George Müller: The Guardian of Bristol’s Orphans

Later that same year, ill health crept up on George. George had never quite fully recovered from his stomach hemorrhage, and the old problem flared up again. Mary feared that her husband might die on her as well. The doctor made it clear to George that he needed a change of air if he was to have any hope of recovery. So with Mary and Lydia, George traveled to the Isle of Wight, where he spent his thirtieth birthday.

For once, George had time to read, and he took advantage of it. He read the biographies of many great missionaries, including John Newton. He also took time to read various newspapers. Each day the consequences of the Poor Law Amendment Act seemed to make the headlines, and George could see why. Until 1834, the English government, through church parishes, had helped to support working people during times when they were unable to find a job. This support had kept many families from starving, and allowed men the dignity of returning to work as soon as they could find it. However, in 1834, that had all changed. In an effort to save money, the government had taken away the support it provided for the working poor and replaced it with a policy stating that a family that could not support itself would have to go to a poorhouse.

Even as George convalesced on the Isle of Wight, many new poorhouses were being built around the country. Poorhouses were awful places, and they were meant to be. The government wanted them to be as unattractive as possible to discourage people from applying. But without the extra financial support from the government, hundreds of working families, single parents, and orphans had nowhere else to turn, no matter how unattractive the poorhouses were made to be.

The more George read about these places, the sadder he became. Husbands, wives, and children in the poorhouses were all separated and made to do the most menial work. For twelve or fourteen hours a day, people were forced to crush horse and cow bones by hand, break rocks apart, and hand-grind corn. After a day’s work, they flopped exhausted onto their lice- and flea-infested bunks, knowing they would have to get up the next day and do it all over again. In return for their labor, workers got two meals a day, to be eaten in silence. All children seven years old and up were made to work and were not allowed to see their parents, even if they were in the same poorhouse. The death rate in the poorhouses was high. Disease flourished in the horrid living conditions, and such a sense of hopelessness hung in the air that many people committed suicide.

Every day on the Isle of Wight, George prayed for Henry Craik and the ongoing work in Bristol, where he longed to be. With the growing poorhouse situation, there was going to be more work than ever.

As soon as George got better, he returned to Bristol. On November 15, he wrote in his diary, “We arrived safely. Last week we prayed repeatedly concerning the work of the Scriptural Knowledge Institution and especially that the Lord will give us the means to continue and even enlarge the work.”

Within a short time of George’s return to Bristol, three events occurred, any one of which was interesting, but when put together, they convinced George that it was time to begin the work for which he would come to be known around the world.

The principal of the boys’ school run by the Scriptural Knowledge Institution came to report on the school’s progress. George knew each student in the school. He knew his likes and dislikes and what he hoped to be when he grew up. As a result, George was very interested in what the principal had to say. Since each student represented a hope for the future, George was upset when he learned that Freddie, one of the first boys to enroll, and a good student, had been taken to the poorhouse. Children had fewer rights than anyone else in the poorhouse. Freddie would not be allowed visitors unless the matron approved them, he could not leave the poorhouse to go to school, and he could not own any private property, not even the Bible George had given him.

George lay his head in his hands. “Why did it have to happen to Freddie?” he asked, directing his question at no one in particular.

The principal responded. “It seems his father was dragged off to jail, for petty theft, I think, and he died there the same night. His mother was taken by cholera, and his aunt took care of him. She waited until there was not a scrap of food left in the house, and then she marched Freddie down to the poorhouse so he could at least eat.”

“It’s so unfair,” replied George. “What good is it opening schools if the children can’t come because they have no food and no lodging?”

The question hung in the air, and George was still trying to work out an answer to it when he visited Bill Wentworth, a member of the congregation at Gideon Chapel. Bill Wentworth pumped the bellows for the forge at one of the new factories that were springing up all over Bristol. Indeed, George was actually surprised to find him home, since Bill Wentworth seemed to be at work all the time.

“Hello, Mr. Wentworth, may I come in?” called George through the open doorway.

“Of course you can. Make yourself comfortable, and I’ll have the missus put on a pot of tea for us,” said Bill Wentworth, wiping his hands on a dirty rag. “What can I do for you then?”

“I was just in the neighborhood and thought I’d visit. I’m surprised to catch you at home,” replied George.

Bill Wentworth nodded grimly. “Yeah, I’m glad for the job, don’t make any mistake about that, but the hours are awful long. Normally, I work sixteen hours a day, sometimes longer.” He coughed hard when he stopped talking.

“And do you have time for prayer and Bible study?” George asked.

Bill Wentworth looked sheepish. “Not really. By the time I’m done with work, I’m not much good for anything but sleep, to be honest.”

“Have you thought of working less? You don’t sound too healthy,” said George.

Bill Wentworth laughed scornfully. “If you don’t mind me saying so, it’s all very well to say what we should be doing from the pulpit, it’s quite another to have to earn a living for your family. Why, if I didn’t work all the time, the whole family would be dragged off to the poorhouse, and we all know what that’s like!”

George nodded. Many in his congregation had told him they worked such long hours that there was simply no time left for spiritual things. Still, George was not ready to give up on Bill Wentworth. “You have to understand that God has promised to supply the needs of all His children. Jesus told us to seek God’s kingdom first and He will add all the other things to us.”

“It’s a fine idea, Pastor, but if I cut back on my hours, I don’t think God would provide real things for me like shoes or food, do you?” Bill Wentworth looked a little embarrassed. “I mean, I know the Bible says He can do that, and you preach it and all. But I’ve never seen it for myself, in real life, if you know what I mean.”

Again George nodded. He did know what Bill Wentworth meant, only too well. He had heard the same argument a hundred times before. Yes, the person believed that God could provide for him, but no, he was not prepared to take time out of his overworked life to pray and serve others and allow God to meet his needs. George longed for something or someone to point to, something he could show a person and say, “Look, he honored God, and God is looking after him in every way.”

Several days after visiting Bill Wentworth, George visited another member of the congregation. Unlike Bill, Elizabeth Brinsdon had a lot of spare time. And judging from her collection of books, George figured she must spent a lot of it reading. He sat in a well-padded chair chatting away with Elizabeth Brinsdon as a servant poured tea for them.

“Please, have a scone,” Elizabeth Brinsdon offered, holding out a fine china plate with five scones neatly arranged on it. Each scone was spread with bright red raspberry jam with a dollop of Devonshire cream on top.

“Thank you,” said George. “These look delicious. I see you have a great many interesting books. Do you mind if I look?”

“By all means,” replied Elizabeth Brinsdon. “And if any of them interest you, feel free to borrow them.”

George put down his cup of tea and scone and stood to scan the bookshelf nearest him. Many of the books he had studied at school and at university. There were also ancient Greek and Latin texts, as well as some books by new English novelists. George reached up to pull out a small, dark, leather-bound book that had no name on its spine.

“You might be interested in that book, Pastor. If I remember correctly, it was translated from German,” Elizabeth Brinsdon said as George lifted the book from the shelf.

Goosebumps ran up and down George’s neck as he turned the book over and read its title. The volume was an English translation of the biography of A. H. Franke, the professor from Halle University who had started the orphanage in Halle.

“Do you know the book?” asked Elizabeth Brinsdon.

“As a matter of fact, I do,” George replied. “When I was a university student at Halle, I stayed in a room at the orphanage he started.”

Elizabeth Brinsdon’s eyes sparkled. “Then you must take the book, Pastor Müller. I’m sure you will want to reacquaint yourself with the wonderful story.”

George lay in bed that night unable to sleep. He thought about Bill Wentworth and all the men and women he was constantly encouraging to trust God. What or who was it that he could point to to help them understand what he was talking about? He thought of Freddie, who at that very moment was alone in a room filled with men, some kind, some mentally ill, and some just plain evil. And he thought of the biography of A. H. Franke. How strange it was to find it in a private library in Bristol, England.

“Somehow,” George prayed, “let me be a light to those around me, and help me to find a way to reach the orphans before it’s too late.”

In his wildest dreams, George Müller could not have imagined how his simple prayer would be answered.

Chapter 9
The First Orphanage in Bristol

The Wednesday night two weeks before Christmas was cold and windy. George and Mary Müller walked arm in arm up Paul Street from their home towards Gideon Chapel on their way to a special meeting. When they arrived, they found the chapel already crowded with people. They made their way to the front of the chapel. As George stood to speak, he could feel his heart thumping wildly with excitement and anticipation. He cleared his throat and began the speech that was to be the outline for the rest of his life’s work. “I have called this meeting for one purpose,” he began. “God has told me to start an orphanage.”

The audience let out a gasp and murmured as George went on to tell them about the pattern of operation for his orphanage. There would be no collections, no asking for money, and no payment required from the children who were taken in. Instead, George would rely on God to supply all the needs of the orphans.

After he had finished talking, George invited questions from the audience. Some were practical, such as, Where was the orphanage to be located? George did not know, since God had not yet shown him a house. What orphans would he take in, and how many? George thought there would probably be around thirty girls aged seven to twelve. How old would a girl be when she left the orphanage? George wasn’t sure. He hoped to find work for most of the girls as domestic servants when they were twelve, but no girl would be returned to the streets because she was too old for the orphanage. Some place would be found for her to go. Did he have any staff? Not yet.

Some of the questions were more spiritual. One man with a long gold watch chain draped across his ample belly asked if George really thought God was interested in the daily needs of an orphanage. Did he honestly think, for instance, that God would send chamber pots and bandages, schoolbooks and socks for thirty girls whom no one loved or cared about? George replied that they would have to wait and see, but in his experience, there wasn’t anything too large or small to ask God for.