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The Cross of St John Part II: In the Service of Humanity

Published January 07, 2020 by Dr John Mueller

Cross Of St John, Orders Of St John, Order Of Malta, St John Ambulance Service

Victorian Busybodies & Professional Medics

The Order of St John's original purpose, the care of the sick, served to reinvigorate it in the 19th century across denominational and national boundaries. The idea of a new and separate Order for the UK developed around this time, first as part of an attempt by the French to re-establish the order in the Holy Land (cash for honours in effect), but increasingly with the thought of returning to the original founding principles of the Order – that of care for humanity. Sir William Hillary, father of the Royal National Lifeboat Institute, and Sir Humphry Davy, inventor of the Davy Safety Lamp, were among the early people to propagate the revived order in England. The Order of St John grew gradually in size and importance again in the UK, becoming a chivalric organisation under the sovereignty of the crown (in the UK and Empire) in 1888.


The Order formally established the St John Ophthalmic Hospital in Jerusalem in 1882 and the St John Ambulance Brigade in 1887. The St John of Jerusalem Eye Hospital Group, as it is known today, provides free eye care and eye surgery to anyone in Israel or within the Palestinian territories, regardless of their faith or politics. The main hospital in Jerusalem, with a large out-patients department, has 49 beds. Further branches exist in the West Bank, including, the hospital in Gaza. Most recently, in 2007 a hospital was opened in Anabta, which treats 20,000 patients annually. The cost of care is carried entirely by the Anglican Order of St John.

The St John Ambulance Service – and Brigade as it used to be known – has branches in 40 nations, staffed by over half a million charity workers. In some countries it is the largest volunteer organisation. Its purpose is specific to the countries it is in, providing healthcare not available through established channels. Again, all this is funded by donations of and to the Order of St John.

This is true to the Ambulance & Brigade's foundation in the late industrial revolution. Under the appalling working conditions of much of Victorian England accidents and extreme poor health were rife. The Order saw it as its Christian duty to provide, not just direct first aid, but also first aid training. The points of the cross of St John were again given a new layer of meaning, true to the Victorian ethos of the time: 'Observation, Tact, Resource, Dexterity, Explicitness, Discrimination (as to who was in need), Perseverance, Sympathy'. In an age when seeing a doctor was an expensive undertaking and a night in hospital completely out of the grasp of most people, being able to deal with injuries was a vital way of preserving health and saving money. To this day the Order continues these services in the UK and similar auxiliary services in most English-speaking countries.

Today the Order is still the only non-governmental chivalric order under the Crown and has its headquarters at St John's Gate Clerkenwell, the site of the former priory of England, from which it administrates its missions. Although a Christian, and specifically Anglican, order in its conception and rituals, its members as Knights are drawn from all faiths.

The Roman Catholic 'branch' moved to Rome after its expulsion from Malta where it still enjoys its status as a sovereign 'state', having formal diplomatic relations with 108 countries. The Order of Malta, like the Anglican & Protestant Orders of St John (known collectively as the Alliance Orders) now concentrates on providing humanitarian aid, employing thousands of doctors and nurses, running care homes, hospitals and hospices.

Today, the Orders of St John (the Germanic/Scandinavian Protestant and the Anglican) and the Order of Malta (Roman Catholic) work together on many projects, variously having observer and advisor status at government and UN institutions, and prominent roles in the care of the sick and vulnerable, regardless of their faith, in almost every country in the world.

Members of the Venerable Order of St John at the Woolf Institute are Lord Blair of Boughton (MStJ), The Rt Rev'd Tim Stevens (Prelate), and Dr John Mueller (as a Priory Esquire).

Dr John Mueller is Director of Studies in History at St Edmund's College, Cambridge, and Alumni & Supporter Relations Manager at the Woolf Institute. Find out more about him. He is currently working on a book for Bloomsbury based on the PhD he wrote under Professor Sir Richard Evans. His latest contribution is available from Hentrich & Hentrich here.

The first blog post by John beginning this story can be viewed here.



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