“Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27). Many Christians know this verse in the Bible, but few have acted upon it so fully and faithfully as George Müller.
If we were to visit the streets of any major city in England at the turn of the nineteenth century, we would be witness to a sad and pitiable sight. Roving bands of orphaned children begged and stole their way through life. Often they were dressed in rags, with little to wear and nothing to eat. They held empty tin cups at the street corners, hoping that some kind gentleman or lady passing by might drop a shilling or two into the cup. When this failed, many of these children resorted to picking pockets in the bustling marketplace. On cold winter nights, many of these orphaned children perished in the corners of the dark alleys. In the morning, street workers collected the stiff, little bodies and loaded them into wheelbarrows to be buried in unmarked graves, unknown and unloved.
The Napoleonic wars in Europe had wiped out a generation of young men, and many fathers had been killed on the battlefield. Before the understanding of germ theory and antibiotics, many women died from complications in childbirth and, thus, there was an overwhelming number of orphans in Europe.
Most people viewed the orphan question with some degree of compassion, but few cared deeply enough to actually do something about the parentless children. Similar to the priest and the Levite in the story of the Good Samaritan, most European Christians passed by on the other side of the street. Too often today, many a churchgoer is comfortable in his personal home life and rarely sees the deeper needs in society where children are labeled as unwanted or considered a bothersome obstacle to a life of pleasure.
One German-born pastor and his wife could not simply pass by while orphans died by the hundreds in the streets. Like Jesus in Galilee, the man was “moved with compassion” and sought to minister to their wants. But this was not always the case. Few that knew George Müller as a boy would have ever thought that he would become a man who would provide a home for hundreds of orphaned boys and girls.
George Müller was born on September 27, 1805, in the village of Kroppenstaedt in the Kingdom of Prussia, a kingdom that is now a part of modern-day Germany. Müller’s father was a local tax collector for the government. It was not long before young George learned to lie, steal, play cards, and drink. By ten years of age, George had learned to steal money from his father. He lost his mother at the age of fourteen and was soon in the clutches of what he himself called “wicked behavior.” He eventually was sent to prison for a time and seemed destined for a life of crime and violence. But he testified that “God had mercy on me.”
George was invited by a friend to attend a Bible study and prayer meeting at the University of Halle (Germany) in 1825, when he was twenty years old. George was convicted of his sins and turned to the Lord Jesus Christ in repentance and faith. As a new convert, he took very seriously the words of the Lord Jesus to sell what you have and give to the poor. Knowing that he had been a selfish thief, he sold his possessions and gave the money to aid the poor.
He met a like-minded young woman named Miss Mary Groves. They were married only three months after their meeting. The Lord blessed them with four children, but two were stillborn and their son, Elijah, was taken from them by pneumonia in his youth. Only their daughter Lydia lived to maturity.
George and Mary were asked by a dear friend to come across the English Channel and assist in the ministry at Bethesda Chapel in Bristol. The Müllers moved to England in the spring of 1832 and helped in the distribution of Bibles and tracts throughout Bristol. They invited children to Sunday Schools where they were taught the Bible on Sunday afternoons.
Four years later, in 1836, George and Mary felt led by the Holy Spirit to begin a ministry of practical care and provision for the orphans that crowded the streets of Bristol. They started by taking thirty orphan girls into their own rented home on Wilson Street in Bristol.
The Lord blessed the work mightily. Unsolicited gifts began to pour in from interested friends of the Gospel who learned of Müller’s work with the orphans. Over the next decade, the number of orphans increased from 30 to 130, and four furnished houses along Wilson Street housed the orphans.
After years of prayer and labor, a separate building was constructed at Ashley Down in Bristol that would become a permanent orphanage. Through all these years, Müller never once solicited any financial support. A man of prayer, he believed that God would take care of the orphans that He loved.
On one occasion, George Müller gazed at rows of empty breakfast plates, each before a hungry child. By faith, he prayed and thanked God for providing food for His children. The hungry orphans peeped and looked around because there was no food in sight! But while Mr. Müller was praying, the milkman’s cart broke down outside in front of the orphanage, and the baker also came to the orphanage door. Very soon, bread and milk were supplied in abundance to all the children! Similar answers to prayer occurred not once, nor twice, but dozens of times.
Over the course of time, extending long after George Müller’s death, over 18,000 children were spared from misery, poverty, and death by the life-giving power of the Gospel. Müller had received and used over one million British pounds (equivalent to almost $120 million in today’s terms) to care for the orphaned children.
George Müller had a deep, abiding interest in preserving life and light all over the world. He was an admirer of Hudson Taylor, missionary to China, and regularly gave to support the advance of the Gospel in China. After the death of his first wife, Mary, and when he had successfully passed the care of the orphanages to his daughter and son-in-law, Müller and his second wife, Susannah, embarked on a seventeen-year global mission trip. The trip eventually took him to forty-two countries around the world, where he spread the message of the Savior Who gives life and hope to those that are in darkness.
When George Müller died at the advanced age of 92, the entire city of Bristol paused to honor his memory and his influence. Two thousand orphans were among those lining the streets as his body was brought to its resting place to await the resurrection of the saved. These boys and girls knew that they enjoyed the blessings of life because George Müller took to heart the words in the New Testament that pure religion is “to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction.”
Sources and Further Reference:
Pierson, Arthur T. George Müller of Bristol. Oak Brook, IL: Institute in Basic Life Principles, 2009.