Virginia Leftwich Bell: Satisfied in His Goodness

Editor’s note: All this month at Revive Our Hearts, we’re celebrating women whose ordinary obedience and everyday faithfulness changed their world for Christ. In fact, our newest book, (Un)remarkable: Ten More Ordinary Women Who Impacted Their World for Christ, was created to do just that. This week on the blog, we’re sharing three chapters from this new digital resource. And that’s not the only thing that’s new . . . each of this week’s blog posts feature audio by the authors! To listen, click the “play” button above! 

Virginia Myers Leftwich thought she might become a missionary until she fell in love with Nelson Bell, a baseball player who planned to study law. Virginia thought she could be satisfied with that. But God had something different in mind for both of them.

Early Life, Love, and Marriage

Virginia was born on April 12, 1892, in Richmond, Virginia. She was the oldest of four children born to Douglas and Rosa Leftwich. The family attended a Baptist church, where Virginia made a profession of faith and was baptized at age nine. They later settled in Waynesboro, where she met Nelson Bell. 

When they met, Virginia was “slender, vivacious, and energetic”1 and two years Nelson’s senior. She enjoyed watching baseball, especially if Nelson was pitching. “Where’s Virginia?” he’d ask from the mound until he found her—blonde, gray-eyed, peeking from beneath a wide-brimmed hat.

As teenagers the couple went for a walk and returned engaged. Nelson was still on track to study law. While at college his plan would change with a single question from a friend: “Nelson, did you ever think of becoming a medical missionary?”2

Nelson hadn’t. But the next day he changed his educational trajectory from law to medicine. Then he sent a letter to Virginia informing her that they would be missionaries. 

Virginia was elated. 

After a long engagement, during which Nelson studied medicine and Virginia studied nursing, the couple married in June, 1916. The Presbyterian church was lush with lilies, palms, evergreens, and candles—a foretaste of their home, which would invite others into its glow for years to come. 

Off to China

That December the Bells sailed for Shanghai. Veteran missionaries Jimmy and Sophie Graham greeted them. Another woman, seeing Virginia’s sizable cargo, quipped, “Poor Virginia Bell. She won’t last a year.”3

(Virginia Bell lasted twenty-five years in Qingjiangpu, where she and Nelson served at Love and Mercy Hospital.)

Approaching the city for the first time, Virginia saw grave mounds dotting the bleak landscape. Decapitated heads of criminals decorated the city gate. Somehow she was unafraid. 

With Virginia’s assistance, Nelson treated patients for everything from disease to tumors to war wounds. But medicine was not the most important thing their patients received. Each was given a book that explained the gospel. Because of the Bells’ witness, countless hearts were opened to its truth. 

Nelson and Virginia were active in a local church, serving alongside Elder Kao, a Chinese believer who never got over his gratitude. He often told his story this way: 

“A man fell into a dark, dirty, slimy pit. . . . And he tried to climb out of the pit and he couldn’t. Confucius came along. . . . He said, ‘Poor fellow, if he’d listened to me, he never would have got there,’ and went on. Buddha came along. And he . . . said, ‘Poor fellow, if he’ll come up here, I’ll help him.’ And he too went on. Then Jesus Christ came. And He said, ‘Poor fellow!’ and jumped down into the pit and lifted him out.”4

When Virginia struggled, she considered the pit and let her thoughts linger on the One who had lifted her out.

On the Home Front

Virginia worked tirelessly at the hospital, but her most vibrant ministry occurred at home. The Bell children—Rosa, Ruth, Nelson Jr., Virginia, and Benjamin—all born during their parents’ missionary years, enjoyed a home filled with warmth and laughter. Virginia designed each detail—the floral wallpaper, polished wood floors, colorful rugs, glowing fireplace, fragrant kitchen—to give the children a “normal” upbringing in the midst of what ranged from dangerous territory to a Japanese-occupied war zone. To Ruth it was “the most comfortable place in the world.”5

The family was loved and trusted by their neighbors, who saw that they were no strangers to hardship. An especially hard blow was losing their first son, Nelson Jr., to amoebic dysentery at ten months old. 

Though brokenhearted, Nelson saw the tragedy as a chance to “to bring the great hope that is up close and plain to them. If it were not for that hope,” he said, “we would not be here in China.” Neighbors wept with them at the burial as Virginia’s faith mingled with sadness: “I have a song in my heart, but it is hard to keep the tears from my eyes.”6

Her Mission Field at Home

Virginia didn’t look for “balance” between hospital and home; she was always a wife and mother first. She eagerly educated the children and tutored her daughters in music and handwork. Adept at sewing, she spent hours refashioning garments sent from the states. Morning and evening brought family prayer times and Bible reading—not as duty but as delight. 

Though plagued with serious headaches, Virginia firmly resisted every call to leave China, even in the most treacherous conditions. Of time spent in bomb shelter, she wrote, 

We were counting over our defenses. . . . Overhead are the overshadowing wings, Psalm 91:4; underneath are the everlasting arms, Deuteronomy 33:27; all around, “the angel of the Lord encampeth round about them that fear him, and delivereth them,” Psalm 34:7; inside, that “peace which passeth all understanding,” Philippians 4:7.7

Even so, by the spring of 1941, their city was more dangerous than ever, and Virginia was ill. The Nelsons would go home. 

God Gave the Grace

The final three decades of Virginia’s life were spent in Montreat, North Carolina, where she immersed herself in the “ministry of home” once again. 

When daughter Ruth, wife to evangelist Billy Graham, needed help caring for her growing family, Virginia opened her home, where they cooked, sewed, gardened, and cleaned together. Soon Virginia would help them set up a home of their own, searching thrift stores for furniture that could be sanded, painted, polished, and renewed.

In 1969 Virginia became wheelchair bound. Nelson delighted in caring for the one who had cared so long and so well for family and patients, his gratitude spilling over in verse: 

’Mid joy and sorrow, whatever betide, 
      You, precious sweetheart, stayed by my side;
“Helpmate” is often used for a wife, 
     And that’s what you’ve been, all your life. 

I saw you in times of danger and stress, 
     But you never once faltered, no matter the press;
Midst sickness and sorrow, or wars to dismay,
     You faced every trial, and never turned away.

Yes, in all dangers you stuck by my side,
     Calm and collected, you never did hide;
Day after day you stuck to your work,
     Neither children nor patients, you ever did shirk.

The One Who had called you, to offer your life
     As doctor and nurse and mother and wife,
The life you lived at such wearying pace—
     For every duty God gave you the grace.8

Nelson died in August of 1973. Virginia lived fifteen months more, passing away on November 8, 1974.

Virginia lived as one satisfied with the goodness of God’s house (Psalm 65:4), having found contentment far from this world. Though her medical work may have been overshadowed by her husband’s and her gospel ministry unknown in comparison to that of her son-in-law, Virginia would likely not mind her lack of fame. Her anthem, after all, is etched in her tombstone: “I shall be satisfied when I awake with Thy likeness.” 

You may not serve as a missionary. You may never be called to suffer intense persecution for the cause of Christ. Your name may never be known outside the walls of your church or your home. But you can do something remarkable for the cause of Christ. When you give a gift toward our fiscal year-end goal of $828,000, we’ll send you the first volume of (Un)remarkable: Ten Ordinary Women Who Impacted Their World for Christ as well as an advance digital copy of the all new second volume, (Un)remarkable: Ten More Ordinary Women Who Impacted Their World for Christ


John Charles Pollock, A Foreign Devil in China: The Story of Dr. L. Nelson Bell, an American Surgeon in China, Crusade ed. (Minneapolis: World Wide Publications, 1988), 31.

Pollock, Foreign Devil in China, 36.

Patricia Cromwell, Ruth, a Portrait: The Story of Ruth Bell Graham (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 15.

Pollock, Foreign Devil in China, 76–77.

Pollock, Foreign Devil in China, 114.

Pollock, Foreign Devil in China, 129.

Pollock, Foreign Devil in China, 251.

Pollock, Foreign Devil in China, 317.

About the Author

Laura Elliott

Laura Elliott

Born and raised in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Laura Elliott and her husband, Michael, now call Minnesota home. Laura is the mother of five sons and one daughter and serves as the marketing content manager for Revive Our Hearts. In … read more …

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