The religious roots that grew into today’s healthcare

Written by William C. Duncan

May 19, 2021

In 1875, Ellis Shipp left her family in Utah to attend the Women’s College of Pennsylvania, with the encouragement of Brigham Young, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As described in the Utah History Encyclopedia:

Despite financial difficulties and some doubts about her ability to complete the degree, Ellis passed her first-year examinations and returned home to Utah. She returned for her second year, pregnant and without money. By taking sewing jobs and guarding the hall of cadavers at night she earned enough to cover her tuition and living expenses. Her sixth child, a daughter, was born in the spring of her second year in Philadelphia, and mother and child did not return to Utah until after her third year, when she graduated with high honors and a Doctor of Medicine degree.

Dr. Shipp later founded the School for Nursing and Obstetrics in Salt Lake City and delivered more than 5,000 children.

Medical care and the establishment of hospitals have long been influenced by religious institutions and individual religious motivations. A history of America’s hospital system explains that the hospital was “initiated in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as a welfare institution framed and motivated by the responsibilities of Christian stewardship.” Two researchers add: “Historically, Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Jewish groups were founders of many hospitals and care facilities across the country.”

Catholic religious orders were particularly important. “In the nineteenth century, Catholic sisters went all across the country establishing schools and hospitals. They were motivated to care for the sick, establish charitable institutions and spread their religious beliefs. Their impact on the development of the American health system was enormous.”

This was true in Utah as well. The first medical facility in Utah, St. Mark’s Hospital, was created by the Episcopal Church in 1872.

Catholic nuns – Sisters of the Holy Cross – opened a hospital in Salt Lake City in 1875. In 1882, the Relief Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints created the Deseret Hospital. Nine years later, the church opened the LDS Hospital “using funds that a dentist gave the church in his will.”

The story of Primary Children’s Hospital is a great illustration of the importance of religious organizations and religious motivations in establishing health care in Utah. A Utah Historical Quarterly article explains:

After witnessing a crippled child’s struggle on a Salt Lake City street, Louie B. Felt, the president of the Primary Association of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and her counselor, May Anderson, asked Primary Association volunteers to sponsor a children’s department at the Groves LDS Hospital. Consequently, LDS church President Joseph F. Smith approved the Primary Association’s plans to secure donations to furnish and maintain “two rooms, one for boys and one for girls, each to contain at least three cots and other necessary furnishings” at Groves LDS Hospital, and between 1911 and 1921, the Primary Association received $4,871.48 to care for forty-six children.

Felt and Anderson felt children would be better served by a specific hospital and gained the support of church President Heber J. Grant to first explore and then open a facility in 1922. The hospital was officially incorporated and named the Primary Children’s Hospital in 1934.

The Shriner’s Children’s Hospital also benefits, though indirectly, from its ties to a religious organization, as it began by renting space at St. Mark’s Hospital in 1925. It eventually created its own stand-alone hospital in 1951.

These pioneering institutions still have an overwhelming influence in Utah health care. The Holy Cross facility was sold to a for-profit company in 1994 and is now the Salt Lake Regional Medical Center. St Mark’s Hospital, now part of the MountainStar Healthcare system, is still in operation. In 1975, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints donated its 15 hospitals to the communities in which they were located, creating the Intermountain Healthcare nonprofit to independently administer those facilities.

We don’t know, of course, whether other public or private entities would have developed something like our healthcare system if religious institutions had not pioneered it. It is fair to assume, though, that the charitable motivations of people of faith provided the critical impetus for the initial developments.

When we go to the pediatrician to get our child treated for an illness, or to the hospital for the care we need to heal an injury or treat a chronic condition, we probably don’t think of how the medical care we benefit from today was made possible through the expression of religious faith in the past. That is one reason why protecting religious freedom in the law is important: Society can have a hard time in a heated debate recognizing how free religious expression improves the lives of religious and non-religious alike, and so our laws should protect our secular well-being from shortsightedness regarding religion.

The development of hospitals in Utah is an important illustration of the secular need for religious freedom. Religious organizations and people of faith contribute with many others in specific and unique ways to the general good of our communities in ways that continue to bear fruit. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution wisely reflects that fact, and our federal, state and local laws ought to do the same.

More Insights

Connect with Sutherland Institute

Join Our Donor Network