Healing in the Wilderness: A History of the United Church Mission Hospitals

Healing in the Wilderness: A History of the United Church Mission Hospitals

Bob Burrows

Reviewed by Norman Knowles

In Healing in the Wilderness Bob Burrows recounts the origins and evolution of the medical missions established and maintained by the United Church and its antecedents in isolated communities across Canada. An ordained United Church minister, who began his ministry in 1960 on a mission boat based at Ocean Falls and who later chaired the national church committee responsible for all the United Church’s mission hospitals, Burrows is uniquely qualified to recount the stories of the men and women who brought both medical services and “practical Christianity” to the frontier regions of the nation. 

Healing in the Wilderness is divided into five chronological chapters beginning with the establishment of the first medical mission at Port Simpson in 1898 and concluding with the greatly reduced work of the present day. Each chapter includes a general overview of the forces and challenges that defined mission work during the period, detailed histories of each of the mission hospitals, biographical portraits of the key figures active in the missions, and a selection of well-chosen photographs. Drawing upon interviews with many of the men and women who served in the hospital missions as well as research in the United Church Archives in Toronto and Vancouver, Burrows has produced an evocative account of the commitment, courage, perseverance, and resourcefulness of the doctors, nurses, and hospital staff who worked in the missions and their important contributions to the life and well-being of remote communities, to innovations in rural medicine, and to the emergence of public health care. 

As a “popular history” designed to pay homage to the work and contributions of those involved in the medical missions of the United Church, Healing in the Wilderness does not attempt to engage the rich historical literatures on missions, Aboriginal peoples, and health care. The result is a largely anecdotal history that lacks critical perspective and that limits Burrows’s analysis and interpretation of events and individuals. Aboriginal resistance to the “white man’s medicine,” for example, is acknowledged but no attempt is made to explain its cause and significance. Burrows simply paints a portrait of faith-driven and altruistic missionary physicians, such as Dr. Horace Wrinch at Port Simpson, who overcame Aboriginal opposition and suspicion through perseverance and good works. Nowhere does Burrows acknowledge the assimilationist agenda, convincingly documented by Mary-Ellen Kelm and Maureen Lux in their recent histories of the encounter between Aboriginal peoples and Western medicine, that defined much of medical mission work.1 Prior to the Second World War the mission hospital was also a gendered space. Hospitals were almost always administered by a male missionary physician (usually assisted by his wife) who directed a small staff of female medical professionals. Although Burrows observes that tensions and conflicts sometimes afflicted the hospital missions, the gendered nature of those conflicts is passed over, as is the persistent resistance of the Women’s Missionary Society to the creation of a single medical mission board. Nor does Burrows participate in the important debate among historians of religion over the nature and impact of secularization.2 The gradual withdrawal of the United Church from most of its medical mission fields during the postwar period is not presented as a sign of growing secularization but, rather, as a response to declining need and the Church’s policy of encouraging community responsibility for health care. The increasing difficulty the Church experienced recruiting doctors and nurses willing to serve in isolated communities suggests, however, that a significant change had taken place in the outlook and priorities both within the church and within the wider society. 

Despite these limitations in analysis, Healing in the Wilderness is a well-written work that will be of interest to anyone wishing to learn more about the history of medical missions and the delivery of rural health care services. British Columbians with an interest in local history will find the histories of the United Church’s long-standing medical missions on the north coast and in the central interior especially informative.

[1] Mary-Ellen Kelm, Colonizing Bodies: Aboriginal Health and Healing in British Columbia, 1900-50 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1998); Maureen K. Lux, Medicine That Walks: Disease, Medicine, and Canadian Plains Native People, 1880-1940 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001).

[2] See, for example, David B. Marshall, Secularizing the Faith: Canadian Protestant Clergy and the Crisis of Belief, 1850-1940 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992); and Nancy Christie and Michael Gavreau, A Full-Orbed Christianity: The Protestant Churches and Social Welfare in Canada, 1900-1940 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996).

BC Studies 146 (Summer 2005)