The Bethesda Orphanage – now operated as a residential and day school and known as the Bethesda Academy – was founded in 1740 near Isle of Hope, 12 miles south of Savannah, by the Anglican preacher George Whitefield.
Bethesda’s claim to significance is as the oldest child-care institution in continual operation in the United States. A new museum, the William H Ford Sr Museum and Visitors Center, is open to the public, with displays documenting the long history of the Bethesda Orphanage and School.
George Whitefield, who found fame as one of early America’s most influential evangelical preachers and was instrumental in spreading the Methodist faith during the country’s mid-18th-century “Great Awakening,” first came to Savannah only a few years after its founding.
Born and raised in England, Whitefield went to Georgia in 1740 as part of an evangelical mission to spread the Christian message in the new British colony. An acclaimed speaker, he would traveled widely through America, becoming one of the best known preachers of the age.
Upon his arrival in Savannah, Whitefield felt that an orphan house was one of the colony’s most pressing needs. Death rates in the early 18th century being high, Savannah was producing orphans in great numbers, with no institutions devoted to their care besides the informal relief they might obtain from relatives, friends or acquaintances.
He is said to have been influenced by a similar arrangement he had seen while visiting the nearby settlement of Ebenezer, founded by a group of Salzburgers (from present-day Austria) fleeing persecution in Europe.
The young colony lacking the means to support an orphanage, Whitefield sought funding for his project in England, securing much of it from the Countess of Huntingdon, wealthy benefactress of dozens of chapels in Britain (and to whom Whitefield would bequeath the Bethesda Orphanage after his death).
Construction of the orphanage, whose name, Bethesda, means “House of Mercy,” began on March 25 1740, with dormitories, an infirmary and a workhouse soon completed.
Discipline, religion and education were the principles and habits Whitefield hoped to instill in his charges. In 1900, the orphanage was redeveloped as the Bethesda Home for Boys, and later still, as a school, but the institution has continued in much of its original mission (the “orphan” part now excepted) for almost 300 years.
Bethesda’s museum opened in 2013 in the 1860s Burroughs Hall. It is named for William Ford, Sr, a Bethesda alumnus who later served as its superintendent for almost two decades. Part of the museum is dedicated to Ford’s life and work as a pastor and school administrator, but the main focus of its displays is the history of Bethesda itself from its early colonial history through to the present day.
The history of the orphanage and school are documented through a variety of historic artifacts, vintage photographs, and audio and video recordings, along with finds from archaeological explorations and information about life at the school.
There is also a small gift shop.
This small chapel was constructed by the Georgia Colonial Dames of America on the grounds of the Bethesda school in the early 20th century. Construction began in 1916, and was completed in 1925, having been interrupted by World War I. The chapel is named in memory of Bethesda’s founder, George Whitefield.
The buildings of the Bethesda Academy campus are set amidst 650 acres of grounds, with lawns and live oak-lined roads alongside the marshes of Isle of Hope.
Within the grounds are a small student-operated farm and vegetable garden, with cattle, dwarf goats and chickens all raised on site. Produce, meat and eggs from Bethesda’s organic farm and market gardens are sold at its Wednesday afternoon farm stand, open 3pm-5pm each week. More details
Groups of 5 or more can arrange a tour of Bethesda and its grounds, including the school’s cattle and chicken farm, vegetable garden, museum and chapel for $15 per person. Advance reservations are required. More details
The following is correct at the time of writing. Please verify details before planning your trip. For more information, visit the museum’s website or call 912-401-0663.
Hours Open Monday-Friday, 10am-4pm. By appointment, the museum can also be visited on Saturdays.
Admission Admission is $7 per person, and free for children aged 10 and under accompanied by a paying adult.
The overall address for the Bethesda Academy campus is 9520 Ferguson Avenue, Savannah, GA 31406. The Ford Museum is near the center of the campus, in Burroughs Hall. See the museum’s map here for its location.
Bethesda is around 12 miles south of downtown Savannah, 20-25 minutes by car.
By public transport, Chatham Area Transit’s Route 20 bus has a stop near the entrance to the school. Traveling to Bethesda from Savannah, get off the bus at the Chevron station. Traveling back to Savannah, however, the return loop of the bus route has a stop about 50 yards from the campus entrance on Ferguson Avenue. Please note that there are only four buses per day on this route.