One key to the growth of the early Christian movement was that it provided a free health care system available to all. Hector Avalos, in Health Care and the Rise of Christianity (review) noted that other ancient health care systems were exclusive and expensive. Rodney Stark is another scholar who notes the importance of health care in The Rise of Christianity (review). During the plagues of the second and third centuries pagan physicians, politicians, and leaders fled the cities while Christians stayed behind to care for their own sick and for their neighbors.
Stark estimates that basic nursing care, providing food, water, and clean bedding, would have increased the survival rate during the plagues from near zero to about fifty percent. This resulted in a naturally higher survival rate in cities with a substantial Christian presence. It also brought more pagans into the sphere of Christian influence.
Why do so many hospitals have the name of Saint somebody? The whole idea of the hospital is a Christian invention, inspired by the parable of the Good Samaritan. You remember the hero in that story took the bleeding victim to an inn and paid the inn keeper–remember, hospitals had not yet been invented–to care for the victim.
The health care Christians provided was pretty simple: it consisted mainly of offering prayer, a bed, food and water (or wine), dressings for wounds, and simple nursing care. Where physicians and surgeons were members of Christian communities, they also offered their services. Simple, basic care is still the most critical need around the world. For example, two million children die each year from lack of clean water.
It is puzzling to me that some Christian leaders are speaking out against the idea of universal health care. If they don’t think the government should assist the needy in this area, then they should be organizing Christian charities to build clinics and free hospitals. St. Jude’s Hospital in Memphis, and the 22 Shriner’s hospitals in North America do a wonderful work in providing free care for children. We will have to build many more such facilities if we are to meet the needs of the millions of Americans who lack access to health services.