Many of the world’s religions encourage benevolence, but it was the Christians value of “love thy neighbor as thyself” that had a significant impact on the development if Western nursing. The principle of caring was established with Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan providing care for a tired and injured stranger. Converts to Christianity during the third and fourth centuries included several wealthy matrons of the Roman Empire, including Marcella, Fabiola, and Paula, who used their wealth to provide houses of care and healing (the forerunner of hospitals) for the poor, the sick, and the homeless.
Women were not the sole providers of nursing services in the third century in Rome there was an organization of men called the Parabolani Brotherhood. This group of men provided care to the sick and dying during the great plague in Alexandria. During the Crusades, several knighthood orders – such as the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem (also known as the Knights of Lazarus – formed, composed of brothers in arms who provided nursing care to their sick and injured comrades. These orders where responsible for building great hospitals, the organization and management of which set a standard for the administration of hospitals throughout Europe at that time. As the Christian church grew, more hospitals were built, as were specialized institutions providing care for orphans, widows, the elderly, the poor, and the sick. During the Middle Ages (AD 500-1500), male and female religious, military, and secular orders with the primary purpose of caring for the sick were formed. Conspicuous among them were the aforementioned Knights of Saint John (Knights Hospitalers); the Alexian Brotherhood (organized in 1431); and the Augustinian sisters, which was the first purely nursing order.
In the late 16th century, Camillus DeLellis, later sainted for his work of Christian charity, founded a nursing order to provide are for the poor, the sick, the dying, and those in prisons, In 1633, the Sisters of Charity were founded by Saint Vincent de Paul in France. It was the first of many such orders organized under various Roman Catholic church auspices and largely devoted to caring for the sick. The Order of the Sisters of Charity sent nursing sisters to provide care in the New World, establishing hospitals in Canada, the United States, and Australia.
The deaconess groups, composed of women who provided care, had their origins in the Roman Empire of the third and fourth centuries but were suppressed during the Middle Ages by the Western churches. However, these groups of nursing providers resurfaced occasionally throughout the centuries, most notably in 1836, when Theodor Fliedner reinstituted the Order of the Deaconesses and opened a small hospital and training school in Kaiserswerth, Germany. Florence Nightingale received her “training” in nursing at the Kaiserswerth School.