Missionaries in China

The Hidden Origin Story of the Wuhan Second Hospital

It has been repeatedly argued, perhaps most saliently in Rodney Stark’s book For the Glory of God, that Christianity is responsible for remarkable cultural and scientific development around the world. Apart from the volumes of architecture, art, literature, and social and civil thought, Christianity also is at least partially responsible for the wonderful advances of modern medicine and antibiotics, and for the implantation of schools, orphanages, and hospitals. Especially pertinent to our present moment, the hospital in Wuhan where the first COVID-19 patients were treated was founded by Christian missionaries from Europe in the 19th century.

Eustachius Zanoli, an Italian Franciscan, travelled to the Hubei Province in China in 1856 and within a few years had already headed up the development for what would be the largest church in the region: St. Joseph’s Cathedral of Hankow. He was able to capitalize on the favorable relations between China and the Western world, afforded by the Peking Treaty of 1860, and used the time for evangelical and socially beneficial purposes. Following the construction of the church, Bishop Zanoli built the first Catholic hospital, and it was run by Catholics until the Communist regime dispersed its management and the hospital was renamed as the Wuhan Second Hospital. It was here that Dr. Li Wenliang recently noticed patients in the ward suffering from severe pneumonia and sounded the alarm regarding the novel coronavirus strand, which has since become a global pandemic.[1]

This particular hospital is far from the only example of the profound influence Christian missionaries had on China. For decades, Christian missionaries travelled to China with the hopes of establishing medically advanced facilities to help those in need. Despite the many negative narratives we are presented with regarding the dangerous mixtures of imperialism and Christian expansion, there’s no doubt that where Christianity travelled, education, medical expertise, and spiritual nourishment tended to follow. This is true not only of China but in countless locations around the world which still experience the impact of Christianity today. Unfortunately, China’s communist regime has since largely obscured these historical truths and can now be counted on to deeply oppose any Christian presence in the country. But the origins of hospitals like Wuhan Second show the Christian religion’s positive influence on the world’s most populous nation, and given the massive underground Christian movement now exploding in China, we can be assured that God continues to move and work mightily there.

We can be challenged and motivated by Zanoli’s vision to spread not only the gospel but also to implement basic infrastructure for the common good. It’s clear what longstanding legacies such Christ-centered motivations bear out over time. In a cultural moment when medical teams are so heroically saving lives and putting their own on the line, it’s important to consider the Christian worldview, which sees the world as broken and in need of healing. So far as we are able, it’s our responsibility to take our part and contribute to the common good as Bishop Zanoli did.

[1] https://www.mercatornet.com/above/view/give-credit-where-credits-due-the-christian-background-to-chinas-best-hospi/23425

Peter Biles is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories. He graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois in 2019 and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications, including Plough, Dappled Things, The Gospel Coalition, Salvo, and Breaking Ground.

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