One hundred and twenty-five (125) years ago on January 20th, 1896 the first two children came to live at Epworth Orphanage from Lynchburg, South Carolina. They arrived by train and lived in the only house on the campus, along with the superintendent, his family, other “orphans” as they were admitted, and the helpers as they were added as the population rapidly grew.
Thus, began a century and a quarter of service to children and families in South Carolina. During these one hundred- and twenty-five-years Epworth has grown, changed, and evolved and served children and families in a variety of ways as the times, circumstances, and resources have dictated. What has not changed is the commitment to serve all the children we can, as well as we can, with all the resources we can gather.
The story really began in earnest when the Rev. E. A. Wilkes wrote a letter to the Christian Advocate in early 1894 calling attention to the numbers of children who were facing poverty, wandering the streets, begging and stealing to get by, and the children whose fathers had died, and whose mothers had no means of support.
According to The Epworth Story written by Eva Grey Hutchins and Alan Keith-Lucas, The Rev. T. C. O’Dell proposed that an orphanage be established. His proposal drew strong support and at the Methodist Conference in November 1894. A committee was appointed and three days later the Annual Conference adopted the committee’s proposal that an orphanage should immediately be established, and the orphanage was to be named Epworth Orphanage in honor of John Wesley’s boyhood home in England.
After considering offers from the towns of Gray Court, Spartanburg, Rock Hill, Union, and Manning, the members of the 1895 Annual Conference decided to locate Epworth on 131.4 acres of farmland east of Columbia. The land was purchased for just over $6,000, of which the City of Columbia contributed $5,700 and promised to run a streetcar line, telephone service and electricity at a very moderate price.
Citizens, church congregations, civic organizations and business partners rallied to support the new mission, yet money was scarce and a poor economy in a poor state dictated that work for everyone was the order of the day. Epworth quickly became an orphanage-farm where much of the food and milk that was consumed was produced by the staff members and the residents. Order, work, religions, and academic instruction was thought to produce solid citizens. Thus, for many this became “the Epworth way” for rearing children. When older Epworth alumni gather for alumni weekends, they always tell stories about the life lessons of faith, responsibility, and hard work that they incorporated into their lives while at Epworth.
As time passed, innovative programs were introduced that emphasized skills that could be used to earn a living later in life. Carpentry, secretarial skills, monument making, electrical skills, and college scholarships were available. Throughout its history Epworth has emphasized producing productive citizens rather than simply feeding, clothing, and giving a child a place to live.
There have been thousands of young people who have called Epworth “Home”, and who have later settled in every part of South Carolina and beyond to make their marks in their communities. Also, many families have been reunited, children adopted, and generations of young people given opportunities they never dreamed of before.
Now, with the purchase of Epworth’s second campus of 19 acres and 14 buildings, and the establishment of the Institute for Child and Family Wellbeing, Epworth looks to the future as missional Hubs are being established across our state. These Hubs will enable children and families not only to be served on one of our two Columbia campuses, but also to be served in the communities in which they reside. Epworth is also moving “upstream” with services that help strengthen families and prevent children from having to leave their homes and schools for reasons where safety is not an issue.
During 2021 we invite you to join us in giving thanks for a fruitful 125 years as we look toward tomorrow and the next 125 years. From an idea, to a committee, to an orphanage-farm, to a children’s home, to a multifaceted organization that continues to change lives every day, Epworth has been true to its founders and its mission – the Mission of Epworth Children’s Home is to serve children, youth, and families through caring, safe, Christian communities where hurts are healed; hope is nurtured; and faith in God, self, and others is cultivated.
-Rev. John Holler, President & CEO