George Müller: The Guardian of Bristol’s Orphans

There, he had done it. He stood up and ran his hands through his thick, brown hair. Now he would wait and see what happened.

An hour later as George was rewriting some lecture notes, he was interrupted by a firm knock at the door. “Come in,” he yelled, assuming it to be one of his friends.

The door swung open, and standing in the doorway was none other than Dr. Tholuck, Halle University’s new professor of divinity, and with him a stranger. George jumped to his feet in astonishment, wondering what on earth the professor was doing at his doorway. He bowed politely, spilling papers everywhere as he did so. “I am sorry, sir,” he said, unsure of what to do next. “Would you like to come in?”

George glanced quickly around his room. His books were sprawled out on his bed, and a half-drunk cup of coffee and a trail of crumbs lay on his desk. The two men entered the room.

“Thank you,” said Dr. Tholuck, who then turned to the stranger and began to speak to him in English. George soon realized why the professor was speaking English. “Dr. Hodge, this is George Müller, the man I told you so much about. George, this is Dr. Hodge from Princeton University in America.”

Dr. Hodge smiled warmly but said nothing.

George bowed again. He could not think of anything else to do or why on earth these two distinguished men were crammed into his tiny room.

“I will get right to the point,” Dr. Tholuck went on, clearing his throat. “Dr. Hodge and three of his colleagues from America have come to visit Halle for a year. They will be attending lectures and, as time goes by, giving them as well. There is just one difficulty. None of them speaks German.”

“Oh,” said George, wondering how any of this involved him.

Dr. Tholuck smiled. “I have been told you speak English well and that you would make an excellent tutor for our guests.”

George could feel himself getting a little flustered. This was the last thing he needed. If he volunteered to help four people learn English, he would have no time at all to earn money even if he did find a job. He had to think of a polite way to say no.

“I am honored,” he stammered, reverting back to German in the hope of not embarrassing Dr. Hodge. “It’s just that it would be hard to find the time. My circumstances have changed a little this year, and I have been forced to look for a job.” He smiled, hoping Dr. Tholuck would not be insulted.

“Why George,” laughed Dr. Tholuck. “You don’t think I would ask you to do this for nothing, do you? This is a job!”

“I see,” said George with a lot more excitement in his voice.

“You must discuss the rate with Dr. Hodge. Take the job only if it pays enough,” advised Dr. Tholuck.

Feeling a little awkward about the situation, George turned to the American. He spoke in English again. “I hear you would like me to tutor you in German,” he said.

“Yes,” replied Dr. Hodge with a strong American accent. “And if you do it half as well as the professor promises me you will, we’ll be glad to pay you twice the going rate. Now let’s work out the details, shall we?”

Fifteen minutes later, it was all settled. George would tutor the four Americans for eight hours a week. Even though they would come to lessons together, Dr. Hodge insisted they would each be happy to pay him separately, and double the normal rate. George’s eyes widened as he added it up. This meant he would be getting eight times as much as a regular tutor would be paid. He tried to protest that it was too much, but Dr. Hodge just smiled and told him not to worry about it. The money had already been set aside.

As George opened the door to bid his guests farewell, Dr. Tholuck turned to him and said, “Maybe there is something else you might be interested in, George. Apparently there’s an orphanage across the street, the Franke Orphanage, I believe it’s called. Anyway, they have a room set aside for a divinity student. It’s nothing fancy from what I understand, but deserving students are selected to stay there free for two months at a time. Have you heard of it?”

George nodded. “Yes, I have, sir,” he replied, recollecting the way he and his friends at the ale house had made fun of the poor, unfortunate students who’d been forced to stay there. But now, for some reason, it sounded like somewhere he would like to stay.

“I have to submit a list of names of worthy students. Would you like me to put your name on the list?” asked Dr. Tholuck, looking directly into George’s deep blue eyes.

“Yes, sir. Thank you. I would be very grateful if you would.”

“I thought you might. From what I’ve heard, it seems like the kind of thing you’d be interested in. Well, I must get Dr. Hodge back to his room so he can finish unpacking. Good day to you, George.”

“Nice to meet you, son,” said the American, flashing him a smile.

With that, the two men were gone.

George walked back to his desk and sat down. He felt like he was in a dream. He pulled his watch from his pocket. It had been only an hour and a half since he’d prayed. And now he had a well-paying job and the possibility of a free room for two months. He knelt at his bedside for the second time that afternoon and gave thanks to God.

As it turned out, George Müller was the second student to get to use the room at the orphanage that year. He moved his few belongings up the five flights of stairs to the room on the top floor with the dull view of the gray stone building directly across the street.

While the view from the room might have been dull, life at the orphanage was certainly lively! George had walked past the orphanage nearly every day since arriving in Halle, but he had no idea how or why it had been founded. When he heard the story, he was fascinated by it. Dr. A. H. Franke had been a professor of theology at Halle University a hundred years before. Since Dr. Franke was a dedicated Christian, he felt God had called him to help the orphans in the town. With no rich family connections and only a little money of his own, he had managed to scrape together enough to build the large six-story building. From there he had fed, clothed, housed, and educated two thousand children. Even now, George was told, the orphanage had no regular source of income, and those who ran it relied upon God to supply their needs. Because Dr. Franke had been a professor at Halle, he had stated in his will that one room of the orphanage was to be permanently set aside for deserving students to use free of charge.

George was in awe of Dr. Franke’s story, which made his prayer asking for enough money to make it through the year seem puny by comparison. He wondered how a person ever got to have faith like Dr. Franke’s.

While George was staying at the orphanage, he was invited to give his first sermon at a small countryside church. This was an important moment for a divinity student, and George fretted about what he should say. He skimmed through many books looking for something that sounded grand enough. Once he had selected a passage, he wrote out his sermon, correcting and recorrecting it, trying first one word and then another. Satisfied that he could improve it no more, he submitted it to a professor for approval. Once it was approved, he committed the entire half-hour sermon to memory. He did not want to read it from the page when he delivered it, and he did not want to get caught for a single second without knowing what he was going to say next.

Finally, Sunday, August 27, 1826, arrived. George borrowed a horse and rode out into the countryside to the dot on the map where he was assured there was a church. Sure enough, as he approached the location, there it was, nestled among the trees, its bell chiming that it was time for the service to begin. George hurried in and met the elderly pastor. Then he quickly checked out the pulpit to reassure himself that everything was in order.

George stood nervously picking at one of his coat buttons as the last strains of the hymn faded. He adjusted the collar of his shirt and stood to speak. He began exactly as he had planned. With growing satisfaction he realized he could recite the sermon perfectly. He put emphasis on the right words and paused just long enough for the right dramatic effect. His voice rose and fell evenly, and by the end of the sermon he was congratulating himself. It was a near perfect performance.

As George stood at the door after the service, shaking hands with members of the congregation, his attitude quickly changed. The congregation consisted of poor, rural people, mostly farmers. Several of them thanked George for his “very fancy sermon.” Others laughed and said they hadn’t understood a word he’d said.

George ate lunch with the elderly pastor of the church. He tried to be polite, but his mind was not really on the conversation. Instead, he was thinking about his sermon, the very sermon a week before he had thought was a brilliantly polished masterpiece. But what had seemed polished and alive to him had been dead and irrelevant to his hearers. George could rationalize that they were just illiterate farmers and unable to grasp the simplest of concepts taught in university, but he was starting to see things from a different perspective. The purpose of a sermon was not for the preacher to show how many long words he could string together or how many important books he could mention. No, the purpose of a sermon was to instruct people about how to know God, and for that purpose, the simpler it was, the better.

By the end of lunch, George had made a decision. He was not ever again going to preach as he had that morning. Rather, he was going to preach using simple words and ideas, and he would quote only from the Bible.

Later that afternoon he had a chance to try out his new approach to delivering sermons. He was scheduled to speak at the afternoon service in the church. Originally, he had intended to deliver the same sermon again, but not now. He folded the pages the sermon was written on and put them back in his pouch. Instead, he pulled out his Bible. “Is there somewhere I could be alone for a few minutes to pray?” he politely asked.

The old pastor seemed surprised by the request. “Well, yes, you can stay here if you like. I always take a stroll in the garden after lunch. I was going to ask you to join me, but if you would rather stay here and pray….” His voice trailed off.

“Thank you,” George replied. “I think I need to.”

When the old pastor had gone, George sank to his knees beside his chair. “Dear God,” he prayed simply, “show me what you want me to say this afternoon.” With that he opened his Bible to the Book of Matthew, chapter five, to the passage he had been reading that morning back at Halle. Before long some ideas came to him based around the verse “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

George thanked God for His help and stood up. There would be no fancy, high-sounding sermon this afternoon, just a few simple thoughts from the New Testament.

That afternoon, the congregation left the church with smiles on their faces. “I think I learned something this afternoon,” said one farmer with calloused hands.

“You really made things come alive,” said an old woman, her brown eyes shining.

George rode back to Halle a happy man. He had learned a lesson, a lesson he vowed never to forget.

The rest of the year passed quickly for George. He was asked to give more sermons, and he made sure they were always simple messages from his heart. He went to the Bible meeting every Saturday, and on Sunday mornings he would walk ten or fifteen miles to hear a good preacher. On Sunday evenings, a group of Christian men from Halle met in his room for prayer and hymn singing.

Exactly a year after George had delivered his first sermon, a letter addressed to Dr. Tholuck arrived at Halle University from the Continental Missionary Society in England. The letter asked Dr. Tholuck if he had a student he could recommend to be a missionary in the city of Bucharest in southeastern Europe. Dr. Tholuck wasted no time in asking George if he was interested. After praying about it, George agreed to fill out the application papers and send them back to London. He felt sure he would get the position because, much to his surprise, his father had agreed to let him go. He saw this as a sign of God’s blessing on the endeavor.