Lying, stealing, gambling, frequently getting drunk and behaving immorally – this does not sound like the sort of person God would choose for one of His great works – but so it was for this was how George Müller described himself and it was not until he trusted the Saviour as an 18-year-old Prussian university student that his life dramatically changed. He became so keen to tell others of his conversion that very soon he decided to become a missionary. He travelled to London for Bible training but after several years became very ill. He was advised to move to the West Country to recover, and it was at Teignmouth that the plans for his life changed yet again: here he married Mary, the sister of Anthony Norris Groves, and met Henry Craik who was to become a life-long friend and fellowworker. In Devon, both George and Henry served as pastors of small chapels and, unlike most pastors, decided not to accept any salary but to ask God to supply their needs without telling anyone else about them. When, in 1832, they moved to Bristol to share in the care of two large chapels there, they followed this same principle and did so for the rest of their lives. One of these large chapels was Bethesda where, in August 1832, a small group of believers met to break bread in simple remembrance of the Lord. In 1834, Müller set up the ‘Scriptural Knowledge Institution’ (S.K.I.) as a channel for practical support for missionaries at home and abroad.
Soon after they came to Bristol the city, with its poor sanitation, was devastated by an epidemic of cholera during which many hundreds of people died. George and Henry were tireless in visiting the sick people but God preserved them from the disease. So many people died that there were hundreds of orphans with no one to care for them; many were reduced to begging in the streets and their plight led Müller into his life’s work for God. After George, Mary and Henry had prayed about this great need for some weeks, they shared their concern with the believers at Bethesda. Müller also saw this as an opportunity to prove to the people of Bristol the reality of faith in God who answers the prayers of those who trust Him. He wrote in his diary (December, 1835) – ‘if I, a poor man, simply by prayer and faith, obtained WITHOUT ASKING ANY INDIVIDUAL the means for establishing and carrying on an Orphan House then this would provide visible proof that God is FAITHFUL STILL and HEARS PRAYER STILL’
God began to answer Müller’s prayers as his diary records: (December 7) ‘Today I received the first shilling for the Orphan House’; (December 9) ‘This afternoon the first piece of furniture was given – a large wardrobe’. Day by day more gifts of money arrived, some just a few pence, others hundreds of pounds but Müller was determined never to get into debt so he waited until £1000 had been given specifically for an Orphan Home before he rented No. 6 Wilson Street, a large terraced house in the centre of Bristol. As he began to furnish it, household items of all descriptions were given. Müller kept very detailed records and some of the lists in his diary are amusing but remind us of how even poor people wanted to help, for example - (December 14) ’ten basins, eight mugs, one plate, five desert spoons, six tea spoons, one skimmer, one toasting fork, one flour dredge, three knives and forks, one sheet, one pillow case and one table cloth’; and also material from which to make clothes for the children - (December 17) ’thirty yards of print, six yards calico, four yards lining, a sheet and a yard measure’
The first Orphan House was opened on April 11th, 1836 for orphan girls aged seven and over; within a few weeks, this was filled to capacity with thirty girls and two Christian ladies to care for them. Müller was saddened to have to turn away younger orphans and so, six months later, he rented another house (No 1) in the same street, together with a piece of land for a playground; within a month this house was furnished and opened for infant girls and boys. During the winter, an epidemic of typhus broke out in the city, but only two of the sixty orphans became ill and they both recovered. In October 1837, Müller opened a third house (No 3 Wilson St.) for forty orphan boys aged 7 or over.
The children were given good clothes, all enjoyed clean, warm homes and were brought up to share in some of the household duties. They never went hungry although, unknown to them, the stocks of food frequently ran out but day after day gifts were brought to the Homes, rarely more than enough for one or two days but never too little. There are many instances of miracles in the way God answered prayer: for example, one morning with no bread or milk with which to prepare breakfast, ‘grace’ was said and God thanked for what He would provide, when the door bell rang and there was the baker who could not sleep during the night and had got up and baked a whole batch of bread for the orphans, then followed the milkman whose cart had broken down in the road outside and he need to off-load the churns of milk to repair the wheel. Although resources were often stretched, Müller and all his staff continued to trust God, as this note from one of the Homes shows: ‘With potatoes from the children’s garden and with apples from the tree in the playground (for apple dumplings) and 4s 6d the price of some articles given by one of the labourers, we have a dinner. There is much needed but the Lord will provide’
Daily, Müller had to turn orphans away and, as all three homes were full, there was nowhere for the infants in No 1 to go when they reached seven years of age so Müller opened a fourth Orphan House in No 4 Wilson Street in July 1843, depending entirely upon God to answer prayer for the needs of four homes and nearly 140 children and staff. At one time (September 4th, 1844) he recorded in his diary that he only had a farthing in hand; yet the Lord always provided, sometimes with gifts from thousands of miles away. ‘Lord pity us’ he prayed, ‘You know that we desperately need some oatmeal, some new pairs of shoes, money for the repair of old shoes, and to replenish our stores and some money for new clothes for the children’. Later the same morning, a letter arrived from the East Indies containing £100.
Müller spent many hours in prayer each day, not only for the orphan homes but also for the members of Bethesda Chapel which, under the care of Craik and himself, had grown to over 500 and would continue to grow to well over 1000. Time was also needed to oversee the work of S.K.I. which distributed gifts to missionaries in other lands and, in England, was responsible for two Sunday Schools, six Day Schools (where, during the first eight years, over 2,500 children were taught), and two evening classes where 350 adults were taught to read and write.
With so many children in one city street, there were some problems: the neighbours complained about the noise at playtime and this lasted a long time since the one playground was only large enough to be used by the children from one home at a time; occasionally the drains became overloaded and the water supplies were inadequate. Müller also began to dream of open spaces with clean, fresh air and walks for the children, of gardens where the boys could grow crops and girls could hang out the mountains of laundry. So, after much prayer, he shared his ideas with other Christians and God’s plan for the future began to unfold. Large gifts started to come in for the building of a new Orphan House. Müller was able to purchase seven acres of open land at Ashley Down on the outskirts of Bristol, and a Christian architect in London offered his services to draw up plans and oversee the building, free of charge. The whole cost of building and furnishing was expected to cost £14,500 and, by July 1847, sufficient had been given for the work to commence.
It is difficult to imagine the excitement of the orphans in June 1849 when they moved from being confined to the inner city street to the fields and open spaces of their new home, to enjoy bird songs and extensive views – all new to them. New applications were received daily and, within a year, all 300 places were filled and a waiting list was started. Müller heard of an official report which estimated that there were 6,000 orphans accommodated in the country’s prisons and he determined to do all he could to help, so started to pray about further buildings. By the time No 2 House was built to hold 400 orphans (November 1857), there were already 600 on the waiting list so, after years of daily prayer in which he saw the number and size of gifts increase and the waiting list grow, three more buildings were added. By January, 1870, the Homes were caring for 2,000 orphans and about 200 staff who looked after them. From very small beginnings twenty-five years before, Müller and his staff now relied upon God to provide over £30,000 each year – a huge sum of money at that time.
Müller was now 65 years old but he had trained his staff well and they all followed the same principles of making known their needs to God alone, so he was able to leave them in charge for long periods while he travelled extensively preaching and teaching. During the next thirty years, he travelled over 200,000 miles, always returning to the Orphan Homes he loved at Ashley Down and where, at the age of 92, he died peacefully. On the day of his funeral, Bristol had never seen anything like it with most shops and businesses closed, flags flying at half mast, thousands lining the streets and 7,000 at the cemetery. But for George Müller, he was in the presence of his Lord who had been so real to him for over 70 years.
During his life, Müller had received nearly £1 million for the orphans and, after his death, many expected the work to run down but, under the leadership of Christians with the same trust in God, the homes on Ashley Down continued to care for orphans, in all, over 10,000. After the second world war, the new welfare state reduced the need greatly and gradually the Homes were closed and large houses purchased as homes for much smaller groups of orphans, cared for by Christian house parents. In the late 1970s, it became apparent to the trustees that a further change was needed to reflect the fact that family life today is often under attack. On the estates in Bristol and North Somerset, Day Care Centres and Family Support Centres have been set up for the care of children in need and their parents; Müller’s workers also are based in a number of schools to help with problem children and to encourage Christian students; and much effort goes into training courses for church members and practical help in setting up play schemes and mother and toddler groups. In these ways even more children are influenced for good than in Müller’s day. In 1983, the trustees also felt that Müller would be as concerned today for the elderly as for children and so they have two homes in Weston Super Mare providing havens of rest for elderly residents and are praying about similar homes in Bristol. Today, Müllers is also involved increasingly with local churches through partnership schemes in which many children, young people and families are blessed; local believers and the Müllers teams are able to share their love and faith, so fulfilling the values of Care, Faith and Evangelism which have stood the test of time for so many years.
So, 170 years after Müller came to settle in Bristol, the work he started continues and has widened in its scope. Gifts through his first project, S.K.I., have been used to support many missionaries worldwide and schools and orphanages overseas have continued to receive financial support. But he is best remembered for the many thousands of orphans and deprived children who have been lovingly cared for in homes where they have been taught the Scriptures and learned of the love of the Saviour.
Moreover, worldwide, Müller is remembered as an outstanding example to believers as a man of prayer and, for those who live in Bristol, his primary objective in setting up the orphan homes is realized day after day. One of our longest roads (over 2 miles in length) is named after him and still prominent on the sky-line of the city for all to see are the five huge orphan houses on Ashley Down - a visible proof, as Müller wanted, to the citizens of Bristol that there is a living God who provides for those who trust Him - a God who answers prayer!
At Müller House in Bristol, the records of every orphan who passed through the Homes are kept and there is a small museum containing many photographs and items of great interest illustrating the work throughout the years. Visitors would be very welcome to come and spend time in the museum and to talk to present staff, but it would be helpful to telephone in advance if possible (0117 9245001). Further information and current news are carried on the website of the George Müller Foundation found at http://www.mullers.org.