George Müller: The Guardian of Bristol’s Orphans

George washed his hands and dried them on a towel in the kitchen. Then he walked into the parlor and took a stack of papers from his bag. The papers were forms he had picked up from the printer the day before, forms for the guardians of the orphans to fill out. They asked for the child’s full name, birth date, age, and education; date of the child’s parents’ death; and a person to contact in an emergency. As George had been drawing up the forms, he was aware that many of them would never be filled out completely. Some children as young as two or three years old wandered around alone. If some caring person or policeman brought one of them to the orphanage someday, it would be something if the child could remember his or her first name, let alone all the other information. Still, George reminded himself, today he couldn’t accept applications from children that young even though he wanted to. For now, the orphanage was set up only for girls aged seven to twelve. He hoped that they or a guardian would be able to fill out more of the information.

George laid the forms out around the table so that several people could work on them at once. He knew many of the girls would be unable to read or write, but he hoped they would bring someone with them who could.

By lunch time, George had rearranged the forms five or six times as he waited for a knock at the door. The attic walls needed to be painted, but he hated to go upstairs and get up to his elbows in paint, because the girls would be arriving at the door at any moment, or so he told himself. But the girls did not arrive.

By five o’clock that night, not a single orphan had arrived at the fully equipped orphan house. The new “house parents” had been by several times to see whether anyone had shown up, and since no one had, they left for the day. The beds that George had expected little girls would be climbing into sat untouched, their bedspreads unruffled.

George was not humming when he walked home that evening. In his mind he reviewed the past seven weeks. What had gone wrong? Had he become too proud of what he was doing? Was that why God did not entrust a single child to him? Hadn’t he prayed hard enough? Was the whole idea of a free orphanage for needy children just too far-fetched? Were the naysayers right after all? George did not know the answers, and by the time he swung open the door to his own house, his heart was heavy.

Mary rushed to meet him, with Lydia was not far behind. “Tell me all about it,” she said, her face beaming with an expectant smile. “What are their names? How many are there? How old are they?”

George shook his head as he took off his coat and scarf. He sat down heavily in a chair. “There aren’t any,” he said with a sigh.

Mary frowned. “What do you mean, George? There aren’t any what?”

“Any orphans,” he replied flatly.

The smile evaporated from Mary’s face and was replaced by a horrified look. “You mean not a single girl came?” she questioned.

George nodded. “Not a single one,” he answered, and then he added, “Maybe this was all a mistake after all.”

Mary walked over to her husband and put her hands on her hips in a determined stance. “How can you say that, George Müller? Look at all the prayers God has answered for us! Isn’t the house an answer to prayer? Look how much money has been provided. Isn’t that an answer to prayer, too? And the calico, the dishes, the furniture, everything in that house is an answer to prayer, and we both know it.”

George lifted his head and looked at her for the first time since entering the house. “I know,” he shrugged. “But there aren’t any orphans, and that’s not an answer to prayer, is it Mary?”

With that Mary clapped her hands together and laughed out loud.

Startled, George stared up at her. This was no time to be making fun. Couldn’t she see that?

“But George,” she said, her shining eyes wrapped up in a broad smile, “that’s the whole point. We never did pray for children. Don’t you see? We prayed for coal and food and paint and workers, but we never thought to pray for children!”

George was laughing now. “Mary, you are quite right. I didn’t think we needed to because there are so many orphans on the streets, and I was sure we’d have applications from more people than we could house!” He caught his wife by the waist and swung her around. “Let’s go and pray, Mrs. Müller,” he said.

For the second morning in a row, George hummed as he walked to Wilson Street. This time he felt sure the orphan girls would come. After all, he had asked God to send them. And send them He did! The first children applied that day. By the end of the month, the orphanage housed twenty-six girls, and forty-two more were on the waiting list. It was April 2 before George found the time to organize an official opening ceremony.

Hundreds of people came to see the orphanage and to listen to Henry Craik preach at the official opening. George thanked the many hundreds of people who had helped make the orphanage a reality. Some, he pointed out, had helped in large ways, such as with the ton of coal that had been delivered to the house one day and the anonymous gift of one hundred pounds that had arrived the next day. But many of the gifts had been small, yet they meant just as much both to the person who had given them and to George, who told how a small boy who looked like he could have been an orphan himself knocked boldly on his door the day before, a shilling held tightly in his hand. “This is for your girls,” the boy said when George opened the door. “I found a ring, and when I returned it to the owner, she gave me a shilling for being so honest. Here it is.” A woman in Bristol sent George five shillings with a note saying she had gone to buy a new dress and deliberately chose the plainest one she could find rather than the more elaborate and expensive kind she normally purchased. The five shillings represented the money she had saved by purchasing the less expensive dress, and she wanted the orphanage to have it.

The year rushed by at a hectic pace. Besides having thirty girls to care for, George was still pastor of Gideon Chapel, which was growing rapidly, and he had not eased off in his efforts with the Scriptural Knowledge Institution for Home and Abroad. Three hundred fifty boys and girls were now in school, and the teachers’ salaries, rents for the classrooms, and books were all provided by the institution. It seemed that the more responsibilities George took on, the more he was able to carry.

Although George never asked for help with the orphan girls, offers poured in. A local doctor offered to treat the girls for free, and George’s old church at Teignmouth sent supplies and money to help. Housekeepers, laundry maids, and matrons either volunteered their services or agreed to work for lower wages than they could earn elsewhere.

Most people would have thought the hardest thing about starting an orphanage was raising the money, but for George Müller, the hardest thing was turning away needy children. The orphanage was not set up for boys or girls under seven years of age. It upset George greatly to have to tell a child or the child’s temporary guardian that he was unable to help. So, even though he told no one, from the day of the official opening of the orphanage at number six Wilson Street, a plan had been taking shape in George’s mind. According to his plan there would be a second orphanage and a third until every orphan in Bristol was being taken care of, taught to read, and told about God.

In October, George felt it was time to start putting his plan into action. He rented a second house, located at number one Wilson Street. The house was ideal in many ways. While it was an exact replica of the number six house and all the other houses in the long row that ran along Wilson Street, number one was at the beginning of the row and had an empty corner lot beside it. George managed to rent both the house and the adjoining lot. By the end of November, the house had been outfitted with cribs and rocking horses, and the lot had been turned into a playground for both orphanages. On November 28, 1836, the orphanage at number one Wilson Street was opened for business. Some of the older girls from the other orphanage helped with the babies and toddlers at the new one. Many of the girls would be going into domestic service as nannies, and the younger children gave them someone to practice their skills on, though a matron was always watching to make sure the babies were bathed and played with properly.

The week leading up to Christmas was a happy one for the Müller family, and especially happy for the children in the orphanages. The children’s eyes shone with delight as they asked George how many more days there were to go and what they would be having for Christmas dinner. George loved to tease them and tell them he had forgotten all about Christmas. Of course, he hadn’t. He knew it would be the first real Christmas for many of the children, and he prayed that God would make it memorable for them.

Christmas was memorable. All sorts of wonderful and delicious things were brought to the orphanage by the people of Bristol. Turkeys and ducks hung in the laundry room ready to be cooked. An enormous drum containing one hundred pounds of treacle sat in the corner of the kitchen, its top slightly askew where some of the children had already tasted its thick, sweet contents. Oranges and bananas from a shipment that had arrived in port from the West Indies were sent to the orphanage, and many church women made new Sunday clothes for the girls.

As George gathered his family, sixty orphan children, the orphanage staff, and Henry Craik for Christmas dinner, he could not help but smile with pure joy. He wondered what the policemen in Wolfenbüttel would think of him now. It had been fifteen Christmases ago that he’d sat in a cold, bare prison cell there after being captured trying to leave town without paying the innkeeper for his room. If George could have seen then what he was to become, he would never have believed it. God had taken George Müller, the boy who cared for no one but himself, and turned him into a man now responsible for the lives of dozens of orphan children. What a journey it had been, and George could not help but wonder where he would be and what he would be doing at Christmases to come.

Chapter 11
Food for the Children

The King Is Dead, Long Live the Queen,” read the headline of the Tuesday, June 20, 1837, edition of the Bristol Times. George already knew what had happened, as did nearly everyone in Bristol. The news had traveled fast; all flags had been lowered to half-mast, shops were closed, and church bells tolled endlessly. That night after dinner, George and Mary Müller spent a long time praying for the new, eighteen-year-old queen, Victoria. Lydia, on the other hand, wanted to know what all the fuss was about. “Why don’t the church bells stop ringing, Papa?” she asked. “Are they stuck?”

“No, my dear,” replied George, hoisting her onto his lap. “King William IV died this morning, and many people are sad.”

“He must have been very important,” said Lydia.

“He was,” George replied, “and people in England are sad. But on Saturday, everyone is going to be happy, and we will have the biggest parade you have ever seen. We will be celebrating a new queen. Her name is Queen Victoria, and she is only thirteen years older than you.”

Lydia giggled at the thought.

That Saturday Lydia was at the parade with her parents and about forty of the older orphan children. All the people were given a Union Jack to wave as they watched the long procession of mayors, magistrates, and ministers go by in their carriages.

After the parade, George hurried home. He still had a lot of work to do if he was going to open a boys’ orphanage at number three Wilson Street by the end of the month. Need for the new orphanage, which would house about forty boys, had become urgent, since there was nowhere else to send the little boys from the infant house when they turned seven years old.

The third orphan house opened on time, and George was now responsible for eighty-one children and nine full-time staff. The waiting list of children wanting to get into the orphanage was long enough to fill three more homes. Besides tending to the orphans, George, through the Scriptural Knowledge Institution for Home and Abroad, was providing an education for three hundred fifty children in day schools and another three hundred twenty in Sunday schools.