If we are familiar with the name of George Whitefield, we probably think of him first and foremost as a great preacher. And it's true, he was. God used him in a tremendous way in both England and America through his faithful preaching of the gospel.
Most of us aren't quite as familiar however with how tireless he labored to help the poor. In particular, he worked to start an orphanage in Georgia. Arnold Dallimore writes, "The trustees of Georgia granted Whitefield five hundred acres of land, and he shortly began the construction of the orphan house...He called the orphan hosue Bethseda, a biblical term meaning a house of mercy. The need was so evident that Whitefield could not wait for construction to be completed. So he rented the largest hosue in Savannah and filled it with orphan children. Not only did he provide them with a home, but they were likewise given schooling and training in obedience and Christian principles..."
As Whitefield went around the country preaching, he pleaded on behalf of the orphans. Benjamin Franklin tells an interesting story regarding Whitefield's powers of persuasion, "Mr. Whitefield...made large collections, for his eloquence had a wonderful power over the hearts and purses of his hearers, of which I myself was an instance...I happened...to attend one of his sermons in the course of which I perceived he intended to finish with a collection [for the orphans] and I silently resolved he should get nothing from me. I had in my pocket a handful of copper, three or four silver dollars and five pistoles of gold. As he proceeded I began to soften and concluded to give the coppers. Another stroke of his oratory made me ashamed of that, and I determined to give the silver, and he finished so admirably, that I emptied my pocket wholly into the collector's dish, gold and all."
Charles Spurgeon is well known as the Prince of Preachers. But what may not be so well known are his efforts on behalf of the poor. I believe I'm quoting George Grant, (forgive me if I'm wrong) who details his efforts, "In 1861 he erected a house for the elderly. In 1864 he established a school for the needy children of London. In 1866 he founded Stockwell orphanages. And in 1867 to those many enterprises was added still another, a hospital. Explaining his...activity on behalf of the poor, Spurgeon said, 'God's intent in endowing any person with more substance than he needs is that he may have the pleasurable office, or rather the delightful privilege, of relieving want and woe. Alas, how many are there who consider that store which God has given into their hands for the purpose of the poor and need to be only so much provision for their excessive luxury, a luxury which pampers them but yields them neither benefit nor pleasure....'"
These great preachers were of course only following in the footsteps of the apostle Paul who devoted a great deal of his time and energy to raising funds on behalf of the poor, suffering believers in Jerusalem.
I like to remind myself of these stories because I'll admit I sometimes have felt bad because of my intense desire to start an orphanage in Africa. I, and this is wrong thinking I know, but I have sometimes almost felt like hey I'm a preacher so maybe this is not right, maybe I shouldn't be so concerned about this. After all, what about Acts 6?
It sometimes seems (at least to me) like Acts 6 is brought up almost as an excuse not to be passionate about the good of the poor. Well, I've got to pray and read my Bible - I don't have time for such piddly matters.
But I don't think that's the point. No, I know that's not the point. The leaders of the early church were passionately concerned about the needs of the poor. It wasn't because the needs were unimportant or even below them.
I think it is so amazing that when Paul records his meeting with the "Pillars" of the church - the final charge he records them leaving him with was - "they only asked that I remember the poor. The very thing I was eager to do!" Paul didn't say, well I'm a preacher, I can't have a part in helping the poor.
What I'm trying to say, to myself, is that it's not (or should I say) it should not be unusual for preachers - for experts in theology - for pastors to be passionately concerned about the poor and to work hard at doing something about it.
Now, and again here I'm talking to myself but I'm on a roll here (plus I'm listening) so why stop, to get specific, one of the reasons I am so passionate about the starting of biblical orphanages in Africa is because of the unbelievable potential for Christ.
I'm all for starting seminaries, I'm all for starting theological colleges, but I mean, think about this. Honestly, long term it seems at least to me sitting here in front of my computer in America, (by which I'm recognizing my lack of knowledge about what's happening in Africa) but it seems to me if we're talking long term change a continent strategies, the work of reaching out to orphaned children seems like one of the best, most important works the church could possibly be involved in.
First of all, when would you rather start training someone to think biblically? If you had a choice - at age 2 or at age 46? We've got to reach the 46 year olds, I'm all for that. But honestly, we all know that the change process for a 46 year old who has been immersed in a pagan culture is going to be a whole lot slower (or at least different) than it would be for a 2 year old who hasn't picked up many of the bad habits and bad ways of thinking that the 46 year old has.
Second, we've got literally millions of orphans. When I was in Africa I began to learn of course that things are a lot more complicated than just going over and starting orphanages. (I hope I knew that before but what I'm trying to say is that obviously you need to get to know the culture, etc.) But anyway back to the point, we've got millions of orphans - without parents - in need of a home - can you imagine, can you even imagine a better opportunity to literally change an entire continent? "Please train me..." the kids are crying out. What might happen if somehow thousands of orphans were given the opportunity to grow up in a godly African family? If they grew up seeing Christlike behavior modeled in front of them? Grew up learning how to be part of a godly church?