Bristol, Rhode Island is sometimes called “America’s most patriotic town”, with Independence Day celebrations dating back to 1777.
Today, more than 100 thousand people visit the town to participate in its month-long celebrations. In 1932, however, as the nation coped with the Great Depression, the town’s celebrations were more subdued. The largest manufacturing plant in town had closed, leaving a thousand people unemployed and without hope.
The owners offered the plant superintendent, Maurice Smith, a good job in one of their other plants, but he refused, feeling a duty to the people he had worked with for so long. He solicited funds to start a new business manufacturing rubber shoes, but the amount he raised wasn’t nearly enough. [Photo: Bristol, Rhode Island/Angusdavis/Wikipedia]
He was almost ready to give up when he heard a sermon on the duty of those with the ability to organize a business to employ those thrown out of work. Smith saw it as a personal message and, with money borrowed from his family, he opened the doors of the Bristol Manufacturing Company.
After years of hard work and struggle, the company became profitable, and employed hundreds. Smith brought his brother William into the company to help him run it, and it was William who came up with The Idea. “All we think about is making a profit”, he said. “Let’s do something totally unselfish.” Maurice agreed to pray about it.
Days later, Maurice approached the pastor of a church in Providence, and offered him the job of “Vice-President of the Department of Christian Relations”. Dr. Dale Dutton was told to go out and do good, and to “Take orders from nobody but God”. It was 1947. The country was still recovering from World War II, and there were many in need. Thousands of letters poured in to Dutton each week. For those he thought deserving – the veteran who needed a special kind of wheelchair, the convalescent who needed to find light work, the poor student whose only clothes were a worn pair of overalls – Dutton did his best to help them. For those who wanted a listening ear, he offered spiritual help and advice.
Dutton travelled the country doing what he could to help. A persistent need was for those who were disabled due to disease or war injuries. When the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis asked for help for the footwear needs of victims of polio, the Smiths established the non-profit Benefit Shoe Company to offer the disabled single shoes and mismatched pairs.
Maurice and William Smith understood, and practiced, the message in Deuteronomy 8: 17-18a: “You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth.” They recognized their experiment was unusual. Business owners were supposed to be more concerned about profit than providence, but they felt both were possible – and necessary. They demonstrated the mercies of God to a hurting world.