March 15: Rev. William Plumer Jacobs & the Thornwell Orphanage.

Reverend William Plumer Jacobs, D.D., LL.D. [03/15/1842 – 09/1One of the great Presbyterian institutions in the South was the Thornwell Orphanage, which still exists to this day, now operating as the Thornwell Home for Children. Founded in 1872 by William Plumer Jacobs, the orphanage brought a unique approach in its care of those children who now number in the thousands. William Plumer Jacobs was born on this day, March 15, 1841. Our post today is drawn from several books about Rev. Jacobs and the Thornwell Orphanage:

A Founding Principle—

Behind the founding of Thornwell Orphanage was the great desire and purpose on the part of its founder, Reverend William Plumer Jacobs, to bring into existence a Christian home for homeless orphans. Let him state this in his own words: “To what end was this new home established? The Saviour says, ‘The poor ye have always with you,’ and so, no matter to what extent such Institutions are multiplied, there is no danger of overtaking the destitution. But a particular purpose was contemplated, apart from that underlying the usual and typical orphan asylum, by the founders of Thornwell Orphanage. the special object of this Institution is to do for orphans, just exactly what you Christian parents would like to have done for your children, were death to take you from them and leave them in poverty.

“The design of the Institution is not to furnish a temporary home for the bodies of the orphans, but to select suitable orphan children (as many as can be provided for) and to conduct them through a regular course of manual, mental, and religious training . . . we believe that one carefully cultured child will do the world more good than half a dozen on whom little impression is made, and ordinarily time will tell.”

Dr. Jacobs felt that the obligation of the Orphanage ceased only when the children had been fitted to become useful members of society.

First among the principles of Thornwell Orphanage was that one set forth in Scripture which deals with the care of the needy by the Church of God. The founders of the Institution said: “We believe it to be the duty of the Church of Jesus Christ to care for its helpless classes.” None can deny the homeless, needy orphan a place among the “helpless classes” of the Church. He would be hard-hearted indeed who would deny the homeless, needy orphan a place in the love and care of the Church. Scripture plainly teaches the unity of believers, the family relationship existing between all the children of God, and at the same time declares: “But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house (family), he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.”

[Thornwell Orphanage: Its Principles and Product (1942), p. 19-20.]

The Gift of a Little Child—

Rev. Jacobs felt impelled to speak of that which was upon his heart whenever he could find an interested listener. . . One day the young preacher was in the home of Mrs. Sarah Anderson, a widow, of the Friendship congregation in the western part of Laurens county. He talked of his wish and purpose to start the orphanage. Little Willie Anderson, a fatherless boy, listened in rapt attention. After a bit he slipped out of the room, but was soon back standing by the knee of the speaker. His little hand was clinched tightly as if he had something very precious in it. “What is it?” asked the speaker. The little hand was opened and there lay a bright silver half dollar. The child said” “Take this and build the home for the orphans.” That was back in the early seventies, 1871. In June, 1922, a man who had been elected a member of the Board of Trustees of Thornwell Orphanage appeared and was enrolled. The chairman of the Board, ex-Gov. M.F. Ansel, introduced this man, Mr. William P. Anderson, to the members present. Mr. Anderson was requested to tell the story of his having given that first fifty cents to the orphanage. This he did giving the facts as above stated, with the addition that it was made pulling fodder. It was his all, given out of a generous heart which had been touched by the appeal.

The Orphanage was built, its then present material equipment and endowment (in 1925) were worth three-quarters of a million dollars. Only eternity can reveal, when the great book is opened, what has been its value in saved and redeemed lives. This first gift of the boy reminds one of the loaves and fishes given by the lad to the Master, which, under His divine touch, were multiplied to feed the five thousand.

[The Story of Thornwell Orphanage, Clinton, South Carolina (1925), p. 42-43.]

Words to Live By:
Learn not to despise the day of small beginnings. Or as some have put it, “Bloom where you’re planted.” Rev. Jacobs had his own way of making a similar point:

“I believe that God has a purpose in locating me in Clinton,” he concluded, “and I am determined to work it out. This little church may yet be a center of Presbyterian influence. . . Those who sigh for a larger field of labour,” he added, “do not properly take care of the little field they already have. Make your field larger and more attractive, my dear sir, and study more, visit more, write more, pray more. You are in great want, but action, energy, faith, perseverance are the main things you need.” [The Life of William Plumer Jacobs (1918), p. 92.]

Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” – James 1:27, NASB.

  1. Bob Vincent’s avatar

    My wife and I were houseparents at Thornwell Orphanage in the 1960s. It was part of the Presbyterian Church U.S. and overseen by the synods of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina.


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