Bergman, Esther (1894–1935)

By Ryan J. Walker

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Ryan J. Walker was a student at Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee, when this article was written

First Published: April 24, 2021

Esther Bergman was a leading medical missionary nurse and educator in the United States and in Ethiopia, where she made a critical contribution to the early development of Adventist mission.

Early Life and Education (1894-1917)

Born in Superior, Wisconsin, on July 18, 1894, Esther Louise Bergman seems to have been raised in a medically oriented family. Two of her brothers, George and Theodore, became physicians and Esther, after completing her early schooling in Wisconsin, entered the Nurse’s Training School of the College of Medical Evangelists, Loma Linda, California, in 1914.1 Their mother, Jennie Swanson Bergman, was known as a long-time, faithful Seventh-day Adventist but denominational periodicals are silent regarding their father.2

Before completing her nursing program, Esther engaged in Bible work for several months in 1916, connecting with evangelistic efforts in Oakdale, Modesto, and Stockton, California. Though she at first felt unqualified for “so sacred a work,” she found it rewarding to meet with people in their homes, ministering to their spiritual needs and giving Bible studies.3

Medical Missionary to the Eastern United States (1917-1933)

In the years following completion of her nursing studies at Loma Linda in 1917, Bergman filled a variety of positions at the White Memorial Hospital in Los Angeles, California – surgical nurse, supervisor of the Ladies’ Ward, head of the Obstetrical Department, and head of the Dispensary.4 She then spent some time in private duty nursing and as the supervisor of a children’s clinic.5

Early in 1927, Bergman accepted a call to supervise nurses’ medical missionary field work at Washington Sanitarium in Takoma Park, Maryland. This was a newly organized effort to extend the sanitarium’s healing ministry to the surrounding community. It was to involve nurses in “visits to former sanitarium patients, home treatment to the sick, classes in home hygiene and nursing in local churches, health inspection and follow-up work in eight church schools in the territory.” It would also involve “working with evangelistic and mission efforts.”6

Because of her experience in both evangelistic and medical lines, Bergman was well-equipped to provide the training needed. During her first year she supervised presentation of home nursing classes at three area churches – one Baptist and two Adventist. Health topics were presented at Sunday evening meetings in churches of several denominations. Health examinations were administered at church schools with talks for both children and parents. During the summer Bergman and the nurses associated with her visited the camp meetings held by all seven conferences in the Columbia Union. They would set up a tent where health examinations and emergency treatments could be given and they presented practical talks and demonstrations each day.7

After the 1927 camp meeting ended in the West Pennsylvania Conference, the sanitarium nurses connected with an evangelistic effort underway near Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. During the opening portion of the evening meetings they gave talks about diet, hygiene, and general health principles. They took blood pressure readings, advised individuals on how to improve their health, and visited the sick and injured in their homes. Attendance at the meetings, which began at around 150, increased to an average of 400 to 500 per night. Similar work in conjunction with evangelistic meetings in the Columbia Union recurred in subsequent years.8

As Esther Bergman saw, the goal of these endeavors was ultimately to train every individual in the principles of health outlined by Ellen White in such works as Counsels on Diet and Health and The Ministry of Healing, and thereby help bring them closer to Jesus. Bergman championed the idea that the medical work was the opening wedge of the gospel. In an article for the journal Home and School she wrote that she longed for the day that principles of health would be taught in every public school.9

Medical Missionary to Ethiopia (1933-1935)

After nearly six years of successful and productive work in Washington, Esther accepted a call to join her brother, Dr. George C. Bergman, to strengthen the emerging Adventist medical work in Ethiopia. They were sent to Zauditu Memorial Sanitarium-Hospital, a new facility in Addis Ababa given to the Adventist church by Emperor Haile Selassie I.10 It was still under construction and its first building would not be totally completed until October of that year. It was at least operational in May, however, when they had their first patient.11 While her brother worked with patients at the hospital and a clinic they started, Esther both provided nursing care and also led a training school for nurses – the only one in Ethiopia.12

The hospital staff, which consisted of several Ethiopian young people – 15-20 young men and four young ladies – all engaged in Bible study for four hours each week, besides daily morning worship, Sabbath School, and recitation of Scripture texts for each day.13 A Young People’s Missionary Volunteer society was organized at the sanitarium and the staff chose Bergman to lead it. Esther somewhat gingerly proposed a system of studying two chapters of the Bible each day with a different individual designated each day to summarize the assigned chapters. She was pleasantly surprised at how eagerly the group embraced the plan, and how well they presented their summaries. This led to giving the presentations to patients when they assembled in each of the three buildings of the hospital.14

In 1935, two years after Esther Bergman arrived in Ethiopia, the second Italo-Ethiopian war (October 1935-February 1937) broke out.15 Italy, under the authoritarian rule of Benito Mussolini, invaded its former colony with overwhelming force, inflicting heavy bombing and poison gas. At the Adventist hospital in Dessie, the medical personnel persisted heroically in treating an overflow of wounded even as the hospital itself incurred severe damage from two bombing strikes.16

In Addis Ababa, Esther Bergman labored amidst the war, even though her own health had not been robust for some time. On December 10, 1935, a few minutes after an apparently successful tonsillectomy, she collapsed, both her respiration and heartbeat having stopped. After working for two hours the doctors got the heart action revived but Esther never regained consciousness. Two hours later her pulse and respiration again stopped, and nothing more could be done.17 She was laid to rest at the Paulos Petros Cemetery in Addis Ababa.18

Though not a direct casualty of the war, the sudden death of Esther Bergman was a devastating blow to Adventist mission in Ethiopia during that stressful time. Her “cheerful, courageous, competent presence had been a chief inspiration and factor in both medical and nonmedical progress,” wrote historian Arthur W. Spalding.19

In a letter written shortly before her death, Bergman described how she would respond if it were suggested that she leave her work in Ethiopia and return to the United States: “I could not consent; for Africa is now my country, and here I purpose to stay as long as the Lord will permit. I have no sacrifices or hardships to relate. I am only, O, so thankful for the privilege of having a small part in the work here, and pray that the Lord will make me a true missionary indeed in saving souls for His eternal kingdom.”20

Contribution

Esther Bergman was a medical professional who incorporated a missionary mindset in her work both at home and overseas. She helped in the saving of hundreds of lives, while at the same time contributing to successful soul-winning evangelism. She founded and was the superintendent of the first nurse-training school in Ethiopia, and in so doing helped pave the way for advances in medical treatment and health education in that nation.

Sources

Abbott, G. K. “The Training of Missionary Nurses.” ARH, October 13, 1927.

Bergman George. C. “Zauditu Memorial Hospital.” Eastern Division Outlook, October 1935.

Bergman, Esther. “Addis Ababa Hospital.” Lake Union Herald, April 3, 1934.

Bergman, Esther. “Bible Work.” Pacific Union Recorder, April 13, 1916.

Bergman, Esther. “Building for Health During School Life.” Home and School, March 1931.

Bergman, Esther. “One Year in Ethiopia.” Advent Survey, November 1934.

Dick, E. D. “Strengthening the Stakes in Our Mission Fields.” Advent Survey, February 1934.

Dick, E. D. “Our Losses in Ethiopia.” Advent Survey, February 1936.

Hansen, L. A. “Faithful Unto Death.” ARH, January 16, 1936.

Hanson, Herbert. “Esther Bergman obituary.” ARH, February 20, 1936.

Howell, Emma E. “From the Land of Ethiopia.” Youth’s Instructor, March 12, 1935.

“Italo-Ethiopian War.” Encyclopedia Britannica. November 17, 2000. Accessed May 2, 2020, https://www.britannica.com/event/Italo-Ethiopian-War-1935-1936.

“Jennie Bergman obituary.” Pacific Union Recorder, March 23, 1959.

Jensen Kathryn L. “Medical Missionary Field Work.” Colombia Union Visitor, March 3, 1927.

“Northern California Conference.” Pacific Union Recorder, July 13, 1916.

“Proceedings of the General Conference – Nineteenth Meeting, June 2, 1936.” ARH, June 8, 1936.

“SDA Physician on ‘HOPE.’” Atlantic Union Gleaner, March 27, 1961.

Spalding, Arthur Whitefield. Christ's Last Legion: Second Volume of a History of Seventh-day Adventists, Covering the Years 1901-1948. Washington, D.C. : Review and Herald, 1949.

“The Fil-Weha Hospital: A Gift to the Seventh-day Adventist Mission by Emperor of Ethiopia.” Eastern Tidings, April 15, 1934.

“General Conference Committee.” General Conference Archives. Accessed May 2, 2020. https://documents.adventistarchives.org/Minutes/GCC/GCC1932-12.pdf.

Watson, C. D. “A Hero Goes to His Rest.” Northern Light, December 1966.

Notes

  1. Herbert Hanson, “Esther Bergman obituary,” ARH, February 20, 1936, 21; “SDA Physician on ‘HOPE,’” Atlantic Union Gleaner, March 27, 1961, 9.

  2. “Jennie Bergman obituary,” Pacific Union Recorder, March 23, 1959, 11.

  3. Esther Bergman, “Bible Work,” Pacific Union Recorder, April 13, 1916, 4.

  4. Hanson, “Esther Bergman obituary.”

  5. Kathryn L Jensen, “Medical Missionary Field Work,” Colombia Union Visitor, March 3, 1927, 2-3.

  6. Ibid.

  7. G. K Abbott, “The Training of Missionary Nurses,” ARH, October 13, 1927, 17-18; F. H. Robbins, “New Jersey Camp Meeting,” Colombia Union Visitor, September 26, 1929, 1; “News Notes,” Colombia Union Visitor, January 14, 1932, 4; “The Roll Call,” Colombia Union Visitor, March 29, 1928, 2, 16-17.

  8. Abbott, 18; see for instance, “Camden District Forges Ahead,” Columbia Union Visitor, September 26, 1929, 3

  9. Esther Bergman, “Building for Health During School Life,” Home and School, March 1, 1931, 24.

  10. “The Fil-Weha Hospital: A Gift to the Seventh-day Adventist Mission by the Emperor of Ethiopia,” Eastern Tidings,” April 15, 1934, 7.

  11. Esther Bergman. “One Year in Ethiopia,” The Advent Survey, November 1, 1934, 12.

  12. “Proceedings of the General Conference – Nineteenth Meeting, June 2, 1936,” ARH, June 8, 1936, 5.

  13. Esther Bergman, “Addis Ababa Hospital,” Lake Union Herald, April 3, 1934, 4.

  14. Emma E. Howell, “From the Land of Ethiopia,” Youths Instructor, March 12, 1935, 14.

  15. “Italo-Ethiopian War,” Encyclopedia Britannica, November 17, 2000, Accessed May 2, 2020, https://www.britannica.com/event/Italo-Ethiopian-War-1935-1936.

  16. Arthur Whitefield Spalding, Christ’s Last Legion: Second Volume of a History of the Seventh-day Adventists Covering the Years 1901-1948 (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1949), 398-399.

  17. E.D. Dick, “Our Losses in Ethiopia,” Advent Survey, February 1936, 2.

  18. C. D. Watson, “A Hero Goes to His Rest,” Northern Light, December 1966, 11-12.

  19. Spalding, 399.

  20. L. A. Hansen, “Faithful Unto Death.” ARH, January 16, 1936, 14.

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Walker, Ryan J. "Bergman, Esther (1894–1935)." Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. April 24, 2021. Accessed June 18, 2024. https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=2FWY.

Walker, Ryan J. "Bergman, Esther (1894–1935)." Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. April 24, 2021. Date of access June 18, 2024, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=2FWY.

Walker, Ryan J. (2021, April 24). Bergman, Esther (1894–1935). Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. Retrieved June 18, 2024, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=2FWY.