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Thomas Barnardo Saved the Lives of Homeless Children

The last photo of Thomas Barnardo before his sudden death.

BORN IN IRELAND, future dynamo of phlianthropy Thomas Barnardo almost died at birth. Until he was ten, he remained quite sickly. Regardless, he was a quick learner, easily bored. Barnardo often got into mischief when not devouring books. He dropped out of school at sixteen. 

Although he had been baptized and confirmed, Barnardo’s inner heart was untouched by his need of grace until the age of sixteen. Immediately, he began to seek out the poor to share the gospel with them. 

A wine merchant took Barnardo as an apprentice and he did well, although he did not like the work. He left as soon as he could, despite the merchant's pleas he stay and the offer of a large salary, because he felt God wanted him to seek a different business. Indeed, once he felt God wanted something, he was unshakable in pursuing it. 

Fired up to do good, he taught in a “ragged school,” a spreading movement of schools to educate the poor. Barnardo also met Hudson Taylor and was impressed with Taylor’s faith work in China. His mind turned toward missions. He attended medical classes in London to prepare himself for missionary work. 

While engaged in these studies, he also preached in parks, labored in the slums, visited soldiers’ barracks, tended to the sick, spoke with policemen, assisted the YMCA, and taught continued teaching. His arrival in some hangouts was not always welcome, and he was roughed up more than once. Drunken teenagers stole his Bibles and busted two of his ribs. Such opposition did not deter him. When he refused to prosecute the ringleaders, he won their respect, opening many doors. 

Evenutally, he started his own ragged school. In response to one of his articles, a member of Parliament offered him £1,000 to continue his East End work. Barnardo began to think God might not want him in China after all. One evening he met a young fellow named Jim Jarvis who had no home and pleaded for a place by the school’s fire. Jim showed Barnardo boys sleeping atop roofs with nowhere else to go. 

This encounter helped decide Barnardo’s course of creating homes for orphans and children with disabilities. With a flair for innovation, he came up with the idea of taking before-and-after photographs of every child who entered his homes, which he printed and sold in packs to raise money. He milked stories like Jim’s for all they were worth and altered the details according to his needs. He set out to establish orphanages, convalescent homes, and industrial houses all across the kingdom. Although the task was greater than one organization could accomplish, he had great success, founding homes in London, Belfast, Cambridge, Northhampton, Southampton, and numerous other cities—some as far away as Canada. For instance, on this day, 16 September 1902,* his ministry opened a home for "delicate" (i.e.: weak or sickly) girls in Llandudno, Wales.

Carelessness with the truth was Barnardo’s greatest weakness. To raise money, he inflated figures and invented “facts.” Even after accusations were proven against him (out of court) he pressed forward with his work, seemingly unfazed. He was so effective that, after his death, thousands honored him as the man who saved their lives and turned them around. “He was one of those who recognized that when every other obstacle to progress has been removed, human nature will stand right across the road, and that only Christ can deal with it,” wrote his friend W. Robertson Nicoll. 

Barnardo’s death came on 19 September 1905. He complained that his head felt heavy. Resting it on his wife a moment, he drew his last breath. About eight thousand children were living in the homes he founded. Others had obtained work through his job agency, and a large number had been shipped to Canada and Australia, a practice now known to have traumatized many of them. Even so, Barnardo’s encounter with Christ had transformed his life and the life of thousands.

Dan Graves

•Barnardo's memoirs by his wife gives the opening of this home as 1902 in one table but 1903 in another. However, other works show a home of that description already functioning at that location in the 1880s.

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Incomparable Christ #3, TheInfluential Jesus has a section on Thomas Bernardo

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