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The Christian origins of the Red Cross movement

Greek Red Cross workers in action

Richard Panasevich | Shutterstock

John Burger - published on 10/30/23

Founder Henri Dunant grew up in a Swiss Protestant family that was motivated by a religious "awakening."

October 29 is the 160th anniversary of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. In spite of the religious symbol used by this life-saving movement, the Red Cross is a secular organization. But its founder was motivated by deeply-held Christian principles.

According to a blog of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the life of Henri Dunant was profoundly influenced by his Christian faith.

Born in 1828 and raised in Geneva, Switzerland, Dunant grew up in a Christian family, largely taught the faith by his aunt, Sophie. The Dunant family was part of an “Awakening” movement that aimed at restoring pure Protestantism. 

“The young Dunant was deeply influenced by several local clergymen and the main principles of the Awakening faith: reading of the Bible, millennialism, proselytism and active charity – a good Christian had to be committed to charitable activities. This environment played a prominent role in forging his faith and charitable commitment,” the ICRC says, based on the 2021 book Les Fractures Protestantes en Suisse Romande au XIXe Siècle.

The faith manifested itself in several ways in the young man’s life: starting a Bible-reading group and opening a chapter of the then-new Young Men’s Christian Association in Geneva.

But what really changed Dunant’s life – and world history – was his first-hand witness of the fruits of war, on the battlefield in Solferino, northern Italy. The battle between French and Austrian troops left some 40,000 men dead and wounded. Soldiers had no relief or medical attention. 

“Shaken by so much horror and suffering, he spent several days in the small town of Castiglione, where he helped the local population to take care of the victims of the battle,” the ICRC says. 

Deeply tormented by what he saw, he published a book, A Memory of Solferino, in which he proposed forming relief societies “for the purpose of having care given to the wounded in wartime,” and “some international principle, sanctioned by a Convention inviolate in character, which … might constitute the basis for societies for the relief of the wounded.”

The book was immensely popular, and several people came forward to join Dunant in realizing the two proposals. By October 1863, an international conference led to the founding of the Red Cross movement. The following year, the first Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field was signed at a diplomatic conference convened by Switzerland. 

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Red Cross is the name used in countries under nominally Christian sponsorship, while Red Crescent (adopted on the insistence of the Ottoman Empire in 1906) is the name used in Muslim countries.

As the ICRC acknowledges, Dunant’s “commitment and efforts perfectly integrate with his vision of charitable activities influenced by the Awakening.”

But although Dunant and his co-founders were motivated by their Christian responsibilities to better society, other factors were involved, including personal ambition of wanting to make their mark in the world. 

Of course, the “cross” in the Red Cross gives the impression that it’s a Christian organization. But the Red Cross flag is the color-switched version of the flag of Switzerland, in recognition of “the pioneering work of Swiss citizens in establishing internationally recognized standards for the protection of wounded combatants and military medical facilities,” according to Sea Flags, a website maintained by Joseph McMillan. Pierre Boissier, in From Solferino to Tsushima: History of the International Committee of the Red Cross, adds that in 1906, to put an end to the argument of the Ottoman Empire that the flag took its roots from Christianity, it was decided officially to promote the idea that the Red Cross flag had been formed by reversing the federal colors of Switzerland.

“Henry Dunant was undoubtedly a committed Protestant Christian, influenced by the faith of the Awakening as well as by that of his forefathers,” the ICRC concludes. “Religion played a prominent role in his life and fed his appetite for charitable activities. While following many failures and years of suffering, his personal faith evolved towards millennialism and mysticism, paradoxically, his greatest achievement, the revolution that transformed him into a historical figure, was secular.”

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