Strategic Giving: the Visionary Generosity of John Thornton

Image: igathering.org

Image: igathering.org

This story appeared on the BBC News website. An Oxford University academic has pledged to donate one million pounds to charitable causes in his lifetime, and has set up systems for regular giving to start delivering on this undertaking. Dozens of people have joined him in this initiative to “Give as Much as you Can”.

John Thornton (1720-1790) would have rejoiced. Historically, he marks the start of a significant shift in Christian social entrepreneurship. Having begun with sheer philanthropy, giving large sums to good causes, he came to see that strategic giving and the creation of enterprises would benefit the needy more in the long term.

He was one of the richest men in England, having made a fortune trading between Hull and the Baltic states. A devout Christian, Thornton gave the equivalent today of £25,000 to good causes, every year for fifty years (well over a million in his lifetime). He provided food and blankets for the starving. He paid debts and fines to get the poor released from debtors’ prison. He supported missionary societies and funded the distribution of bibles.

John Thornton

In time, Thornton realised the greater good that would come from having men of influence in key positions. So he used his wealth to ‘buy’ the livings of important parishes, so the he could install the minister. Most notably, he brought John Newton, the converted slave ship captain and author of “Amazing Grace”, from rural obscurity to the church in Lombard Street in the city of London, which was attended by members of parliament, bankers and successful merchants. This greatly furthered the Evangelical cause, which lay at Thornton’s heart.

Lady Huntingdon's College

Lady Huntingdon’s College

He also came to see the value of education and training. He aided Lady Huntingdon in setting up her ministers’ training college at Trefeca, South Wales, with an interest-free loan. He ploughed funds into a school for native American Indians in Connecticut, and founded Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, a prestigious establishment where a hall of residence still bears his name.

A curious juggling of values had to be maintained. Thornton never missed the chance to make a profit in business, but at home he was scrimping and saving in order to have more to give. What he started was carried on by his son Henry with his friends William Wilberfore (his cousin’s husband), Zachary Macaulay, Henry Venn and the rest, who not long hence would form the Clapham Sect, the archetypal Christian social entrepreneurs.

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About Trevor Saxby

I'm a mentor, friend to many, with a PhD in church history. I love learning from the 'movers and shakers' of the past, as I want to be one today!

4 responses to “Strategic Giving: the Visionary Generosity of John Thornton”

  1. Phil Whittall says :

    Hi Trevor
    Great post – I was wondering whether we could have permission to reprint it on the Breathe blog, with al due credit of course!

    Regards
    Phil

  2. Trevor Saxby says :

    By all means, Phil 😉 It would be an honour! Greetings to the other worthies at Breathe. I love you guys and what you're standing for.

  3. normal says :

    It's a thought-provoking story.

  4. Trevor Saxby says :

    Good to hear, normal! I'm currently mulling over the intrinsic differences (or overlap) between “benefactor”, “philanthropist” and “social entrepreneur”. Thornton seems to combine them all.

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