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Guest post by Thomas S. Kidd.

Kidd is Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University, and the author of books including George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (Yale University Press, 2014).


March 25 marks the 276th anniversary of the founding of the Bethesda Orphanage, the great charitable project of evangelist George Whitefield’s career. By the time of the orphanage’s founding, Whitefield had already become the key leader of the burgeoning Great Awakening, and perhaps the most famous person in Britain and America. But on March 25, 1740, outside of Savannah, Georgia, Whitefield laid the first brick of the great house that he hoped would serve many of Georgia’s orphans. Forty children were already slated to live at Bethesda. The staff at the orphanage would minister to the children’s basic needs, teach them God’s Word, and pray for their conversion. “Blessed be God’s holy Name, His work prospers much in our hands!” Whitefield exulted. He prayed that God would “let the unbelieving world know that Thou never will forget those that put their trust in Thee!”

Whitefield’s orphanage illuminated two important facets of Whitefield’s ministry. From a modern perspective, one facet was inspiring, the other was troubling. The first point is readily discerned: although Whitefield was best known as an evangelist, he and his evangelical contemporaries never believed that Christians should restrict their attention to people’s spiritual needs alone. Christians should be the best social entrepreneurs, Whitefield believed, embracing new tactics to relieve hardships for the “least of these.” An orphanage could demonstrate one of the ways in which Christians cared for the most marginalized people in society. Evangelizing the orphans also showed that taking care of physical needs was insufficient, by itself. In light of eternity, people’s spiritual needs were preeminent.

The second point illuminated by Bethesda is more painful to note for those (like me) who admire Whitefield a great deal. Bethesda was arguably the key reason why Whitefield would, in time, advocate for introducing slavery into colonial Georgia, where it was originally banned. He imagined that slaves could work on farms around Bethesda, which could help fund operations at the orphanage. The proprietors would educate and evangelize the slaves, lifting them up from their drudgery. Unfortunately, Whitefield did not see the contradiction between Christian benevolence and the expansion of chattel slavery.

Let’s consider Whitefield’s commitment to Christian benevolence first. Whitefield lived in an era flourishing with bold new experiments in social reform, often inspired by Christian principles. Figures as varied as the English dissenter Daniel Defoe (author of Robinson Crusoe), Boston minister Cotton Mather, and the young Philadelphia printer Benjamin Franklin believed that theirs was a “Projecting Age” of invention and social experiment, in which perennial problems of poverty, suffering, and ignorance might be solved through innovative tactics. Traditional Christians still emphasized that “faith in Christ, love of God, and being born again,” as Whitefield put it, were of infinitely greater value than moral actions. But that did not negate people’s worldly needs, or a Christian’s obligation to attend to those needs. Mather contended that no person should “pretend unto the name of a Christian, who does not approve of the proposal of A Perpetual Endeavour to Do Good in the World.”

Inspired by such ideals, Whitefield had learned about a model Christian orphanage run by Pietist Christians in Halle, Germany, and had visited a similar project built by Lutheran missionaries in Ebenezer, Georgia. With these precedents in mind, Whitefield’s Bethesda became the chief beneficiary of his fundraising appeals throughout Britain and America. (His decidedly non-evangelical friend Ben Franklin gave 75 pounds sterling toward it in 1746.) When Whitefield left America in 1741, about a hundred people lived at the orphanage, with the children learning “Latin, arithmetic, writing, and reading.” Hopeful reports regularly told of individual children experiencing Christian conversion. Although the orphanage struggled to maintain a critical mass of residents, Whitefield continued to raise money for it, and to imagine how he could put it on the strongest footing.

He came to believe that slaves would be a part of Bethesda’s long-term strategy. Earlier, Whitefield had denounced the abuse of slaves by southern slave masters, but by the mid-1740s South Carolina supporters had given him farms and slaves to generate revenue for his ministry. But the slaves were supposed to stay in South Carolina, because slavery was illegal in Georgia. Whitefield urged the Georgia trustees to legalize it, so that fledgling Georgia could mimic the thriving economy of South Carolina. The trustees did so in 1751, but a letter to Whitefield (now held at the Evangelical Library in London) suggests that at least five “negros” – presumably slaves – were already at Bethesda by 1749. It was not uncommon for masters to illegally introduce slaves into Georgia before 1751. Perhaps Whitefield looked away as his overseers jumped the gun, too. When slavery was legalized, his supporters arranged for even more slaves to go to Bethesda. One slave buyer told Whitefield that the competition at the market was hot for procuring the best slaves. But he got the evangelist nine new African slaves anyway, including eight men and a “young wench.”

Few people around him pressed Whitefield about the morality of slavery. When asked, he emphasized that Christian slave masters had a duty to evangelize their slaves, and to treat them well. He noted that the Old and New Testaments featured commentary on slaves and slavery, but the Bible never denounced the institution. He did think that I Timothy 1’s injunction against “menstealers” meant that the slave trade was immoral. But he figured that the trade would continue, whether Christians liked it or not.

The contrast between Whitefield’s commitment to Bethesda’s orphans, and his advocacy of slavery, is jarring. It reminds me that God’s grace extends not just to our salvation, but to our post-conversion lives, too. How could God continue to bless Whitefield’s proclamation of the gospel, and his service to destitute children, in light of his promotion of slavery? I wouldn’t presume to explain all of God’s ways on this matter, but I know that grace is at the heart of the answer. All Christians are recipients of that kind of grace, for both pre- and post-conversion failings. But that does not excuse Whitefield’s appalling blind spot on slavery. Whitefield did not even free Bethesda’s slaves in his will.

Yet when Whitefield died, the Boston slave girl Phillis Wheatley wrote an elegy for the evangelist, urging her fellow Africans to take Jesus as their Savior: “If you will choose to walk in grace’s road,” she concluded, “you shall be sons, and kings, and priests to God.” This was the first published poem by America’s first female African-American poet.

I like to think that if Whitefield had lived long enough, he might have realized the immorality of chattel slavery, and the systemic violence and abuse that characterized it. His evangelical contemporaries John Newton and John Wesley came out against slavery, but not until after Whitefield’s death in 1770. Remember that the great preacher-theologian Jonathan Edwards was also a slave owner. His son, Jonathan Edwards, Jr., became an anti-slavery advocate, however. Change was in the air, but the evangelical storm against slavery had not broken out by the time Whitefield died.