George Müller: The Guardian of Bristol’s Orphans

“And what about me?” Mary pleaded. “Does God care about me and our little one? There is nothing to guarantee you will even be alive to see it born.” She wiped away the tears with the corner of her apron as she spoke.

“I know, I know,” said George soothingly. “But Mary, you cannot imagine me hiding inside my own house while there are people who need God’s comfort and the little I can do for them, can you?”

Mary shook her head. “No,” she agreed quietly. “That would not be the man I married.”

On September 16, George did stay home—all day—to assist the midwife with the birth of his baby daughter Lydia. In spite of all the death around them, Lydia was a thriving, healthy baby. By the time she was a month old, the cholera epidemic had finally run its course. A huge service of thanksgiving was held at Gideon Chapel. Of the two hundred people who regularly attended the two chapels, only one had died.

January 4, 1833, brought with it a blessing and a mystery. That morning George had collected the mail and noticed a letter postmarked from Baghdad. When he slit the envelope open, a check for two hundred pounds fell out. George quickly scanned the letter that came with it for some clue as to what the money was for. No one could have been more surprised than George when he read that the money was for him, his family, and Henry Craik to travel to Baghdad to be missionaries there. The letter writer promised more money would follow when they arrived.

Excitement stirred inside George. Was this the opportunity he had been waiting for since becoming a Christian? Had all of his time in England been training to prepare him to go and tell the lost souls in other lands about God? He hoped so. His brother-in-law Anthony Groves wrote regularly from Persia, and the life of a foreign missionary sounded so much more adventurous than that of a pastor in England, making endless house calls and drinking bottomless cups of tea.

George hurried off to tell Henry Craik about the letter. Henry, too was excited. The two of them talked about it all morning, and by lunchtime they had all but convinced themselves they should both go to Baghdad.

After lunch, George had promised to visit a member of the congregation, a cobbler who lived about two miles away in the poorest part of Bristol. It had rained the night before. As he made his way there, George had to jump over muddy puddles, and every carriage that went by sprayed water up at him. George had just passed the bakery on Newfoundland Street when a little girl came up to him. She was no more than five years old, and she was piggybacking a toddler, a small boy with a runny nose and wearing only a torn pair of trousers.

“Please, mister,” the little girl said with a lisp, “could you spare us a shilling? Me ma’s gone with the cholera and me dad went to the mines and didn’t come back.”

George stopped and crouched beside the little girl. “What’s your name, dear?” he asked, thinking of his own daughter tucked in her warm crib.

“Emily,” she replied, “and I can spell it, too. Me ma taught me.” Her eyes shone with delight from her dirt-streaked face.

“Can you now?” smiled George. “Well, I’ll tell you what. You spell it correctly, and you will have earned your shilling.”

“E-M-I-L-Y,” she said triumphantly as she stuck out her grubby hand.

George laughed. “Perfect,” he said reaching into his pocket. “Here’s your shilling, and God bless you, Emily.”

As Emily hitched her brother higher up her back and picked her way through the crowd, George felt strangely saddened. He had seen little girls and boys like Emily every day of the six months he’d lived in Bristol, but none of them had affected him like this. Where was Emily going? Did she have anywhere to sleep at night? Was a kind adult watching over her, or was she at the mercy of some evil person? What would happen to her brother if she got sick, or where would she go for help if he became ill?

These questions haunted George Müller, and as he walked along, he wondered why he had not seen it before. He didn’t need to go to the mission field in Baghdad, or anywhere else for that matter. He was standing in the middle of a mission field! Surely there could be no more needy people in all the world than little children like Emily and her brother. Baghdad might sound foreign and exciting with its colorful bazaars, camels, and pipe music, but there was also work to be done in dirty, overcrowded Bristol. George did not know how to go about it or what a lone person with no regular income could do, but he knew one thing: With God’s, help he would do something to help the poor homeless children of Bristol. “Yes,” he said to himself aloud as he quickened his pace. “God has given me a mission field right here, and I will live and die in it.”

Chapter 8
The Breakfast Club

Where will they all sit?” asked Mary Müller as she stood in her living room lifting the heavy iron to press one of her husband’s collars. Lydia, a serious little one-year-old toddler, scurried around her feet.

“I don’t know,” said George. “I was thinking of asking the grocer if he had any apple boxes he could spare. Tipped on their sides they’d make good seats, don’t you think?”

Mary nodded vaguely. “I suppose so,” she replied. “You really are determined to do this, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” replied George firmly. “There are children out on the streets of Bristol who have never heard the name of God, have never set foot in a church, and have no reason on this earth to hope. I have to do what little I can to help them. Right now the best I can do is invite them in for breakfast and read the Scriptures to them.”

“But how many do you think will show up? Do you have a limit on how many we can feed?” asked Mary Müller, panic beginning to show on her face. “How is all this going to work, George? We hardly have enough breakfast for the three of us most of the time.”

“If God is in this, He will supply,” was George’s reply.

And so the Breakfast Club began. Within a month of its start, twenty to thirty ragged children were gathered around the Müllers’ steps each morning. At eight o’clock, George invited them in. Mary greeted them at the door. A pitcher of warm water was waiting on the counter inside, and the children took turns washing their faces and hands. Then they took their seats on the apple boxes that were placed around the oak table in the parlor. Mary ladled out a large helping of oatmeal to each child, and then George said grace. The children ate noisily while Mary poured them cups of strong tea. While the children shoveled spoonfuls of sugar into the tea, George began the Bible lesson. Sometimes he would read a story aloud to them, acting out the various parts as he went.

The popularity of the Breakfast Club grew, until a year later there was no room for even one more apple box in the Müllers’ parlor. Forty people (not just children) showed up for breakfast every morning. Many adults needed food and Bible reading, and George knew there were hundreds if not thousands of other children in Bristol who needed a good breakfast and a Bible lesson, but he could not reach them all, at least not from inside his parlor. There had to be a way to do more, but how?

For days George paced the floor. He had something on his mind, something that would not go away. It was a name, a long name—the Scriptural Knowledge Institution for Home and Abroad. George could picture exactly what it would be: an organization run by Christian men like himself, an organization with three purposes: to establish day schools, Sunday schools, and adult schools for the poor; provide Bibles for people who could not afford to buy them; and help foreign missionaries with financial gifts. To accomplish these goals, George decided the organization would never ask a non-Christian for money or allow such a person to sit on its board. Nor would it go into debt of any kind. The success of the organization would be judged not by how much money it raised but rather by how it spent what it had.

With this all settled in his mind, George went to talk to Henry Craik, who agreed with all George outlined. A meeting was announced for March 5, 1834. About one hundred people came to listen to the two pastors as they outlined their idea for the Scriptural Knowledge Institution for Home and Abroad. Many people thought it was too bold, too far-fetched to ever become a reality.

Two weeks later, on March 19, Mary Müller gave birth to their second child, a son whom they named Elijah. Of course, the new arrival stretched the Müllers’ finances, and by April, George had become very frustrated. Despite the public meeting and the hours George had spent praying and planning with Henry Craik, the Scriptural Knowledge Institution for Home and Abroad had not gotten off the ground. Not one penny had been raised for it, and George began to wonder whether he’d made a big mistake. He decided to pray a very specific prayer.

In his bedroom, George knelt beside his bed and prayed. “God, I believe You gave me the idea to start this organization, but I am not making any progress. If You want me to keep on with it, please send me twenty pounds to demonstrate this is Your will. I’ll use the twenty pounds to buy Bibles to give away. Amen.”

When he got up from his knees, George felt much better. The matter was in God’s hands now, not his. If it succeeded, it would be because God had blessed it. If it failed, it would be because He had not.

That evening as the Müllers were sitting down to a meal of mutton stew, which seemed to contain more potatoes than meat, there was a knock at the door. When George opened the door, a woman from the Gideon Chapel stood before him.

“I’m sorry to bother you, sir,” said the woman, curtsying, “but I had something on my mind, and I can get no rest from it. Here, take this, and God bless you.” She thrust her hand into her coat pocket and pulled out a white envelope.

George reached out and took the envelope from the woman. The envelope felt like it had money in it, a pile of notes. The woman turned to walk down the steps.

“Wait a moment, please,” said George. “I have a question for you.”

The woman stopped. “What is it?” she asked as she turned around.

“I was wondering exactly what it was you wanted me to do with this.”

“Well,” she said, “whatever your need is.”

George frowned. The woman sounded unsure. “But did you have something in particular you would like to see done with it?” he probed.

“Well, to be honest with you, if you don’t need it urgently, I fancied the money going to buy Bibles for the poor.” She gave a little smile.

“Thank you,” said George, stepping down to grasp her hand. “Thank you a hundred times.”

As George closed the door and walked back into the parlor, Mary looked up at him. “What is it, George?” she asked.

“An answer to my prayer,” he said, his face shining with joy. “If I’m not mistaken, this envelope should contain twenty pounds.” He tore it open, and sure enough, four five-pound notes fell out.

“Oh, Mary!” he exclaimed. “God is in this after all. We had better get ready. I know He is about to open the floodgates!”

And open they did. Within six months of receiving the first gift, the Scriptural Knowledge Institution for Home and Abroad was providing education for one hundred twenty children in Sunday school and two hundred children and forty adults in day school. One thousand Bibles had been purchased and given away, and fifty-seven pounds had been sent overseas for the support of missionaries. George accounted for every halfpenny of the money in his meticulous records. Everything was recorded, from the principal’s salary to the coal for the heaters, the chalk for the blackboard, and cricket balls for sports day.

For the next year, things proceeded well for the Müllers. George was still pastor of Gideon and Bethesda Chapels, he continued giving free breakfasts to poor children, he oversaw the day schools and Sunday schools, and in his spare time he looked forward to being with his own two children—Lydia, who was now two, and baby Elijah. But in June 1835, tragedy struck the family. Elijah, now fifteen months old, became sick with influenza. George had visited enough sick children to know that his son was in grave danger. He wrote in his journal, “[May] the Lord’s holy will be done concerning the dear little one.” The next day Elijah died. It was a very difficult time for George, who missed his son terribly. But it was an even more difficult timed for Mary. Four days earlier, her father, whom she had been close to, had died. Now she was left with two funerals to arrange and attend in a single week.