George Müller: The Guardian of Bristol’s Orphans

“Yes,” replied George, surprised that anyone would recognize him in such an unusual setting.

“I have money that I need to give you for the orphans,” the man said.

The two men sat down on a nearby bench to talk for a few minutes. George learned that the man was a businessman from the nearby town of Minehead. The man had read several of the annual reports from the orphanage and was amazed that so many children were fed and clothed through prayer alone.

“Anyway,” said the businessman, looking directly at George. “At first I doubted your approach, so I decided to put it to the test. There was a piece of property I wanted to buy, and I had it valued. I then found out it was going to be sold at auction, so I put in a ridiculously low bid on it ahead of time and prayed and promised God that if I got the land I would give you one hundred pounds. By the time the auction came, I was so anxious to know what had happened that I caught the train out to where the land was being auctioned. To my amazement I found my bid had been accepted. I am now the owner of a valuable piece of property, and I purchased it for only a quarter of what it’s worth. I went to Bristol to give you the one hundred pounds, but I was told you were here in Ilfracombe, so I came to find you. I will bring the money to you if you tell me where you are staying.”

George smiled. “Thank you,” he said. “I am not surprised God blessed you with the land. I have heard many similar stories over the years, though I must confess it is amazing to me how people in so many parts of the country come to hear about the work of the orphanage. Now, you said you were from Minehead?”

“Yes,” replied the man.

“I cannot remember anyone from Minehead ever giving to the orphanage, but strangely, within the space of a week, two people from there want to give me money. Before I left Bristol, I received word from a lawyer in Minehead that a man wants to leave the orphanage a legacy of one thousand pounds in his will. The lawyer did not give the man’s name, but I find it quite remarkable, since I am not acquainted with a single person from there.”

A broad smile lit the businessman’s face. “Since you mentioned it, I will confess. I am the man who has left you the legacy! When I realized I had been wrong to doubt the power of prayer, I decided to make a will and leave you one thousand pounds to help carry on the orphan work.”

“So you have learned the power of prayer and of giving all in one lesson!” said George, with a beaming smile. “Showing Christians that God is able to answer prayer was one of the reasons I decided to build the orphanage at Ashley Down.”

The two men talked on for several more minutes before they went their separate ways. Later than afternoon, George received the one hundred pounds.

The following January, George’s friend and associate Henry Craik died from heart problems at the age of sixty, the same age as George. The funeral was held at Bethesda Chapel. It was a solemn day for George as he climbed into the pulpit to conduct the funeral service for his old friend and trusted adviser. The two men had been friends for thirty-six years.

After Henry Craik’s death, many people who worked with George began to worry about him and Mary. How long could they survive the hectic pace they set themselves? How many other sixty-year-old men hand wrote over three thousand letters a year, preached three times a week, and oversaw the work of three separate ministries? And how many sixty-eight-year-old women inspected every shipment of supplies that came into an orphanage or personally arranged for the sewing and mending of over ten thousand complete outfits of clothing, not to mention regularly going over all the accounts to make sure they were kept accurately? The pace, however, did not slow down the Müllers one bit. Orphans were still being sent to the poorhouses or living on the streets in Great Britain, and George would not rest until he had done all he could to help them.

Four months later, in May 1866, ground was broken for Number Four Orphan House. The house was completed in November of the following year, and work on Number Five Orphan House was immediately begun. On January 6, 1870, the last of the orphan houses was completed, and the children moved in. Now, in the five orphan houses, George Müller and his workers were caring for two thousand fifty children!

Every child who came to the orphanage had his or her own story of how he or she came to be there. One of the stories that was recorded concerned William Ready, who was born in a London poorhouse early in 1860. William’s mother died soon after William was born, leaving him and his nine brothers and sisters in the care of their drunkard father, who died in 1865. The ten children had become orphans.

When their father died, William Ready and his brothers and sisters begged to be allowed to leave the poorhouse. They made up a story about a relative who was waiting for them. In truth, they had nowhere to go, but they wanted to get away from the terrible conditions in the poorhouse. The children lived on the streets, scavenging whatever they could find to eat, an orange peel here, an apple core there, a rotten banana from the garbage. Anything that could stave off their gnawing hunger pangs was quickly scooped up and gulped down with delight. Sometimes William even collected and ate cigar butts so there would at least be something in his stomach. On the weekends, William and his older brothers went to pubs, where they sang funny songs and did acrobatics for a penny or two.

All in all, it was a grim life, and one from which very few children ever grew to be adults. William Ready, though, survived in spite of the odds. A Christian man from St. George’s Church in Bloomsbury noticed William when he was twelve years old. He asked William if he would like to live in an orphanage. William eagerly said yes, not because he knew what an orphanage was but because anything sounded better than the life he was leading.

A week later, William Ready was not a happy boy. He had been taken to the orphanage at Ashley Down, where he was scrubbed from head to toe, given a haircut, and told to wear a uniform of brown corduroy trousers, white shirt, button-up vest, and navy blue Eton coat. He told the matron he felt like a stuffed chicken. Worse still, he had to go to school each day. It didn’t take the teacher long to figure out that William could not read or write a single word. So at twelve years of age, William had to begin his studies with the kindergarten children.

Finally, William settled into the routine, and after several years, he was one of the top students in the school. Mr. French, the person at the orphanage in charge of finding employment for the boys, asked William if he would like to become a flour miller. William thought that would be a fine occupation. Soon, his final day at the orphanage approached. As with all the children who left the orphanage, William was given three new sets of clothes to take with him. The orphanage also paid his apprenticeship fee, which amounted to his first year’s wages.

The last thing each child did before leaving the orphanage was to have a final interview with George Müller. George looked up from his desk when he heard the knock at the door. “Come in,” he said.

William Ready walked in, and George motioned for him to sit down.

“Well, lad, it’s time for you to leave us,” George said fondly.

“Yes, sir,” replied William respectfully.

George opened a draw in his desk, pulled out a half-crown (a coin worth two shillings and sixpence), and walked over to where William Ready was sitting. “Hold out your hands, lad,” he said, picking up a Bible from the table beside him.

When William held out his hands, George placed the Bible in his right hand and the coin in his left. “You can hold on more tightly to something in your right hand than you can to something in your left hand, can you not?” he asked.

William Ready nodded.

“Well, wherever you go, remember this. If you hold tightly to the teaching in the Bible, God will always give you something in your other hand to hold as well.”

After George had prayed for William, he shook his hand and wished him the best in his life ahead.

Like so many of the other orphans, William Ready kept in touch with George by letter, and he sent money whenever he could to help raise other orphan children—children unknown to either of them that day in George’s office. George and William were destined to meet again, though, many years later and thousands of miles from Bristol.

Chapter 15
Traveling Days

My dear, you don’t look well,” said George with great concern. “Why don’t you go back to bed and let me send for Dr. Pritchard.”

“No, really, I mean…,” Mary Müller’s voice trailed off as she leaned on the dressing table to keep her balance. “I do feel a bit dizzy. I might go back to bed, if you think you could possibly do without me for today.”

Mary folded the covers back and climbed into bed. “I know there is still so much to do. After all, Number Five Orphan House has been open only a week. I wanted to finish sewing the drapes for the dining room windows, and I wonder if you could visit Johnny Smalley—he was looking pale yesterday. I hope he isn’t coming down with something serious.”

“Just rest, and let me take care of things,” said George, patting Mary’s hand. “I will send for the doctor.”

George was very worried. In the twenty-one years the orphanage on Ashley Down had been open, Mary had never spent a day in bed sick. Something serious was wrong with his wife; he could feel it.

An hour later, Dr. Pritchard was standing in the hallway talking to George and Lydia. “I’m afraid to tell you, but Mrs. Müller is a very sick woman. She has rheumatic fever. I’ve given her some medicine to keep her comfortable, but there’s not much else I can do. I’m sorry.”

George spent much of the rest of the day with his ailing wife, praying for her and talking over the affairs of the orphanage. He wished he could spend the whole day at her side, but there were some important things at the orphanage only he could take care of. As he got up to leave the room, he said softly, “My darling, I’m sorry to leave you, but I will return as soon as I can.”

Mary turned to her husband and with joy on her face replied, “You leave me with Jesus.”

The next day, Sunday, February 6, 1870, Mary Müller died, leaving George, Lydia, and two thousand orphans to mourn her.

Five days later, George conducted her funeral service at Bethesda Chapel. He spoke of her love for the orphans and the hard work she had done on their behalf for thirty-four years. He preached a short message at the funeral based on Psalm 119:68: “Thou art good, and doest good.” There was hardly a dry eye among the congregation by the time he had finished speaking of his gratitude to God for giving him such a wonderful wife for thirty-nine years and four months.

The funeral service was one of the largest Bristol had ever seen. Thousands of people who could not squeeze into the chapel waited silently outside, ready to walk beside the coffin to the cemetery.

After the funeral, hundreds of letters poured in from adults who had lived in the orphanage as children. Many of the writers expressed their love for Mary and shared their memories of Wilson Street and Ashley Down. One woman wrote, “I was only a small child then, and am still a child when I think of Ashley Down. It was a lovely, lovely spot…and no place ever seemed so dear.”

Another wrote, “True, I never knew my parents, to know what it was to love them; but I do know what it is to love you and her [Mary Müller] and from my heart I mourn her loss. I know you miss her daily.”

George was comforted by these letters and the many others like them, but he could not help but miss Mary in a thousand little ways each day. He missed their times of prayer together in the morning, the way she visited the sick children each day and gave him a report on their condition, the delight she felt over showing the older girls a new embroidery stitch or rocking a baby until it fell asleep. The orphan houses were not the same without Mary. Before long, George came to the conclusion that it would be better to have them run by a married couple rather than a sixty-five-year-old widower.