Bethesda Orphanage | A Puritan Preacher’s House of Mercy


By David Martin | Communications Specialist Every other month, staff member David Martin will share his research about men and women who have cared for orphans in various ways. We are inspired by the lives of believers from the past, and seek to learn from both their models and mistakes. Lean into this blog as David shares about preacher George Whitefield and his orphan-care model.

If scripture’s multitude of passages on the subject didn’t seem sufficient to convince that our God carries a deep, rich, and passionate love for the orphan, then a glimpse into the history of the church ought to win you over. Men and women, carrying in themselves a fervent love for our Lord, for the gospel, for the kingdom - find in themselves a compelling drive to provide for the orphan and widow.

We see something of this heart in the life of the early church when we see in Paul’s letter to the Galatians that Peter’s only request to him was to “remember the poor” - “the very thing I was eager to do” (Gal. 2:10). We can see this as well in the lives of many throughout church history. One of the preeminent examples from recent centuries would be that of the old preacher George Whitefield.

Most remember Whitefield for his contribution to the American Great Awakening, which swept across the American Colonies during the 1930s and 40s. Some call to mind his association and friendship with other prominent preachers and religious figures of the day, including Jonathan Edwards and the Wesley brothers. Some have heard stories of his oratory skill and open air preaching ministry, of which Benjamin Franklin calculated over thirty thousand people could hear him at once. Some, however, remember that less-often talked about, but massively important labor, of Whitefield’s life: the Bethesda Orphanage.

Whitefield, who lived from 1714 to 1770, first visited the colony of Georgia on May 7, 1738. His stay was short, and he left the US in August of 1738, just a few months later. By that time he was fully convinced of the need to construct the orphanage and lost no time in beginning to fundraise in England for the purpose of establishing an orphanage.

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His determination allowed for the swift construction of the orphan home, and by 1740, just a couple of years later, he was beginning to gather orphans from the colony into his new home. It was Whitefield who decided upon the name Bethesda, stating that it would be “a house of mercy to the souls and bodies of many people, both young and old.”

Whitefield cared deeply about the children’s need for spiritual care, as well as practical skills and education. The description of the children’s daily life portrays Whitefield’s aim:

“The children rose at five every morning, spent a quarter of an hour in prayer and then assembled for chapel at six where a psalm was sung and an extemporary prayer offered. After a breakfast served amid the singing of hymns, the orphans were employed until ten at such tasks as carding, spinning, picking cotton and wool, and sewing and knitting. Some of the older boys were apprenticed to nearby tailors, carpenters and shoemakers. There followed four hours of formal schooling, interrupted at twelve by lunch and a ‘free period.’ At four they returned to work for two hours, took supper at six and then attended an evening chapel service. From eight to nine Whitefield or Barber catechized the children, and after fifteen minutes of private prayer the children went to bed.”

In 1740, he said:

“Though the children are taught to labor for the meat that perisheth, yet they are continually reminded to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and then to depend upon God’s blessing on their honest endeavors for having food and raiment added unto them. … As my design in founding the Orphan House was to build up souls for God, I endeavor to preach most of all to the children’s hearts… that they may be able to give a reason of the hope that is in them…"

His desire was to first and foremost care for the children’s spiritual needs, that that they would be grounded in the gospel; but he also ensured that they learned vocational skills so as to prepare them for a seamless transition into a successful life after leaving the orphan home. This was, indeed, a vision for “wholistic care”. He desired to not simply keep the children off the street, but to invest in their future for the sake of the children themselves, and also recognizing they were the future of society.

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Whitefield had as part of the grand plan the establishment of a college to run alongside the orphanage. In his petition to start the college, he stated that his desire was “to make the Orphan House not only a receptacle for the fatherless children, but also a place of literature and academical studies.” The College never successfully came to fruition during his lifetime, but it nonetheless gives us a further glimpse into his long-term desire and heart for the orphanage.

Whitefield was not a perfect man by any means, nor was this orphan home a perfect demonstration of care for the fatherless, but it was beneficial and inspirational to many. Orphan care has changed drastically throughout the years, but thanks to individuals like Whitefield, we are given examples from which to learn. This preacher, who cared more than anything for the preaching of the gospel, could not separate from his faith the responsibility to care for the orphan. It would seem that James 1:27 was truly beating in this man’s heart, and thus flowed out of his life. Oh that the Lord would give us more of these kinds of men and women in our day - those with a passion for the gospel, that includes being eager to “remember the poor”.

Interact with us: what do you learn from Mr. Whitefield’s model? What would you do differently?

 

SOURCES:

George Whitefield’s Bethesda – Robert V. Williams

The Life of George Whitefield - Luke Tyerman

The Works of the Rev. George Whitefield - Volume II

The Works of the Rev. George Whitefield - Volume III

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