Many of us have some sort of notion that hospitals are just a natural part of the community; the idea of a hospital must be handed down to us from classical times. But we we would be wrong. They were nurtured in an unexpected place.
Among the ancient and pagan Romans, compassion was not well developed. “Mercy was discouraged, as it only helped those too weak to contribute to society. In the cramped, unsanitary warrens of the typical Roman city, under the miserable cycle of plagues and famines, the sick found no public institutions dedicated to their care and little in the way of sympathy or help.” [“A new era in Roman healthcare” Gary Ferngren]
Ferngren goes on to explain while one of Rome’s greatest prides was its cities, they also provided fertile breeding grounds for disease, especially for migrants from the countryside. No clinics or hospitals existed to provide healing or basic nursing care. Physicians were for the wealthy. In a world of gods who were not known for compassion, the Roman culture did not encourage a felt responsibility to care for the sick and marginalized.
Despite persecution, by the second century Christian churches had sprung up in most of the major cities, and their charity included care for the sick. By the fourth century bishops in the eastern half of the empire began to establish Christian welfare institutions for the sick and poor, called xenodocheia. Christian History magazine issue 101, “Healthcare and Hospitals in the mission of the church” details how this ancient movement flourished and eventually birthed the concept of the hospital.
An unexpected place! Much of the impetus behind hospital ministry, especially to the poor and marginalized, comes from the faith of early Christians. Is this a surprise to you? What can we learn now from their faith and example? Reply below!