Helms, Edgar J.

Reverend Edgar James Helms (1863-1942) founded settlement houses in Boston to help residents of its poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhood. He began a system of collecting used items from the wealthy and repairing them for resale to the poor at Morgan Hill Chapel (later called Morgan Memorial Co-operative Industries and Stores). It was incorporated in 1905 and became Goodwill Industries. Today, the international organization provides resale stores, employment training, and other services for the poor, immigrants and the disabled.

Biographical Highlights

The son of Iowa farmers, Reverend Edgar James Helms (1863-1942) sought a dream to work for a greater cause. He pursued an education at Cornell College and Boston University, receiving high honors for his performances. He felt a calling in the church and, with his training as a Methodist minister, founded settlement houses in Boston. Assigned to one of the poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhoods in the city, Helms found an overwhelming need for food and clothing. He began a system of collecting used items from the wealthy and repairing them for resale to the poor — and this was the start of Goodwill Industries. The organization's motto reflected Helms' belief: what people need is "a chance not a charity." He was also a strong advocate of employment, not charity, being the key need and want of the poor. Through his work with Goodwill, Helms advocated the idea of equal pay and treatment for immigrants and the disabled.

Historic Roots

Edgar J. Helms was born in a small town near Malone, New York. He was born in a nation divided by the Civil War, and the era to come was one of great change and uncertainty. Yet, his family's dreams were simple -- to own land to farm. They purchased a covered wagon and headed west. The family settled on a 100-acre farm in Iowa where Helms spent most of his childhood, dreaming of leaving the small town for a greater cause. With great reluctance, Edgar's mother and father agreed to let him leave home to study at Cornell College. Helms graduated from Cornell, earning a Bachelor Degree of Philosophy and the highest grades ever given to a student at Cornell.

Upon graduation from Cornell, Helms heeded a calling to the church, leaving Iowa for Boston University where he earned a Bachelors Degree of Sacred Theology. He was awarded the Jacob Sleeper Fellowship that later allowed him to travel to England to study the poverty stricken in London. Helms had hoped to do missionary work in India. He was disappointed to learn he had been appointed to pastor a church in Boston, in a very poor immigrant community. Helms married his childhood sweetheart, Jean Preston, before leaving. They set out on the journey to Boston together and developed the first settlement house in the area. The settlement house attempted to Americanize immigrants. They were taught language skills, and provided job clubs and recreational activities for the youth (Blank 1998). The couple soon found the need for such an institution was greater than they could have imagined. After many successful years running the settlement house, Reverend Helms was appointed to another Methodist church, Morgan Hill Chapel. The area of Morgan Hill was in one of the worst slums in America:

In the filthy lice-infested tenements around Morgan Chapel were the dregs of the city — prostitutes, alcoholics, drug addicts, thieves, thugs and gamblers. (Plumb 1965, 92)

Still, Helms and Jean continued to devote energy and hope to their troubled community. Helms was quickly overwhelmed with requests from the community for food and clothing. He began collecting items in a burlap bag from Boston's wealthy communities. These items were damaged, discarded or just not of use to the affluent in the area. Helms brought the items back, and offered the poor wages for fixing and repairing the items. The items were then sold to poor in the community. This is what would later come to be known as Goodwill Industries. It was Helms who believed that people needed "a chance not a charity", and this became the new organization's motto. In a 1924 interview with Earl Christmas, Helms states:

"You can't help a man by doubting him," Helms said. "When he tells us he wants to work, we assume that he does. When you give a man a job, you are not dealing with a pauper. He is not an applicant for charity. He wants to give something for what he receives, so we do not need to make 'investigation' the first item of our program." (Wooster 2002)

Helms' movement grew rapidly. Morgan Hill Chapel soon became known as the Morgan Memorial Co-operative Industries and Stores. It was incorporated in 1905 and, with seed money from the parish, Helms was able to travel across the United States spreading the idea of "not a charity, but a chance." Helms was immersed in America's changing culture through Boston society; he felt the challenges and barriers experienced by the immigrants he served. He advocated and fought for equal pay and treatment of immigrant labor.

Goodwill was part of the Industrial Revolution and was able to gain opportunities for those it served from its onset. The organization continued to provide jobs through the Great Depression. Since donations were in the form of goods, rather than cash, many nonprofits folded while Goodwill continued to operate with strength.

Indeed, by 1934, Goodwill was so strong that it proposed one of the more intriguing counterfactuals of welfare history. According to Goodwill Industries historian John Fulton Lewis, top Goodwill executives led by Helms made an offer to Harry Hopkins, a key advisor to President Roosevelt: If the federal government would make a $5 million grant to Goodwill, Goodwill would put every unemployed American to work. (Wooster 2002)

There is no further evidence that suggests President Roosevelt considered the proposal from Goodwill, but the fact that the idea reached a presidential advisor is indeed impressive.

After the end of the Great Depression, when skilled laborers were able to return to the workforce, the scope of Goodwill Industries grew - Helms was approached by the disabled for employment opportunities. Once again, he advocated for and assisted those with disabilities to have equal opportunities in a nation with many prejudices against the idea.

In December 1942, before he could see the tremendous growth of the important organization he founded, Reverend Edgar J. Helms died. Yet, the calling he had answered many years before fulfilled basic human needs and left behind a powerful legacy that stretches across the world today. Goodwill Industries International is currently a network of 208 organizations that serve people who are disadvantaged or disabled. Although these organizations are independent from one another, they are all born from Helms' vision. The Goodwill's mission remains the same after 100 years: "to enhance the quality and dignity of life for individuals, families, and communities on a global basis, through the power of work" (Goodwill Industries 2003).


Helms was among many visionaries during the early twentieth century who waged war against poverty. He believed that the best way to help those suffering from poverty was not tending to their wounds or providing shelter. He believed the only way out of poverty was through productive work. He believed that everyone deserved this opportunity, without regard to race, disability, or criminal history.

The legacy of his beliefs is the well-known international institution he founded, Goodwill Industries, which has thrived for 100 years. Goodwill continues to provide the disadvantaged and disabled an opportunity to work, and educates the community about understanding disability and poverty. It also still provides low cost used clothing and household goods in communities across the United States and Canada.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Edgar Helms was a true philanthropist. In contrast to many charitable men and women of the time, he understood that simply giving to the poor would be an exhausting and ineffective approach to ending poverty. Helms understood that self-sufficiency was the

key for many to lead healthy and productive lives, and that this could be reached by contributing to the workforce. He devoted his life, energy, and voice to advocating for and providing opportunities to the disenfranchised.

His philanthropy lives on today. Helms' mission and vision has spread across the country and across the world. Today, Goodwill Industries International is an independent collaborator with all local Goodwill locations. It continues to award millions of dollars in grants to Goodwill organizations that are furthering Helms' mission to assist those to change their lives through the power of work.

Key Related Ideas

Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 : This Act was signed by the U.S. Congress to ensure that individuals with disabilities are not discriminated against for employment as well as guaranteed access to services and business without undue hardship. It is unlikely that it would have passed without the example of the thousands of people with disabilities working within Goodwill Industries.

War on Poverty : Helms is frequently associated with being an original fighter of "the war on poverty." He knew it was not enough to alleviate the suffering of the poor by handing out food and clothing, but to really fight the war by offering job skills training and advocating for equal opportunity. This term officially became a movement when President Lyndon B. Johnson declared this war in his State of the Union address on January 8, 1964. Expansion of services to the economically disadvantaged was created with programs like Job Corps, Head Start, Neighborhood Youth Corps and College Work Study. Since then, this term is often resurrected to describe the widening socioeconomic class gaps and the state of the poor in the United States (Grolier 2003).

Important People Related to the Topic

Reverend Henry Helms : Edgar Helms' son who was executive director at Morgan Memorial and spent his life carrying on his father's mission.

Henry Morgan : Methodist minister who founded the Morgan Chapel, he was a nineteenth century poverty fighter.

John Wesly: Eighteenth century minister who believed in industrial evangelism and was an inspiration to Helms.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

There are 208 independent nonprofit organizations that operate as Goodwill Industries serving over 2000 communities in twenty-six nations. Goodwill Industries International acts as an independent collaborator with all local Goodwill organizations, instead of as an overseer or regulating agency.

Related Web Sites

Goodwill Industries International at http://www.goodwill.org/ provides information on the organization (including mission statement and brief history), Goodwill locations across the world, grants, services available, online learning opportunities, career training opportunities, and more.


Blank, Barbara Trainin. "Settlement Houses: Old Idea in New Form Builds Communities," The New Social Worker 5 (1998): 3, 17-24.

Goodwill Industries International. Homepage . [updated 3 January 2003; cited 16 January 2003]. Available from http://www.goodwill.org .

Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. The American Presidency: War on Poverty.

Plumb, Beatrice. The Goodwill Man . Minneapolis: T.S. Denison & Company, 1965.

Wooster, Martin Morse. "Goodwill Hunting: A Century Later, Goodwill Sticks to its Mission," The Philanthropy Roundtable (January 2002). Available from https://www.philanthropyroundtable.org/

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at Grand Valley State University. It is offered by Learning To Give and Grand Valley State University.