George Müller: The Guardian of Bristol’s Orphans

Although George returned to London feeling physically stronger than he had felt in a long time, something else about him had changed. George had a new mission. He had been inspired by Henry Craik’s description of Anthony Groves and the Plymouth Brethren. George promised himself that he would stop reading books about the Bible and instead read only the Bible itself from cover to cover. And when he had read through the Bible completely, he would start at the beginning and read it again.

The more George read the Bible, the more he wanted to start doing something right away. He didn’t want to wait until he was sent out by the missionary society. George organized a prayer meeting in his room each evening from six until eight. He invited his fellow students, many of whom came to the meetings. But this wasn’t enough for George. Why, he asked himself, should he wait until he got to Europe to preach to the Jews? There were thousands of Jews right here in London.

George took to the streets of London, his pockets stuffed with tracts, each with his name and address carefully written on it. He headed for the street corners where he had seen Jewish men gather. Sometimes he preached to the men assembled there, sometimes he read from the New Testament to the small boys who crowded around him, and sometimes he handed out tracts inviting people to visit him.

As he did this, George began to notice something, not something unusual, but something so obvious he’d missed it all along! As he spoke to the Jews, hundreds of non-Jewish people hurried by him. But many of these people needed to hear the gospel message as much as Jewish people did. A desire to talk to people of all religions and faiths about God began to grow in George. It was a desire that would not go away. George began to wonder whether it was right for him to continue his involvement with the London Society for Promoting Christianity Among the Jews. He no longer wanted to go to Europe and work only among the Jews. He wanted to stay in England and preach to anyone who would listen.

On New Year’s Day, 1830, he made up his mind. He wrote a letter to the members of the missionary society thanking them for their help and support but asking to be released from their program because he no longer felt sure that God wanted him to return to Europe to preach only to the Jewish people.

On January 27, the board of the society met to consider George Müller’s request. Disappointed, they finally agreed to release from their program one of the best students they’d ever had. George was now a free man, a foreigner with nowhere to go, no missionary society to back him, no job, and only a five-pound note in his pocket. He could not have been happier.

Chapter 6
A New Beginning

George Müller looked down from the pulpit at the crowd of bobbing bonnets and balding heads in Ebenezer Chapel at Teignmouth. A lot had happened in the three months since he had left London. George had gone back to Devon to visit his friend Henry Craik, who had arranged for him to preach at a number of various chapels around the area during his visit. Now, twelve weeks later, Ebenezer Chapel had asked him to become its pastor.

As he looked out over the congregation, George knew it had not been an easy decision for the congregation to make. Indeed, a few people had left the church over the young Prussian upstart who thought he could preach to good English Christians! Still, others had been impressed by George’s preaching, particularly its results. Five new converts had joined the church as a result of George’s preaching and more than filled the spaces made by those who had left the church over George’s becoming the new pastor.

When he had finished the morning’s sermon, George cleared his throat. “There is one more thing I need to say,” he began nervously. “I accept your generous offer to call me as your pastor on one condition. I cannot promise you how long I will stay here. I must be free to go where God leads me, when He leads me. If you will allow me to do that, I will stay and be your pastor.”

As George looked down at the small congregation of only eighteen members, he wondered whether he was making a mistake. He had prayed long and hard about taking the position. It seemed strange to him that God would lead him away from a bustling city like London to Teignmouth, a small salmon fishing village on the edge of the Teign estuary where his congregation was made up of mostly unschooled fishermen and their wives.

Still, George reminded himself that if he was prepared to travel, there was plenty of work for a missionary to do in Devon. Christian groups from Newton Abbot to Exeter were eager to have George preach at their weekly Bible studies and prayer meetings. And George was more than happy to do so. Indeed, after officially becoming the pastor at Ebenezer Chapel, George came to know the roads that crisscrossed Devon like he knew the back of his hand.

One place he particularly liked to visit in the summer of 1830 was Northernhay House in Exeter. Northernhay House was a boarding establishment whose housekeeper was a Miss Mary Groves. Mary was a strong Christian in her early thirties who liked to talk with George about religious things, especially his views about the Plymouth Brethren. George had enjoyed several long conversations with her before he realized she was in fact the sister of Anthony Groves, the missionary to Persia he’d heard so much about! It was then that he understood why Mary had so many interesting opinions about missionaries and the church.

The more time he spent with Mary Groves, the more George came to like her. Mary was not a giggly kind of woman like Ermegarde had been. Nor was she pretty like Ermegarde. In fact, she had one of the largest noses George had ever seen on a man or a woman. Yet there was something about her that appealed to him. Mary looked right into his eyes when she spoke, and she expected him to treat her as an equal, not as a decoration. Mary was better educated than most women of her day: She spoke French, Latin, and Hebrew and knew more about astronomy than George did.

The relationship blossomed, and George found himself in love with Mary. Such a feeling surprised him for more than one reason. First, Mary Groves was thirty-three years old, eight years older than he was. And second, he had not been looking for or even considering a wife. As far as he was concerned, a wife would slow him down. What if God called him to go someplace strange or remote? Could he expect a wife to follow him? And would he feel as though marriage had made him a prisoner?

Although George may not have expected just any wife to follow him, there was something different about Mary. Since Mary had seen her brother and sister-in-law give up everything they owned to go to the mission field, George sensed she would be willing to do the same if necessary. He talked to Mary about his fears, and Mary assured him that a godly marriage would set him free to do even more than he was doing now, not the reverse.

On October 7, 1830, in a simple ceremony at Exeter, Mary Groves and George Müller were married. After a cup of tea with friends, they caught the stagecoach to Teignmouth.

As he loaded Mary’s trunks onto the stagecoach, George was a little surprised. Two of the four trunks were particularly heavy. “I didn’t know you had so much stuff,” he muttered.

“You don’t think my family was penniless do you?” replied Mary, adjusting the ribbon on her bonnet. “I have the family silver, my mother’s china, and several tapestries that have been in the family for generations. I think they will brighten up your house considerably.”

A week later all of Mary’s possessions were neatly arranged in George’s tiny row house, which no longer looked like a bachelor lived in it. Mary had scrubbed and dusted and polished until everything looked well cared for.

One night George came home weary from traveling. Mary met him at the door with a smile. “Come and see how good it all looks,” she said, helping her new husband out of his coat. “I have hardly stopped cleaning and arranging all day.”

As George looked around the room, his heart sank. His house was beginning to look like so many other houses he had visited—cluttered with things: things that would stop him from answering God’s call on his life, things that would have to be packed up and transported from one place to another, things that would mock his attempt to live only for God.

He sank wearily into his chair. “They have to go,” he said in a low voice.

“What has to go?” frowned Mary.

“Everything,” replied George, waving his hand vaguely around the room, “The silver, the china, the tapestries. Everything that’s not necessary has to go.”

“But why?” stammered Mary, turning pale and sinking into a chair.

“Because,” said George, “I travel from one end of Devon to the other preaching that the Bible is to be taken literally, and I come home at night to a home filled with baubles. After all, Jesus said, ‘Sell all you have and give to the poor,’ didn’t He?”

“Yes, but…,” said Mary.

“But what? Your own brother did that, didn’t he?” said George, cutting her off.

“But he was going to be a missionary, that’s different, quite different,” protested Mary.

“Is it?” asked George, raising his eyebrows. “Have you forgotten that you are married to a missionary, a Prussia Christian who has been sent by God to England?”

Mary opened her mouth, then closed it without saying a single word.

The next evening when George came home, the silverware, china, and tapestries were all gone. Sitting on the china cabinet in their place was a stack of pound notes. Mary pointed to them. “Do what you think best with it, George, and may God help us both,” she said.

Only a week later George had another piece of disturbing news for his new wife. This time it concerned his salary. The Ebenezer Chapel paid George a generous salary of fifty-five pounds a year. Most of this money came from a practice called pew renting, whereby a person or family rented a particular church pew to sit in on Sundays. The richest people in the church rented the most expensive pews in the front, leaving the poor people to sit in the back pews, or “cheap seats,” as they were known. It had been this way in the churches of England and Europe for hundreds of years, but the more George thought about it, the more wrong he decided the practice was. Church should not be a place where people were divided up according to how much money they had. There were no poor, second-class citizens in God’s kingdom, and George did not see why there should be in the church on earth. Pew renting would have to go, and with it a good portion of the church’s income and, in turn, a good portion of George’s salary.

After dinner one evening in November, George and Mary Müller went for a walk along the seashore. The cockle and mussel sellers had gone home for the night, and the last few fishing boats were slipping into the harbor.

“Mary,” said George gently, “thank you for selling the things. Now there is another matter we need to talk about.”

Mary stopped and looked directly at her husband.

George took a deep breath before he went on. “It’s the pew rent. I can’t see how we can follow Jesus’ command to treat all men equally as brothers if we give the rich people the best pews at the front of the church. In the Bible the book of James clearly tells us that we are not to show favor to rich people in the church, because that is dishonoring the poor.”

After a long moment of silence, George heard Mary gasp. “But George, that’s our only income…,” Mary said, her voice trailing off.

“I know,” he replied gently.

“You want me to say it’s all right for you to give up our income?” she asked incredulously.

“Yes,” said George frankly. “I know it’s hard, but I think it is the right thing to do. The congregation should be free to give to us because God directs them to, not because they want the best pew in the church.”

“But what if they don’t want to give freely to us?” asked Mary.

“Well then, God will have to provide for us in another way,” said George, reaching for his wife’s hand. “Mary, do you think you can do it?”