7 Heroes of the Faith Part 5A: George Mueller, Friend of Orphans

George Muller would probably not make it onto most people’s list of the top seven heroes of the Christian faith. In fact, many Christians have never even heard of him. But he is on my list of great heroes for two reasons: his life of extraordinary self-sacrifice and his unshakeable faith in God through the power of prayer.

The story of George Muller does not start well. Born in Prussia in 1805, his early life was characterised by what can only be described as wickedness. He was a thief, a liar, a gambler and a drunkard. His father was a government appointed tax collector and by the age of ten Muller was regularly stealing money from the taxes his father had collected and spending it on wild living. At the age of 14, while the rest of his family was gathered at the bedside of his mother as she lay dying, Muller was gambling and getting drunk with friends. Much later in life, Muller reflected on these early years, describing himself as having a “wicked and unrepentant spirit”.[1]

But all of that was about to change. In 1825, at the age of 20, he attended a prayer meeting in a private home which had a profound effect on him. He later wrote:

“I have no doubt … that He began a work of grace in me. Even though I scarcely had any knowledge of who God truly was, that evening was the turning point in my life.”[2]

He was not yet a Christian in the sense of trusting in Jesus as Lord and Saviour, but he was now convinced of his need to discover more about the God before whom he would one day stand. He enrolled in University where he studied Divinity and began attending a Bible study. It was after one of those Bible studies that he became convinced of his need to repent and give his life to Christ. He went to his room that night and knelt and prayed, turning to Jesus as his Lord and Saviour. He immediately stopped stealing, lying, drinking and gambling, and decided to spend his life serving God as a missionary.

This did not work out as he expected. He applied to be endorsed by a British missionary society (for he was, by then, living in England) but after a lengthy process and various misunderstandings he was ultimately rejected. At the same time, however, an opportunity came for him to pastor a small church in Devon, which he accepted. In 1832, after two years of pastoral ministry in Devon, he and his new wife moved to Bristol where he pastored and preached at Bethesda Chapel – a ministry which continued for 66 years until his death in 1898. He would eventually be one of the founders of the Plymouth Brethren movement.

But none of this is what is most notable about George Muller. What is most extraordinary about his life and ministry is what he did beyond the sphere of his church life. George and his wife, Mary, were deeply moved by the plight of orphans, thousands of whom lived on the streets of Bristol in squalor and survived by begging, stealing and prostitution. This was the world of Oliver Twist, about which Charles Dickens wrote so graphically.

George and Mary modified their rented house in Wilson Street, Bristol, and accommodated 30 girls whom they rescued from the streets. Although their meagre salary could not possibly support this venture, they trusted God to provide the money to feed and clothe the girls. In fact, so sure were they that God would provide the necessary financial support that they decided that they would never ask anyone for money nor even make their needs known to others. This remained a lifelong principle that George Muller followed. In fact, even if a potential benefactor would ask, “Do you need any money for the orphans at the moment?”, Muller would always respond “No thank you. Our Lord is providing for us,” even if they were desperately short of money. He did this because he wanted to ensure that he never manipulated or solicited money from people, so that when money did arrive it was completely from the hand of God and not secured by his own efforts.

Within a year, George and Mary Muller had also rented three other houses in Wilson Street, and had filled them with more orphans, 130 in total, all fed and clothed and cared for out of the miraculous provision of God that continually flowed into their hands in response to their prayers of faith. In fact, so convinced was Muller that he needed to live by faith alone that he renounced his salary as a minister and trusted himself solely into the hands of God. He continued to do this for the rest of his life, never receiving a salary or wage for any of his ministries. In his book, “A Narrative of Some of the Lord’s Dealings”, Muller wrote:

“I, who had not a single shilling regular income, who had not a single fee for any thing I did in my service, either as minister of the gospel or Director of the Scriptural Knowledge Institution, was so abundantly cared for by my Heavenly Father, because I really depended on Him, and really trusted in Him, and did not merely say so.”[3]

After three years of caring for orphans in rented houses in Wilson Street, local residents complained about the children and the disruption they were causing to their quiet street. Muller was ordered by local authorities to move the orphans elsewhere. Unwilling to turn the children back onto the streets, George and Mary decided to purchase a large building and set it up as an orphanage. Despite having no money in the bank, Muller negotiated the purchase price of an appropriate building at Ashley Down, Bristol. He signed the contract with the vendor who had no idea that Muller was completely broke and had no means of paying the purchase price. Muller, however, was convinced that God would provide and so he committed himself to pray for God to send him the necessary funds. He prayed earnestly for many hours each day and told no one of his need. Indeed, several times during the period before settlement he was asked by wealthy Christian businessmen whether he needed any money for his charity work at the moment and Muller simply replied with his standard response, “No thank you. My Lord is providing for us.” By the time the settlement date arrived, Muller had miraculously received all the money necessary to purchase the building.

The orphanage at Ashley Down opened in 1849 and Muller immediately filled it with 300 orphans. Kitchen staff and others were employed and the children were fed, clothed and educated, all via the miraculous unsolicited donations that flowed into George Muller’s hands in response to his many hours of prayer each day. By 1870, 25 years later, a further four orphanages had been purchased or built and were owned outright, and more than 1,700 orphans were being cared for at any one time in the five centres. By the end of his life, George Muller had housed and cared for over 10,000 orphans, rescuing them from the squalid streets of England and giving them a life of new hope.

Every morning after breakfast, the children were taught from the Bible and led in prayer. Mueller also ensured that they were given a complete education – in an era when only the wealthy could afford to send their children to school. When the orphans finally left the orphanage, they were given a Bible and a tin trunk containing two sets of clothes. They were also helped to find apprenticeships, professional training or domestic service employment. In fact, Muller’s orphanages were so successful in rescuing street children and giving them a new future that local mining companies began to complain that they were having difficulty finding enough children to work in the mines.

In all of this, George Muller never made requests for financial support or even made his needs known, even when asked by an enquirer. Neither did he ever go into debt. The five orphanages cost over 100,000 pounds to purchase and establish and required many thousands of pounds each year to continue to run, and it was all funded through Muller’s extraordinary faith in the God who fed the sparrows and who promised to similarly care for those who trusted in him.

Muller kept meticulous records of donations and expenses, even recording gifts of a farthing or a single teaspoon. Donors were issued with receipts and urged to check their receipt against the next published financial report, issued by his accountant, to ensure that their donation had been properly accounted for. Below is a receipt for three pounds issued by George Muller on January 16, 1869. On the left edge of the receipt is a request that the donor keep the receipt and check it against the next published report.

Over the course of Muller’s life, he received 1,381,171 pounds – over 300 million dollars in today’s money. In addition to funding the orphanages, this money was also used to print and distribute 285,407 Bibles, 1,459,506 New Testaments, and 244,351 other religious texts which were translated into twenty other languages and distributed freely around the world.[4] It was also used to support a variety of missionaries, including Hudson Taylor.

But more than his generosity and philanthropy, it was Mueller’s incredible faith in God that sets him apart as one of the truly great saints. One inspiring incident in particular demonstrates this, and we will look at that in the next post.

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[1] “The Autobiography of George Muller”, Springdale, Pennsylvania: Whitaker House, 1984, pp.14-15.

[2] Autobiography, p.16

[3] George Muller, “A Narrative of Some of the Lord’s Dealings”, 1837, quoted in Goodreads.

[4] Autobiography of George Muller, p.693