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Dr John Scudder - the world's first medical missionary

Dr. John Scudder was born in New Jersey, on 3rd September 1793. He graduated in theology from Princeton (1811) and in medicine from College of Physicians in New York (1815). Right from his childhood, the spirit of benevolence and a selfless spirit were evident. Once he dragged a piece of log along the road. When asked why, “I am taking it to Miss Becky, who has no fire,” was his reply. She was also poor and infirm. Later he befriended a drunkard. On one of his visits, he was bold to ask him, “Why do people call you the Devil?” By gentle persuasion he made him give up drinking. His spirit of kind service followed him as he started his medical practice in New York. He appeared to have had a peculiar knack of gaining the confidence of his patients. Families who were treated by him were so fascinated by his skill and kind manners, that they rarely went back to their doctors. As a busy medical practitioner in New York, he was earning over $2000/- per year which was a considerable sum at that time.


One night, while visiting a Christian patient, he found a tract lying on the table entitled, “The conversion of the World or the claims of six hundred million.” He borrowed it. Read it. Reread it. The message penetrated deep into his soul. Apparently his first response was that someone should answer the call and go to the missions. Almost in an unexpected lightening flash the call appeared to be directed at him. “Come over and help us.”

He accepted and confirmed this call only after his wife, Harriet, also unreservedly accepted this call by saying, “Where thou goest, I will go.” But his father, Joseph Scudder, a reputed lawyer, in his anger, disinherited him for venturing out on this “mad project”. Despite this, in 1819, Dr. John Scudder, then 26 years old, boarded the ship along with his wife Mrs. Harriet Waterbury Scudder, daughter Maria and their maid Amy from Boston to embark on a journey that would significantly alter the eternal destiny of many lives in this part of the world. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission was sending forth probably the world’s first medical missionary on a missionary endeavour.


The journey from Boston to Calcutta took four months, which formed his first missionary journey as he along with his fellow missionaries, converted the ship into a ‘Floating Bethel.’ It is said that when he started, there was hardly a Christian, and when they landed in Calcutta, there was hardly a non-Christian in the ship. While transiting in Calcutta, they proceeded to Serampore to meet the man who is considered as the Father of modern missions, William Carey. While at Calcutta, little Maria was stricken with dysentery and died within three days. They then set out to Ceylon, to reach Jaffna where Dr. John Scudder established his first dispensary in Panditeripo. However, in Ceylon, their 2nd daughter who was born died soon after birth.


Preaching was his first calling. Each morning, when patients gathered in his clinic, he always started by preaching the Gospel. Only then would he attend to their physical illnesses. Distributing tracts both written by hand on olai (palm leaf) or printed materials was the principal means of his ministry throughout his life. He also took up people under his tutelage for the purpose of Christian medical training – a step which inspired his descendants for many generations. After 18 years in Jaffna, which formed his second missionary journey, in 1836, he was transferred to Madras, where he began his third missionary journey.


There was no end to John Scudder's ambition. There were no limits to his vision. No sooner had he crossed to the mainland and established himself in his new post than he began planning for a Christian educational institution in Madras. John made a trip through the jungle to the west coast to visit British officials and get their sanction and donations. On the trip back he was seized with jungle fever. Not even jungle fever could stop Dr. John. As soon as he could stand he was off again to the hinterland, preaching in towns and villages and distributing tracts to those who could read them. Besides preaching and carrying on his medical work, he started many Christian schools, throughout the district as his private funds could finance. Mrs. Scudder meanwhile took care of 16 boys and 3 girls they had adopted.


Dr. John and Harriet had 13 children, 4 died, the rest were 7 sons and 2 daughters. Educating their children was a herculean task. For the parents it was the first of a long series of heart- rending ordeals which lasted more than a decade as they sent their little ones, two by two, half way around the world with small hope of ever seeing them again.Dr. Scudder’s two daughters were married to Europeans in India. One daughter who was married into the Stanes family of coffee fame, was a source of strong support to her brothers as they ministered in India. Fulfilling their mother’s wish, all the 7 sons came back to India as missionaries.


Dr. John Scudder dreamed of a missionary venture in and around Vellore through his spiritual eyes . His descendants went on to fulfil his dream - their significant mission contributions include CMC Vellore, Scudder Memorial Hospital at Ranipet, clinic at Wallaja , Arcot Mission , Arcot Seminary, Arcot Academy ( later this became Voorhees College), Industrial Institute at Arni , Tindivanam High School, formation of the Church of South India , publishing scriptural literature in the local languages, translation of scriptures, Ladies Seminary at Chittoor, an elaborate organization of schools etc. Above all they significantly contributed to the development and sustenance of the Arcot Church.


Dr. John Scudder, the first American Medical Missionary and his wife Mrs. Harriet Scudder, who came to India in obedience to the call of God and had spent 36 years of active service to build the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ. They left a legacy that was to long outlive them. All 9 of their surviving children, of whom 5 were doctors, were to serve as missionaries in South India. Their granddaughter was Dr. Ida Scudder, who founded the internationally famous Christian Medical College and Hospital in Vellore. In all, 42 Scudders have given a combined service of 1,100 years to India, the land they adopted. John Scudder was the patriarchal figure who provided the inspiration and vision for others to follow where he had trod.


As Billy Graham quotes “the greatest legacy one can pass on to one's children and grandchildren is not money or other material things accumulated in one's life, but rather a legacy of character and faith.”


May God help us to leave a lasting legacy that will be a blessing for our nation.

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