Edgar James Helms: The Man of Goodwill

Edgar James Helms: The Man of Goodwill

Just nineteen days after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed enslaved individuals during the Civil War, a child was born in a small, rugged, logging camp to William and Lerona Sherwin Helms, near Malone, upstate New York, not far from the Canadian and Vermont borders. Remarkably, that tiny son’s life was set upon a trajectory that would help millions of people to be freed from another kind of enslavement. Do you know the dynamic story of Edgar James Helms?

Edgar was the fourth of five children in his family. Shortly after his birth on 19 January 1863, his parents took advantage of the Homestead Act, loaded a covered wagon, and moved to a farmstead near Nashua, Iowa. They then moved a bit further west near Spirit Lake, where Edgar grew up with his sisters and younger brother. Edgar learned farming, to read the land and the seasons, and the meaning of hard work. When he was fifteen, Edgar apprenticed as a journalist at a local newspaper, the Spirit Lake Beacon. He worked his way through school and, in 1889, graduated with a degree in philosophy from Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa.

In 1892, Edgar married his childhood sweetheart, Eugenia “Jean” Preston, and they moved to Massachusetts to attend Boston University Theological School. They had both sensed a call from God to give their lives in mission service, but their Methodist denomination did not send married couples or families to international mission fields at that time. Instead, Edgar and Jean began to minister to immigrants in Boston as they studied. Three children were born to them.

Edgar accepted a struggling ministry position at Morgan Chapel in 1895, located in a poverty-stricken area in Boston’s South End. Their ministry as a couple was brief there, for Jean became ill and died of tuberculosis in 1898. Three years later, Edgar married Jean’s younger sister, Grace, who then became his lifelong ministry partner. Abut the same time, Edgar’s vision for the poor took shape.

Appalled by the lack of basic needs of food, health, clothing, and shelter, in 1902 Edgar used burlap bags from the Thomas Wood and Company, and set to work. He walked the more affluent neighborhoods of Boston, knocking on doors and asking for used and discarded clothing, furniture, household goods, and food. He then took the bags back to his Chapel and hired people who were wanting to work, even those who were considered “unemployable,” to come join him in this ministry.

Differing from other charity leaders of his day, he thought that selling refurbished items at a low cost would do two things: families could then afford to purchase necessary items, and it would realize a profit that could pay the workers who repaired the goods. Edgar paid $4 per day (worth $140 now) for workers to clean, fix, and mend the items. Then he offered the items for a small price from a rented building in his parish. He said, "We, his disciples, are commanded to 'Go thou and do likewise.' We receive our marching orders from him, who commanded us to 'seek and save the lost.' He expects us to literally, 'Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those who are sick and in prison.'"

With the help of Methodist funding, Helms established Goodwill organizations across the United States. By 1920, there were fifteen Goodwill ministries, including Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries in Boston. The name “Goodwill Industries” was coined in 1915. Unsatisfied that those few centers could address the overwhelming needs, particularly as 1929's Wall Street Crisis, the Great Depression, and World War I crushed families of America, Edgar was determined to expand to more states and international cities as well. He also included those who were disabled. His Christ-centered vision was to help the global poor. He said, “not charity, but a chance.”
Helms believed ending the cycle of poverty could be achieved through helping folks to become self-sufficient. Goodwill continues this belief today in the power and dignity of work. He said, “We are seeking to prevent poverty . . . teaching trades to the unskilled, offering self-respecting work, and training workers to manage their own enterprises.”
Edgar and Grace eventually had nine more children together. They served faithfully until Edger died on 23 December 1942. Grace and twelve children attended his funeral at his old Chapel, Morgan Memorial Church of All Nations, where 1,500 mourners packed the pews and lined the road to the cemetery. "We have courage and are unafraid," he once said. "With the prayerful cooperation of millions of our bag contributors and of our workers, we will press on till the curse of poverty and exploitation is banished from mankind."

Edgar’s legacy continues to live on today, with more than 200 Goodwill centers still offering life-saving help to families. As a sharer of hope and peace, he said often, "I, Edgar James Helms, have often been referred to as the founder of Goodwill Industries.This is not strictly true.The originator of Goodwill Industries was the Master of men, who spoke from a Galilean hillside 1900 years ago and commanded his disciples to 'gather up the fragments that nothing be lost.'"
"Friends of Goodwill, be dissatisfied with your work
until every person in your community
has an opportunity to develop to their fullest usefulness
and enjoy a maximum of abundant living.”
-Karen O'Dell Bullock
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