Foundations: No.75 Autumn 2018

“This Way of Living”: George Müller and the Ashley Down Orphanage

I seek to bring to light the inner workings and principles of George Müller’s provision of residential care for children in nineteenth century Bristol, and to make clear ways in which Müller’s life and work may prove relevant for twenty-first century Christians. Müller (1805-1898) was born in what then was Prussia. After his conversion he moved to England and, following a period as a missionary and pastor, moved to Bristol and initiated with Henry Craik, first the Scriptural Knowledge Society and soon after what became his lifelong work among orphaned children. I make extensive use of archival records held by Müllers[1] which have not been drawn on in any of the published accounts of his life. Influenced by the life of August Franke, Müller’s work was marked by his refusal to adopt the norms underlying financial arrangements in the mainstream welfare provision of his day. I describe the daily round of life in the orphan houses, including periods of spiritual blessing; the detailed registers of who was accepted into the homes and why; the information we gain regarding leaving the homes; how Müller recorded and regarded sickness and death on the homes; and the basis underlying how the homes dealt with issues of behaviour and discipline. I conclude by exploring how he understood living in faith and consider in what ways his life and work may be an exemplar for today.[2]

A tall, sparsely built man, in his mid-forties was bent over his desk in deep thought. For fifty-two days he had wrestled with the decision which now he had made. He had disclosed his thoughts to no-one, not even his wife. The great debate had gone on between himself and God alone, as witnessed by the numerous papers of carefully written notes in front of him.

It was early in 1851, and George Müller already had sole responsibility for the welfare of some 300 children, bereaved of both mother and father. He had now decided to make plans for housing an additional 700. It was essential, so he had decided, to care for the very poorest children who otherwise would be left either to the somewhat unpredictable mercies of the Poor Law Guardians, or to the scramble for admission to orphanages where entry depended more on influence wielded among supporters of the orphanage, than on the child’s degree of need. In 1845 he had discovered that there were approximately 6,000 orphaned children in the country’s prisons.[3] Already he had 170 children awaiting admission, and he feared for the moral welfare of children from “respectable” families forced into the local Poorhouses.

Yet he anticipated that criticisms would be made. He would be told that he was “going beyond measure” and exceeding both his natural abilities and the warrant given him by God. And how would he be able to provide for the daily needs of a thousand children, even if he could erect the buildings? He could not lightly disregard this objection. “I am too much a man of business, and too much a person of calm, quiet, cool calculation, not to feel its force.” Again, what would happen after his death? Who would care for the children then?

In considering this Müller was supported by the memory of August Francke, the German Pietist, who provided for two thousand children in his orphan houses at Halle and found in his son an eminent successor after his death. In caring for the next generation, we should not forget to serve our own:

Then, though we be dead, yet should we be speaking. Auguste Franke is long since gone to his rest, but he spoke to my soul in 1826,[4] and he is speaking to my soul now; and to his example I am greatly indebted in having been stirred up to care about poor children in general, and poor orphans in particular.[5]

The purpose of this article is to bring to light the inner workings and principles of George Müller’s provision of residential care for children in nineteenth century Bristol, and to make clear the particular ways in which his life and work may prove relevant for twenty-first century Christians. The title has a dual sense, referring to both the patterns and Christian values as understood by Müller, and to his use of the expression in reference to his refusal to adopt the norms underlying financial arrangements in the mainstream welfare provision of his day. I make extensive use of archival records held by Müllers which, to my knowledge, have not been drawn on in any of the published accounts of his life. To maintain narrative flow the possibilities of development and historical contextualisation are suggested mainly in the footnotes.

From Prussia to Bristol

George Müller was born at Kroppenstaedt (now Kroppenstedt) in Prussia, in September 1805.[6] His father was a tax officer. Almost the first words of his autobiography tell us,

As a warning to parents, I mention that my father preferred me to my brother, which was very injurious to both of us. To me, as tending to produce in my mind a feeling of self-elevation; and to my brother, by creating in him a dislike both towards my father and me.

The indulgence of his parents (his mother died when he was only fourteen), coupled with a marked inconsistency towards their son, yielded a young man notorious for his financial debts and extravagances. At the age of sixteen he spent several weeks in a debtors’ prison. At the Easter before his twentieth birthday, Müller entered the Halle University as a divinity student, while devoid of any marks of grace. “My father’s design was to make a clergyman of me: not indeed that thus I might serve God, but that I might have a comfortable living.” Yet eight months later he was the subject of a sudden work of divine grace.

The marks of a new nature were immediately evident, when Müller made the decision to remain financially independent of his hitherto inconsistently indulgent father. The financial loss was made good by giving instruction in German to a group of American students, one of whom was the ultimately famous Charles Hodge of Princeton. The philanthropic August Francke had provided free lodgings for poor students, and Müller made use of this accommodation for a short period in 1826, but a growing missionary interest led him to England in early 1829, having been offered an appointment by the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews.

He soon met with Henry Craik, the son of a Church of Scotland minister, who had been profoundly influenced by Thomas Chalmers.[7] They were to prove lifelong friends. Müller did not remain in London, but moved to Teignmouth (Devon), becoming pastor of a Strict Baptist chapel in August 1829. At that time, he experienced a change in his life that he described as “like a second conversion”. He came to accept a number of doctrines which deeply formed his subsequent life. He had, for example, been greatly opposed to the doctrine of God’s election prior to this time, so much so that a few days after his arrival in Teignmouth he had called it a “devilish doctrine”. He had not believed in God’s effectual calling or in the final perseverance of the saints.

But, following a chance encounter he had with a nameless man that same year, Müller was brought to examine these truths in the light of scripture, saying he was amazed to see that God’s work was full of the doctrine of God’s election. Even the verses that appeared to teach the contrary only served to confirm him in the doctrines of grace. As might be expected, this had an enlivening effect on his soul:

I am constrained to state, for God’s glory, that though I am still exceedingly weak, and by no means dead to the lusts of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, as I might and ought to be, yet, by the grace of God, I have walked more closely with him since that period… Therefore, I say, the electing love of God in Christ has often been the means of producing holiness, instead of leading me into sin. It is only the notional appreciation of such truth, the want of having them in the heart, whilst they are in the head, which is dangerous.

“As these truths so greatly occupied the heart of Mr Craik also, we were now soon drawn closely together.” Craik moved to Bristol, inviting Müller to join him as he did so. By 1836 they had renounced the title of “ministers of the gospel”, and Müller declined to accept any stated salary. Indeed, when still in Devon he had set out three requirements: First, the practice of the renting of pews should be abolished, arguing that it gave unfair prestige to the rich. Second, the church would not pay him a salary. Third, the church would allow a box to be placed by the door and he would trust the Lord to move people to provide for his keep, believing that otherwise the practice could lead to church members giving out of duty, not desire. By the end of this decade he and Craik had reached their mature views on church government, which were to characterise their ministry among the early Brethren.[8]

A Note on Müller’s theology. [9] 

A general account of Müller’s theology requires a stand-alone article, but it is essential to gain a limited understanding of his position insofar as it both shaped and was exemplified in his orphanage work. The theology that guided his ministry was shaped by an experience in his mid-twenties when he came to prize the Bible alone as his standard of judgment. He had a central conviction of the work of the Holy Spirit. An extract from his narrative encapsulates his position, when referring to this moment. He came to accept:

“That the word of God alone is our standard of judgment in spiritual things; that it can be explained only by the Holy Spirit; and that in our day, as well as in former times, he is the teacher of his people. The office of the Holy Spirit I had not experimentally understood before that time. Indeed, of the office of each of the blessed persons, in what is commonly called the Trinity, I had no experimental apprehension.

I had not before seen from the Scriptures that the Father chose us before the foundation of the world; that in him that wonderful plan of our redemption originated, and that he also appointed all the means by which it was to be brought about. Further, that the Son, to save us, had fulfilled the law, to satisfy its demands, and with it also the holiness of God; that he had borne the punishment due to our sins, and had thus satisfied the justice of God.”

Further on the doctrines of grace, speaking forty years later to young people he told them,

“it pleased God then to show to me the doctrines of grace in a way in which I had not seen them before. At first I hated them… But when it pleased God to reveal these truths to me, and my heart was brought to such a state that I could say, ‘I am not only content simply to be a hammer, an axe, or a saw, in God's hands; but I shall count it an honour to be taken up and used by Him in any way.’”

The Scriptural Knowledge Society

The 1830s were years during which the young pastor was doing more than develop his thoughts about church government. Bristol, in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, had its fair share of delinquency, poverty and parents unable to care for their families. The city’s population had grown by around 20% in each of the first three decades of the century. Its prosperity was deeply tied to the slave trade. Industrially, it was losing its former edge in comparison with Liverpool, Newcastle and Southampton. A report commissioned by the Corporation of Bristol lamented that “Far below her former status as the second port of the Empire, she now has to sustain mortifying competition with second-rate ports in her own channel”.[10], [11] 1831 had witnessed violent riots.

Müller, fresh from the country, was keenly aware of his city environment, and in June 1833 recorded his plans to set up a school and provide a daily meal for the poor children of the district from “the central city, infested with dank, dark lanes”[12]. He was able to carry out the later idea and hoped to do the same for adults. The thought had been in his mind for two years. Müller, despite his trust in the faithfulness of God, was never a man to act precipitously. In February 1833 he had read part of Francke’s life and been deeply impressed:

The Lord graciously help me to follow him, as far as he followed Christ. The greater part of the Lord’s people whom we know in Bristol are poor, and if the Lord were to give us grace to live more as this dear man of God did, we might draw much more than we have as yet done out of our heavenly Father’s bank, for our poor brethren and sisters.[13]

Hence, on 5 March 1834, The Scriptural Knowledge Society was formed to:

  • Establish and assist Day, Adult and Sunday Schools “in which instruction is given upon scriptural principles.”
  • Place children of poor families in such schools.
  • Circulate copies of the scriptures at reduced price or “in cases of extreme poverty” free.
  • Give financial aid to needy missionaries.[14]

The reasons Müller gave for the formation of a new society are significant, giving evidence of his characteristic careful thought. The existing religious societies were, he argued, too closely bound up with the wider society:

Everyone who pays a guinea is considered a member. Although such an individual may live in sin; although he may manifest to everyone that he does not know the Lord Jesus; if only the guinea or half guinea be paid, he is considered a member, and has a right to vote. Such things ought not to be!

Still more fundamentally, Müller objected that “the end to which these societies propose to themselves, and which is constantly put before their members, is that the world will gradually become better and better, and that at last the whole world will be converted.”[15] Müller gave other objections in the pages of his journal. To ask the unconverted for money and to contract debt were alike unacceptable to him. He had, of course, relinquished a ministerial salary for himself a few years previously. He complains of unconverted committee members and patrons, and in one of his memorable remarks laments “Never once have I known a case of a poor, but very devoted, wise and experienced servant of Christ being invited to fill the chair at such public meetings.” This was strong medicine for Müller’s contemporaries, and it does not surprise to read in the first report of the Institute in October 1834 that Müller and Craik decided to remain separate from all such societies.

The Orphans of Wilson Street

By May of the following year the Institution was supporting five-day schools containing 254 pupils; already 439 children had passed through their hands. With respect to the circulation of the scriptures, they had reached the conviction that they should not wait for poor people to apply for help, but employ “an experienced, steadfast Brother” to visit the poor. The brother concerned was John Corser, a former Anglican minister and now a city missionary. Yet as we read of Corser’s work it appears that Müller and his friends soon were impressed with the inadequacy of what they were doing. A real change of heart was so rarely evident from the teaching given in the Sunday schools. Furthermore, Corser found that,

In going from house to house among the poor, it happens continually, that he meets with the scenes of the greatest distress, and being able to do but little for their temporal relief, he feels it a great trial to go on with this work.

Müller had revisited Halle and the Francke orphanage early in 1835, and in December a public meeting was held, following which a statement was issued proposing the establishment of an orphan house linked to The Scriptural Knowledge Institution, but independently funded, “in which destitute fatherless and motherless children should be provided with food, clothes and scriptural education”. The statement included Müller’s established position that he would make no general appeals for funding. By April of the following year a house had been opened and furnished in Wilson Street in the centre of Bristol, and orphan girls were soon found to fill the accommodation. In November Müller opened an Infant Orphan House in the same street “in which both male and female orphans, under 7 years of age, might be brought up in the fear of God”. By the end of 1836 Müller was caring for 46 children and following the opening of a boys’ house in November 1837, the number grew to 86.

The First Rented Houses in Wilson Street

The First Rented Houses in Wilson Street (Photograph 1880s)

 

Although a fourth house was rented in 1843, Müller became aware of the difficulties of caring for so many children in a street environment and, after prayer and careful deliberation, he decided to build the first of the large orphan houses at Ashley Down, Bristol, in 1845, the children moving into the house in 1849.[16] In May of the following year 275 orphans and 33 staff were housed in the new building, a number which grew to over 2000 by the 1860s when five houses were in operation.

In all this Müller endeavoured to pursue the principles he had laid down in 1834. The patronage of unconverted persons was not to be sought, nor were unbelievers to be asked for money. The management of the orphanage was also to be in the hands of believers. The work was never to be enlarged by contracting debts. If scriptural ground could be adduced for altering their methods they were ready, so he affirmed, to respond to it. In short, “while we would aim at avoiding needless singularity, we desire to go in simply according to scripture, without compromising the truth.”

Ashley Down Homes

Ashley Down Homes

Life in the Orphan Houses

The daily round of life in a large nineteenth century institution of this nature was some way removed from child care arrangements today. No running water, very limited heating, early rising, limited leisure, strict discipline and considerable regimentation marked the children’s lives at Ashley Down. As the twentieth century dawned[17] the children were woken at 6am and congregated in the school rooms at 6.30. From there they went by parties of about fifty to wash in cold water. Breakfast followed at 8am – porridge every day whether the children liked it or not! At 8.30am all children and staff gathered for a morning service. From then on it was a mixture of work and lessons until the mid-day dinner time, followed by more lessons in the afternoon. By 7.30pm the children were in bed – two to a bed in large dormitories.[18]

Food was, by later standards, unexciting. As late as the First World War the main meal menu was recalled with slightly depressing exactitude. On Sunday it was rice and treacle, which was regarded as a body building meal. Hence the rhyme,

Half a pound of tuppenny rice,
Half a pound of treacle.
Mix it up and make it nice,
Pop! goes the weasel.’[19]

On Tuesdays it was the same meal. On Mondays corned beef, potatoes and cabbage were served, and again on Thursdays and Fridays. Broth was the third meal, and this was offered up on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Desserts were unknown.

Training varied between the boys and girls. Girls stayed in the homes until they were old enough and ready to go out into service. As this was not until they were 17 or 18 years old, many girls lived at Ashley Down for up to fifteen years. They worked hard before leaving and the housework fell largely on their shoulders. Their lessons included reading, writing, arithmetic, English grammar, geography, English history, and “all kinds of useful needle work and household work”. Boys were apprenticed at fourteen or fifteen. “But in each case we consider the welfare of the individual orphan, without having an fixed rule respecting these matters.” Boys were given a free choice as to the kind of trade they wished to enter, but once apprenticed, in the custom of the time, the decision was practically irrevocable.

Entering Ashley Down

We have noted that Müller restricted entry to those who were without both parents and in destitute circumstances.[20] Full details were asked and recorded regarding the family background of the child, and statements were checked against relevant documents. We read of Charlotte Hill, the very first child admitted to Wilson Street on 11 April 11, 1836, of her parents’ deaths, the date and place of her birth, and the fact that her father “kept the Plume of Feathers in Gloster Lane”, a pubic house that continues to this day. On the financial side we read “the mother at the time of the Bristol riots put out £300 without telling her husband where she had put it”. She suddenly was taken irreversibly ill “and died without telling where the money was, which seems to have caused the father’s death”. The image below is of indifferent quality but conveys the form in which admission details were recorded for many years.

Charlotte Hill admission details

Charlotte Hill: First Admission to Wilson Street, 1836

 

The stories of some children are filled with pathos. Mary Griffiths was a little girl of six. On the death of her parents she had subsisted on the weekly allowance of the Poor Law Guardians. “The parish allowed 2/6, afterward only 1/6, and would not have allowed even this but wished to put the child in the poor house, but were influenced by the tears of Elizabeth Nicholls to allow her the money and leave the child with her. The child has no property at all; has some relations who are also poor, and allow nothing for the child.”

Müller repeatedly argued that, by reserving the decision on admission solely with himself, he ensured that the genuinely needy were admitted. His criticism of existing orphanages and his convictions about the poor moral and spiritual state of the Poor Law Unions remained throughout his long life.

Leaving Ashley Down

The numbers of children passing through were considerable. By 1875, more than twenty years before Müller’s death, 2,460 children had entered and then left the orphan houses. The greatest number of these went either into service or were apprenticed. Others were withdrawn or left without consent. A number died or were sent home for health reasons, and a small number were expelled. An examination of details recorded about those who left probably gives us the clearest insight into the character of George Müller’s work, and what he meant to convey by his wish to set it on scriptural principles.

There were clearly periods of considerable spiritual blessing, and in general behaviour problems do not seem to have been extensive. “Though most of them had been brought up in a very different manner from what one could desire, yet God has constrained them on the whole to behave exceedingly well, so much so that it has attracted the attention of all observers.” Jane Holder, for example, had entered the orphanage from a very unhappy home. Her father had remarried on the death of her mother. He had then died, and the stepmother had run off with the club money.[21] Jane was then moved to her grandmother’s – a washer woman. On her leaving Ashley Down Müller remarks, “from being a very sickly and delicate child she has become a healthy and fine young woman, and behaves exceedingly well. How great the privilege of being allowed to care for the orphans! Lord help thy servant to continue in this work, though it is connected with so many trials!” Some children, like Elizabeth Scamp who had been “instrumental as an orphan to the spiritual benefit of many”, were taken on as staff members.

The years from 1838 to 1840 saw particular blessing. In one year, eight girls out of the 96 children were admitted into fellowship, and 1840 witnessed a number of striking conversions, despite the fact that Müller’s faith was repeatedly tested during the year, and there were occasions when basic necessities were denied him through lack of money. Special meetings had been started specifically for expounding the scriptures to the children. “An almost universal attention is manifested by them” and fourteen more children were admitted into fellowship. 

In 1857 a second period of spiritual blessing occurred, following the conversion and death from TB of one of the girls. Her letters to another believing orphan tell of her physical pain, conviction of sin and eventual conversion: “I trust I have found peace in Jesus. I know my faith is very weak. Sometimes I feel full of joy then, at others, doubts rise up… I should like a nice note from you.” She longs for “that happy place prepared for those who love the blessed Jesus… I feel I have so much sin in my heart now, but there we shall have no sin.” She died in May 1857 at the age of seventeen, but not before more than fifty of the older girls were brought under concern for their souls, “some with deep conviction of sin accompanying it, so that they were exceedingly distressed.”

Müller appears to have been a wise counsellor of souls, and knew that such impressions sometimes are transient, but more than a year had passed before he recorded these events, and there were then 23 girls of whom “there has been no doubt as to their being believers” and 38 others under concern for their souls. We read of Sarah Jones who died of TB in 1857. She had been one of the least promising orphans before her conversion. When she became a Christian, she was asked if she had told others. “No”, she replied, “I want them to find it out by my behaviour”. “And this”, Müller remarked, “they could not fail to do. The fruits of the Holy Spirit were manifested in her patience under suffering, and her submission to the divine will.” Speaking to a girl who had been converted during her illness, Sarah wrote, “I was so glad to hear you had found Jesus. I should have written to say how glad I was; but I had not the strength.”

Indeed, there were numerous who could say with the correspondent to Müller in December 1857, “It was in the dear Orphan House that I heard of Jesus. It was there I first saw myself to be a sinner, and Jesus the Saviour.”

Sickness and Death

These records show that sickness was a constant fact of life at Ashley Down, and Müller did not find it easy to deal with the problem. He was faced with the choice of keeping them or sending them back to their home parish and the attentions of the Poor Law. Tuberculosis was the biggest single cause of illness, and it was Müller’s policy – unflinching to later eyes – to tell the child immediately the diagnosis was made, and that no recovery could be expected. Children with enuresis (involuntary urinating, especially at night) usually were sent home to surviving relatives. In Müller’s day it seemed “an incurable disease, most offensive to other children”.[22]

These were not the only problems. Of Helen Campbell we read, “She has little mind, weak sight and short fingers.” Müller adds, in words that have a note of unintended humour, “with no prospect of being able to improve her in any of these things”. Some children were emotionally or mentally disturbed. William Pratt “feigned himself mad, told many lies, and behaved exceedingly bad in many respects”. As he was considered “a great injury to the other children” he was sent home to his relatives. Again, Jane Weaver, age 13, “sought in a most pernicious way to corrupt the minds of the other children”. After repeated prayer it was decided to expel her. She was taken ill that very day “with fitts”, and was allowed to remain, hoping she might benefit through her illness. She did not, and Müller reached the conclusion that she had been pretending to be ill “for the sake of being out of school, and having liberty in other respects”. She was sent home to her grandmother.

Death, when it occurred, caused sadness, as when a “sweet and lovely” infant died of croup. Müller was anxious to draw instruction from the death of children. In a year of spiritual blessing one girl, dying of TB, grew increasingly hostile and indifferent to the gospel.

At last, she was evidently dying, yet altogether unprepared for death. In this stage all the orphans in the Girls Orphan Home were assembled together, and the awful state of this dying child was pointed out to the unbelieving orphans as a warning, and to the believing orphans as a subject for gratitude to God. It was laid on their hearts to give themselves to prayer for their dying companion.

Discipline

George Müller lived in an age of stern discipline, yet his reports on the orphanage reveal a considerable degree of understanding, as witness his insight into the effects of his father’s favouritism. Problems were not long in coming, and the ways in which they were resolved reveal perhaps more than anything else the core of Müller’s attitude to caring for children. Less than a month after opening the first orphan house, Eliza Ryan was dismissed along with two other girls. One had run away after being “guilty of many lies, impudence, and theft in small matters” (Image on the next page). The reasons entered into the register for dismissal were various – theft, persistent bad behaviour, blasphemy, running away, etc. Müller was, as we have noticed already, very concerned at the effects of such behaviour on others under his care, and the phrase “he was very injurious to others” repeatedly occurs in the reports.

Yet in matters of discipline, as in all else, Müller never acted hastily. His patience was seemingly endless. One boy, “a great source of trial to us repeatedly, and having given us no comfort whatever, at last was expelled out of this house for stealing pears in a garden opposite the New Orphan House, after having been received back into the house four times after running away”. Another boy, Joseph Bolitho, was dismissed five years after entering the home. He had boasted of his delinquency and membership in a gang of thieves and had twice run away after stealing from other children. Yet he had been received back, “hoping that by bearing with him, admonishing him, speaking to him privately, praying with him, and using a variety of other means, he might be reclaimed”. Then, “solemnly, with prayer, before the whole establishment (he was) expelled, if by any means this last painful remedy might be blessed to him. Yet we follow even this poor sinner with our prayers.”

Dismissals Book 1836

Eliza Ryan: Dismissals Book 1836

 

This incident is particularly instructive, as it suggests that in disciplining the children Müller was drawing on the New Testament model of church discipline, with its fine mingling of compassion and faithfulness. This seems to be confirmed in the example of three girls aged 15 to 17 sent home in 1852, They were,

Sent away in disgrace out of the establishment to their relatives, after having been long born with, and hope having been gone to get them not a different state, in order that this last remedy might be used and others be warned. They are all three able to earn their bread, all three having been trained for a good while for a situation as servants.

A strength of Müller’s position derives from his biblical view of sin, and from how he was not easily dispirited. This is echoed in his repeated affirmation that he was not discouraged in the work and had always expected trials from it.

Running the Orphan Homes

If such a work was to be successful, care was needed in the selection of suitable staff. Müller generally was fortunate in this respect, and in Robert Brown, an early Master of the Boy’s Orphan House, he had a colleague in full sympathy with him. When Müller was temporarily absent, Brown writes, “I think we all felt your absence a little, although not cast down on that account… The sisters send their love to you.” A few days later he writes “we felt the poverty a little more I think on account of your absence”.

To Müller it was a blessing “whereby it has been most particularly manifested that the work is of Him… that He has given to us such brethren and sisters to take care of the children, who serve not for filthy lucre’s sake, but constrained by the love of Jesus… being willing to give what they have rather than that the children should lack.” Nonetheless, obtaining “suitable, godly persons” remained one of the greatest challenges:

So many things are to be taken into account. Suitable age, health, experience, love for children, true godliness, a ready mind to serve God and not themselves, a ready mind to bear with the many trials and difficulties connected with it, a manifest purpose to labour not for the sake of the remuneration, but to serve God in their work.

Not that perfect staff were expected or found. “I am myself”, Müller writes, “far, very far, from being without weakness, deficiencies and failings”. However, “by God’s grace it is my purpose never to give to any brother or sister a situation in connection with the Institution, for the sake of providing for them, if they are not suitable for it according to the light which God gives me.”

A Man of Faith

As one reads the records of Müller’s work, the unrelenting demand of circumstances, that he lived in dependence upon the provision of God is remarkable, particularly during the first six years of the work:

Not once, or five times, or five hundred times, but thousands of times in these three score years, have we had in hand not enough for one more meal, either in food or funds; but not once has God failed us; not once have we or the orphans gone hungry or lacked any good thing.

“This way of living”, he reflects, “brings the Lord remarkably near. He is, as it were, morning by morning inspecting our stores, that accordingly He may send help.” From 1834 until his death in 1898, Müller received a total of £989,000 for the orphans, plus almost £400,000 for the other work of The Scriptural Knowledge Institution. During the same period more than 10,000 children had entered the orphan homes. Yet at the time of his death the total value of his estate was only £160.

In 1851 Müller was handling a correspondence of about 300 letters a year without any secretarial help, in addition to the multitude of other responsibilities – am amount of work that by 1861 was sufficient to keep three secretaries busy.

While he steadfastly refused to publish lists of subscribers, Müller was scrupulous in his methods of accounting. In addition to the careful enumeration of every gift in cash received, he kept a meticulous record of the gifts in kind which were lodged with him. In some reports up to fifteen pages are devoted to this record. For example:

19.12.36: Two large cheeses weighing 38¾lb. – 21st. 14lbs. of flour – a quart of honey – 1 doz. of babys’ bibs.

16.1.37:  2½yds of linen, 2½yds of calico, 1 old jacket, I pair of trousers, 3 old bonnets, 4 pairs of old stockings, 1 little chemise.

10.3.37: A ton of coals and an old bedstead. 

Blankets, bread, broaches, apples, ointment, nightcaps, pin cushions, petticoats and patchwork quilts were among the gifts received.

The story of C. H. Spurgeon’s visit to Bristol is worth repeating, illustrating as it does the close friendship between the two men.[23] Spurgeon had been preaching in Bristol with the hope of gaining £300 needed for his own orphanage. He received the money, but on retiring to bed was convinced that he should give the money to Müller. On arriving at Ashley Down the following morning he found Müller in prayer, asking God for that very amount. On his return to London Spurgeon found a letter awaiting him. It contained 300 guineas; his £300 with interest as Spurgeon character-istically remarked.[24]

Accountable to God

We already have noted the care with which Müller approached all decisions. No impetuous acting “on faith” was sufficient for him. Space does not permit the extensive setting out of the pros and cons of moving from Wilson Street in 1845. Take the absence, for example, of proper play space. “The dear orphans ought, I know, to be trained in the habits of industry, but children are children and need to be treated as such, and they should, on account of their health, have the full benefit of a playground.”

This care was related to his feeling of being accountable to God for all that he did. The Reports illustrate this. By 1844 the annual reports were over seventy pages in length. In 1838 Müller had commenced preparing lists of all people who had subscribed. He defended this practice, “as a few individuals have stated to us that they consider it unscriptural”. He distinguishes this from issuing lists of donors – “such a thing we abhor”. He sent the list only to those who actually had given rather than publishing it to the readers in general. He justifies his practice from Paul’s statement to the Corinthians that, in respect of money entrusted to us, we are to provide for honest things “in the sight of men” – “that no man should blame us in this abundance which is administered by us”. Müller was wise in this respect; Dr Barnado was to find himself at the centre of a major legal proceeding later in the century, for his failure to keep account of monies given him.

As he carried out his work, Müller was convinced that the basic witness of his efforts was to the fact that “the Lord in these last days is as willing as in times of old to hear prayer, and to show Himself mighty on the behalf of those who trust in Him. That such a testimony is needed we have no doubt.” This argument is carried forward repeatedly:

The chief and primary object of the work was not the temporal welfare of the children, or even their spiritual welfare, but to show before the whole world and the whole church of Christ that God is ready to prove Himself as the living God so that we need not go away from Him to our fellow men.

If His glory is dear to you we affectionately and earnestly entreat you to beseech Him to uphold us: for how awful would be the disgrace brought upon His holy name, if we who have so publicly made our boast in Him, and have spoken well of Him, should be left to disgrace Him, either by unbelief in the hour of trial, or by a life of sin in other respects.

Despite what some have said, Müller did not regard his ministry as the result of a special gift of faith:

It is indeed a cause of deep sorry and humiliation… that persons who live in this way are considered extraordinary persons. These things all the children of God ought to be familiar with, from their own experience, that there should be no need of speaking and writing about them.

Concluding

Why might we think the long-ago work of Müller should call for record? We would not wish to imitate his particular mode of operation, and indeed our contemporary sensitivities, even as Christians, might be brought up sharp on more than one occasion. Who of us would feel comfortable with telling a young child that they had a terminal disease and that they should hold out no expectation of recovery?

Yet Müller is in several ways an exemplar. Within a few years of arriving in a foreign country and still not fully at home in the English language,[25] he set about understanding the assumptions undergirding the system of charitable interventions, both secular and Christian, and established principles that set him apart from the majority of his contemporaries. Müller may not have known the work of the Scottish minister Ralph Erskine, but Erskine’s words apply well to him: “The faithful man studies to be faithful to the present generation.”[26] Furthermore, unlike, for example, his later contemporary, Charles Spurgeon, he remained closely and personally involved. He lived – and indeed died – in the same orphan homes that he built. But perhaps most significantly, he applied a considered sense of what he believed consistent biblical norms required of him. What this required in terms of specifics in 1830s Bristol is not what will be required in twenty-first century UK. But the considered commitment certainly is.

Müller’s theology was, we might say “practical”, in the sense that it may be inferred from, and was exemplified by, his practice. For example, we noted how his practice, most explicitly in relation to how he handled dismissals and problems in the lives of those in Ashley Down, was premised, albeit tacitly so, on central themes and dimensions of the gospel. His theology was practical in a second sense, in that it should be seen wholly as a piece with his practical concerns. As Murrell remarks, in the context of the divisions over end-time prophecy that vexed and divided the Plymouth Brethren, “George Müller did not want to become embroiled in the controversies. His over-riding desire was to preach Christ, and feed the hungry, while providing for the poor and proving that God answers prayer.”

The question of if, and in what circumstances, Christians should collaborate with those of other faiths or none was understood in varying ways over the nineteenth century, even among those who held with varying emphases, the doctrines of grace. Ian J. Shaw’s important study of the “high Calvinists” in Manchester and London[27] illustrates how place, personal backgrounds and doctrine played their role in the lives and ministries of Joseph Irons, William Gadsby and others, shaping their stances on such matters. By contrast with Müller, some were ready to support controversial positions such as Catholic Emancipation and to collaborate widely in educational reforms, without setting these engagements in an explicitly soteriological context.

We cannot say Müller was innovative in organisational terms, but he definitely was so in his principles of financial support. Spurgeon, for example, apparently did not follow Müller’s avoidance of holding votes through which individuals could canvas for admission. The challenge of his modus operandi also faces us when we realise that he chose to make rooms in Ashley Down his own home. In practical terms, Müller’s life certainly teaches us that a simpler trust in God’s faithfulness is desirable, and that they who devise liberal things, by liberal things they shall stand.

 

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