CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new book by an Oregon State University historian argues that early Christians not only accepted secular medicine, but helped pioneer the concept of medical philanthropy, which led to the creation of hospitals.
“Medicine & Health Care in Early Christianity” is by Gary Ferngren, an OSU history professor whose research focuses on the social history of ancient medicine. It is published by John Hopkins University Press.
In the book, Ferngren presents a comprehensive historical account of medicine and medical philanthropy in the first five centuries of the Christian era.
Ferngren first describes how early Christians understood disease. He examines the relationship of early Christian medicine to the natural and supernatural modes of healing found in the Bible. Despite biblical accounts of demonic possession and miraculous healing, Ferngren argues that early Christians generally accepted naturalistic assumptions about disease and cared for the sick with medical knowledge gleaned from the Greeks and Romans.
“There is a widespread view that Christians rejected secular medicine, and it simply is not true,” Ferngren said. “I argue that almost no early Christians rejected medicine on religious grounds. Most Christians understood that disease was caused by natural processes, not demons.”
Ferngren also explores the origins of medical philanthropy in the early Christian church. Rather than viewing illness as punishment for sins, early Christians believed that the sick deserved both medical assistance and compassion. Even as they were being persecuted, Christians cared for the sick both within and outside of their community. Their long experience in medical charity led to the creation of the first hospitals, a singular Christian contribution to health care.
“Early hospitals were an outgrowth of what Christians had already been doing in their own congregations,” Ferngren said. “They were caring for the sick and for the poor, and hospitals were a result of this compassion.”
In fact, Ferngren said one of the reasons for the rapid growth of Christianity was a result of this medical philanthropy. In the third century, when a terrible plague struck the Roman empire, many Christians acted as caregivers to those who would have otherwise been left on the street to die.
“They took care of the pagans, who couldn’t take care of themselves,” Ferngren said. “And this led to a more accepting attitude of Christians, and to a rapid growth of Christianity itself.”