Perhaps my biggest qualm in offering George Muller as a candidate for the Nine Worthies of Imago Dei Politics is that I doubt he would particularly care for any kind of elevation. By all accounts, he seems to have been a most humble man who would credit God before himself in everything he accomplished. Nevertheless, he stands out as someone who was willing to give all his time, talent, and treasure to his God and to his fellow man, and whose prayers were faithfully made and faithfully answered.
Conversion, for George, was a 180 degree turn from the life of a selfish con-artist to selfless philanthropist. Of course, it did not happen all at once–such changes never do–but the process was resolute once begun. The change began in a humble Bible study that unexpectedly gripped him like nothing ever had before. He had been studying to become a minister at his father’s behest (though even his father merely saw it as a suitably lucrative profession); now he determined to sacrifice all worldly comforts for the life of a missionary. His health was not, at the time, conducive to this plan, but it got him from his birthplace of Prussia to London, where he meant to study how to be a missionary to Jews. When he became dangerously ill, he was compelled go to the countryside for his health, and there he met others of similar passions who inspired him to develop habits of meditation on Scripture and prayer that would characterize him for the rest of his life.
In his own words, “There was a day when I died … Died to George Müller, his opinions, preferences, tastes, and will; died to the world, its approval or censure; died to the approval or blame even of my brethren or friends; and since then I have studied only to show myself approved unto God.”
He married and eventually became a pastor in Bristol, but with a difference. Where most pastors at the time received a regular salary, supplemented further by renting out the pews of the church, George renounced this as unjust classism. Instead, he chose to be supported only by freewill offerings. Committed to using every penny in his possession for God’s work, George’s confidence was in God and not man to provide his needs. Provision would always come in time, though sometimes very much at the last minute. (I did not find this in any of my online sources, but I have read in one biography that he and his wife sold all her dowry—wedding gifts and things like silver, china, and linens that might have been passed down through the family—to give the money to the poor. This is in keeping with one of his teachings which was that those who would pray for provisions must be willing to first invest anything they could live without into that same work.)
The streets of Bristol were overrun with orphans, especially after a bad cholera epidemic. Truly “the least of these,” they lived in terrible conditions. George himself was only slightly better off, but he could not bear to see them living on the streets and forced to work under horrible circumstances. About the time Charles Dickens was writing Oliver Twist, George Müller began opening orphanages.
Usually, when we think of philanthropists, we think of wealthy men giving away their excess to others. George Müller never had any excess to begin with–certainly not by any ordinary standard of excess. Yet he believed God wanted him to bring the Gospel to these children, and to give them homes and clothing and food, and to that purpose he gave every little bit that came his way. And, while he shared his vision with others, he almost never shared his needs. (I have heard that at one time he discussed them with some of the orphanage staff because he felt they ought to also be invested in the ministry.) His faith was always being tested, but he never gave up, and through the testing it became stronger. One morning he set all the children down to breakfast at an empty table and instructed them to give thanks for the food God would provide. Minutes later, bread and milk were delivered for all by two remarkable “coincidences.”
Originally using existing buildings for homes within the city of Bristol, the Müllers knew they would need to move when neighbors complained that they were causing a disturbance. Of course they had no extra funds for such a move, but as always, George took this seemingly impossible need to God. After 36 days of prayer, doors opened, money came in, and God blessed them with the perfect piece of open land. Over the course of time, buildings on this property eventually accommodated over 2,000 children! The land also allowed them to grow some of their own food.
There was never any excess wealth, but by the standards of the time, the orphans were well-cared for. Their diet was monotonous, but their porridge had milk it in, and they had meat and vegetables. They had their own infirmaries to care for the sick, and while some of the orphans did die (as did one of the Müllers’ own children), they had a remarkable survival rate through several major epidemics. Further, “All of the orphans who attended the homes were given a good education and set up for leaving the homes when they became of age. Boys were released around age 14 to become apprentices. The girls stayed until age 17, helping with the younger children and then being released into service.” When orphans left, they were given a trunk with two changes of clothing. Today this may not sound like much, but then it was a decent start in life for young people who would otherwise have had nothing.
At the age of 70, leaving the orphanages in the care of his daughter and her husband, George Müller embarked on 17 years of traveling missionary work, addressing over 3 million people in 42 countries. “Müller wanted to share with a wider audience the truths he had discovered about God. Further, he desired to encourage Christians to become lovers of the Bible and test everything by the Word of God. Another of his aims was to break down the barriers of denominationalism and to promote, as he put it, ‘brotherly love amongst Christians.’” During these travels, his faith continued to be tested. One day the ship he was on was stuck in a dense fog, and George had a meeting coming up soon. The captain told him it would be impossible to arrive on time, due to the fog, but George said they must pray about it. In the five minutes it took George to pray, the fog disappeared.
He may not have had any significant assets of his own, but he was a faithful steward between those who did and those who did not. All told, he raised slightly over 10,000 orphans, bringing some 3,000 of them to Christ. A meticulous record-keeper, he counted at least 50,000 specific answers to prayer (for finances, health concerns, the provision of godly workers, protection at sea, and so on), and while “he never made appeals for money, trusting implicitly in God, he received £1,500,000 in answer to prayer.” And the work continued after his peaceful death at the age of 89, until housing children in orphanages was no longer common practice.
One other anecdote I have heard is that during WWII, people from Bristol would seek shelter from the Blitz in George’s building, believing they were under God’s protection. In fact, a few bombs did land on or near the property, but no serious damage was sustained, nor anyone injured.
George Müller’s life demonstrated that radical devotion and radical faith can support radical action and bring radical changes to our communities. Today, it gives us hope that nothing is impossible when we are plugged into the power of God.
Sources: https://www.mullers.org/timeline, https://www.truthfulwords.org/biography/mullertw.html, http://www.path2prayer.com/article/965/revival-holy-spirit/books-sermons/new-resources/famous-christians-books-and-sermons/george-muller-founder-of-bristol-orphanage