Graham Center Archives Repository

501 College Avenue
Wheaton IL 60187 US