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 Issues | Church History | Thomas J. Barnardo


Great Churchmen (No. 20)

Dr Thomas John Barnardo (1845-1905)

by. E. J. G. Rogers (Vicar of St Catharine's, Wigan)

The Children's Friend

Published by Church Book Room Press



Barnardo takes his place among the Immortals. Greatness marks his character and work. He is one of the outstanding Christians of our nation, and one of the greatest social reformers the world has seen. This is high praise indeed; but the proof is in the Homes which bear his name, Homes which to-day continue the work he began and which are run according to the pattern laid down by their Founder.

The secret of his achievements is not found simply in his genius and talents. The source of it all was his love and devotion to Christ. This was the central thing in his life, the mainspring of all his activity. He belongs to that band of Christian workers who by their teaching, their work, and their example have helped to cleanse the moral and social life of our country. They are a noble band: William Wilberforce, Lord Shaftesbury, Elizabeth Fry, John Howard, George Williams, George Lansbury and many others; and among them stands Thomas John Barnardo, fellow citizen with them of the Kingdom of God. Such a life is the contradiction of the delusion that religion is the opiate of the people, and that Christians being concerned primarily about the future life and the state of their own souls have little time to bother with the problems and troubles of this life. Such an opinion can be held only by those who are blind to facts, for the evidence of history shows that those who have loved God best are those who have done most for humanity. With patient courage and self-sacrifice they have waged an incessant warfare against vice, evil, slavery and poverty, and their faith in God has sent them forth to sustain and to care for and to battle for their fellow men. Barnardo is one with these men, a Freeman of the City of God.

What then are we to say about this servant of God? Canon Fleming, who preached his funeral sermon, said in his address: “To know Dr. Barnardo was to love him; while to work with him was to catch a breath of the Spirit of Christ.” He had his defects and limitations, but they were the defects of a strong leader. Like many such, he was autocratic, and found it difficult at times to work with a committee. He once wrote: “I cannot run well with the snaffle.” A tireless worker, he did not like slackers and half-hearted people. He was a man with one purpose and all his energies were used to further his life’s work. The late Sir Robertson Nicoll wrote of him: “It was a life of continual growth, a life that never flinched, never wavered, a life which was spent to its last drop in the labour it loved.” At times he could be difficult to work with, yet “his people followed him gladly.” He was always thinking about the Homes and the children; “I would not exchange my life and work,” he once said, “for any man’s that I know of. If I had to live over again, I would do exactly the same thing, only . . . with fewer mistakes.”(1)

One of the noblest tributes paid to his memory was a poem written by the late Sir Owen Seaman, Editor of Punch, which was published in that journal.

                        “suffer the little children—” : so He spake,
                             And in His steps that true disciple trod,
                        Lifting the helpless ones, for love’s pure sake,
                             Up to the arms of God.”

He was one of the world’s greatest lovers, who gave all and dared all for the sake of suffering children. He looked at them through the eyes of His Master. When his son Herbert died, at the age of nine, he wrote in Night and Day: “I dare not turn aside from this work. By His help I will not! The little ones are His, yes, assuredly the children belong to Jesus Christ. Let it be my task through life to fold and shepherd them for Him.” How well he did it we realize when we find that before his death he had rescued and trained fifty-nine thousand, three hundred and eighty-four destitute children and had otherwise assisted a quarter of a million children in need.

The reason for his success is best expressed in some of his own words: “The highest life I can conceive of, or ever seem to covet, is a very simple one. . . . It is just this: to live so as to please God. That is all; but to my mind that is enough. In other words, it is the aim that determines the life. What am I aiming at? is the question, not—How do I feel? ‘I am not my own,’ is the foundation, as ‘Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?’ is the keynote of the highest Christian life.”

1) Bready, Dr. Barnardo, p. 254.





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