Bethesda: Its Founding

The Bethesda: Its Founding historical marker was dedicated in 1962. View the Bethesda: Its Founding historical marker listing.


Historical Background

Created by SCAD student Allison Hall as part of her SCAD art history department coursework, with guidance from art history professor Holly Goldstein, Ph.D., 2016.

“Actors talk about fake things as if they were real, and Pastors talk about real things as if they aren’t. Whitefield talked about real things as if they were real.”[i]

The man behind Bethesda Academy was fiery, offensive, and passionate. George Whitefield spoke with a voice that carried far and clear, so much so that Benjamin Franklin claimed Whitefield could reach 30,000 people at once. Whitfield was honest, simple, loud, confident, invasive to many, and all the same had crowds of adoring supporters around him constantly. This remarkable bulldozer of a man is both celebrated and rebuked, and his legacy still lives on at Savannah’s Bethesda Academy (See Figures 1 and 2).

Bethesda Academy, located about 10 miles south of downtown Savannah, is the oldest orphanage in America. Recently changed from the “Bethesda Home for Boys” to the “Bethesda Academy,” the school currently offers education and a fresh opportunity for boys with and without families. It originated as an orphanage home for the children of deceased colonists in Georgia in 1740 during the Trustee era. Bethesda, Hebrew for “House of Mercy,” and the idea of an orphanage in the colonies, was originally conceived by popular hymn-writer Charles Wesley, encouraged by General James Oglethorpe, and passionately executed by Reverend George Whitefield. The powerhouse team of famous early contributors also included James Habersham (who served as an original headmaster) and Benjamin Franklin (who once was so moved by a Whitefield sermon that he “emptied his pockets” in donations); both men were dear friends with Reverend Whitefield (See Figures 3 and 4).[ii]

Whitefield was a dynamic preacher who traveled to the colonies from England and was a strong influence on The Great Awakening in colonial America. He grew up in a poor family in England and was engaged in theater, which benefited his preaching style later in life. Suffering from social anxiety and loneliness while a student at Oxford University, he found himself being taken under the wing of Charles and John Wesley. The Wesley brothers and Whitefield started a “Holy Club” to create a series of rules and methods to essentially earn salvation.[iii]  These efforts did not bring any internal peace within Whitefield, and he came to the realization that true salvation couldn’t be earned; it was simply a gift of grace that God gave him. With this grace, one could be “born again” and Whitfield was deeply affected emotionally and personally by this new truth. This was a constant theme in The Great Awakening, as many people in both England and the colonies felt genuinely responsive about the truth that they found.

Charles Wesley encouraged 23-year-old Whitefield to go on mission to the colonies from Britain to establish a spiritual presence in Savannah. The term “Georgia on my Mind” certainly applied to Whitefield, for he admitted he “felt at times such a strong attraction towards Georgia, that I thought it almost irresistible.”[iv]  On his first four-month voyage on The Whitaker from England, Whitefield arrived on the coast of the six-year-old Georgia Colony in 1739. The four months at sea proved to be a rich time, as Whitefield personally tended to and befriended most of the previously standoffish passengers, which resulted in meaningful relationships. Dark difficulty then followed within a few months of settlement, for Whitefield found himself mourning the numerous deaths of the new settlers due to a drastic wave of fever, leaving a large sum of orphans. This deeply personal encounter changed the course of Whitefield’s mission, and he embarked tirelessly to give a home to the abandoned youths in Savannah. He instantly rented a house for the children and set off to raise funds for a new orphan home. Instead of a salary, Whitefield asked for a grant of 500 acres of land for the new “House of Mercy” and started his life’s work to operate the orphanage (Figure 5).[v]  By the end of his life, Whitefield had traveled to the colonies seven times from England to visit Bethesda, preach to the colonists, and gather support.

The priorities of Whitefield were simple and intense: preach to anyone who would listen and support Bethesda. These tasks complemented each other well, for usually his sermons proved to be so compelling that people gave money in emotional response. Constantly in controversy with the Church of England, Whitefield was denied a formal pulpit and preached in open fields instead.[vi]  A current skeptic may brush off this fact as a common practice of the old colonial times, but it was actually as unusual back then to preach out in the open as it would be today. Whitefield was distinct in how he spoke to people in a simple, direct way. He wanted all social classes and backgrounds to hear what he had to say. While some pastors were either all-shallow zeal or dry and lifeless in sharing truth, Whitefield was successful in how he combined hard facts with emotion, and made his sermons deeply engagingto anyone.[vii]  His open-air preaching style also allowed people uncomfortable with the idea of attending church to have access to his sermons in a less-intimidating environment. Slaves were also among the listeners of Whitefield’s words, which helped lay the foundation for African-American Christianity in America. He rebuked those who treated slaves with cruelty and strove to educate and give spiritual nourishment to slaves of his own.

The subject of slavery also proves to be problematic in the legacy of Whitefield. With a fiery drive to do anything for the survival of Bethesda, Whitefield even advocated the addition of slavery into Georgia in order to stir economic prosperity. Bethesda’s success was suffering due to the lack of labor on the farmland and the meager economy of Georgia due to Oglethorpe’s ban on slaves. Whitfield’s hope was that if Georgia prospered, so would the “House of Mercy.” It is a drastically ironic flaw about Whitefield: his hyper-focus on relieving the lives of the colonial orphans cost the lives of African-Americans. Whitefield was a man of his times, and was morally blinded to the tragedy of slavery in his endeavors to create good. Bethesda admitted slaves in 1751 when the colony’s ban was lifted. The school today does not hide the fact that slaves were a part of the early culture at Bethesda. Today the Academy incorporates slave-made bricks in many buildings currently standing, and the school grapples with Whitefield’s belief in the humane treatment of slaves. Whitefield declared that slaves indeed had souls, and his preaching was clear enough for the illiterate to understand. All male slaves at Bethesda were taught to read and all female slaves were taught to sew.[viii]  This does not justify his use of slaves, but it shows how Whitefield stood out compared to other slave owners on the humane treatment of slaves and the value of their lives.

Today, half of Bethesda’s pupils are African American. The original mission still remains the foundation of how life is currently approached, to instill and offer “a love for God, a love of learning, and a strong work ethic” for every boy that attends the Academy (Figure 6).[ix] The students still learn to farm, play outside, and look out for each other. The campus is open to visitors, and one can drive through the tree-enveloped circle and discover a splendid mix of historical buildings and contemporary children playing basketball and walking to classes (Figure 7, Figure 8, Figure 9). In 1921, Bethesda was described for Whitefield as “monument more enduring than one of Marble or Brass” and this cannot be more accurate.[x]  Whitefield shows us that a life can be full of so much good and also so many sad choices. Although he fell under the pressures of the time, he also rose up to produce an incredible legacy that has transformed generations of people. Mercy was given to create new chances for the abandoned youth of the colonies, and today a new mercy is shown in how the school is still changing the lives of boys and raising up leaders (Figure 10, Figure 11, Figure 12).


[i] Pastor William Kane, Interview with the Author, May 4, 2016.

[ii] Historical Highlights: The Bethesda Home for Boys, Savannah. Bethesda Academy, 1921.

[iii] Pastor William Kane, Interview with the Author, May 4, 2016.

[iv] Minutes of the Union. John M Cooper and Company, 1860.

[v] Historical Highlights: The Bethesda Home for Boys, Savannah. Bethesda Academy, 1921.

[vi] William H. Ford, Sr. Museum & Visitors Center. May 4, 2016.

[vii] Pastor William Kane, Interview with the Author, May 4, 2016.

[viii] William H. Ford, Sr. Museum & Visitors Center. May 4, 2016.

[ix] “Bethesda Academy” www.bethesdamuseum.org. Accessed May 29, 2016.

[x] Historical Highlights: The Bethesda Home for Boys, Savannah. Bethesda Academy, 1921.

1. Bethesda: Its Founding Marker. Courtesy of the Georgia Historical Society.

2. The Modern-Day entrance to Bethesda, 2016. Courtesy of Allison Hall.

3. Reverend George Whitefield. Bethesda: Its Founding Vertical File.

4. George Whitefield preaching. Courtesy of the William H. Ford, Sr. Museum & Visitors Center.

5. Map of the original campus of Bethesda. Bethesda: Its Founding Vertical File.

6. Bethesda boys in the 90’s displaying “Whitefield’s dream.” Bethesda: Its Founding Vertical Files.

7. Whitefield Chapel, 2016. Courtesy of Allison Hall.

8. The inside of Whitefield Chapel, 2016. Courtesy of Allison Hall.

9. The William H. Ford, Sr. Museum & Visitors Center, 2016. Courtesy of Allison Hall.

10. Courtesy of the Bethesda Academy Website.

11. Courtesy of the Bethesda Academy Website.

12. Graduation day in Whitefield Chapel. Courtesy of the Bethesda Academy Website.

13. Bethesda Boys in front of the old Arch in 1990, right before the 250th anniversary. Bethesda: Its Founding Vertical File.

14. Boys playing Tug-o-War in 1921. Bethesda: Its Founding Vertical File.

15. The Bethesda boys in 1921. Bethesda: Its Founding Vertical File.


Further Reading

Edward J. Cashin, Beloved Bethesda: A History of George Whitefield’s Home for Boys, 1740-2000. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2001.

Arnold A. Dallimore, George Whitefield: God’s Anointed Servant in the Great Revival of the Eighteenth Century. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1990.

 Historical Highlights: The Bethesda Home for Boys, Savannah. Bethesda Academy, 1921.

Thomas S. Kidd, George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014.

 Minutes of the Union Society: An Abstract of Existing Records from 1750-1858. Savannah, GA: John M Cooper and Company, 1860.

William H. Ford, Sr. Museum & Visitors Center. Savannah, GA.

www.bethesdamuseum.org.