If you were asked to name a children’s home pioneer, you would probably think of Dr Barnardo. If you were asked to mention a famous Christian who lived by faith, it would probably be Hudson Taylor or another of the great nineteenth-century missionaries. Yet George Müller and his wife Mary set up homes for orphaned children, living entirely by faith, decades earlier than Dr Barnardo or Hudson Taylor. And despite ill health and the limitations that came from being a woman living 200 years ago, it was Mary, as much as her husband, who created the homes that cared for, educated and spiritually nurtured thousands. They did so without ever asking for funds, but relying entirely on prayer.
Living for Christ
Mary was born into a typical middle-class family in Hampshire in 1798. She had a typical middle-class life: church every Sunday and lessons on how to be the perfect middle-class wife, drawing, sewing and playing the piano. The expectation was that she would eventually marry someone with enough money to keep her in the manner to which she was accustomed, so she could live a life of cosy domesticity – drawing, sewing and playing the piano. This expectation was shattered after her father was ruined by a series of disastrous business ventures. The children – Mary and her brother and sister – would have to learn to fend for themselves. Her brother Anthony trained as a dentist and qualified when he was nineteen. As a girl, there were fewer options for Mary. Showing great initiative and resilience, she set up a school with a friend when she was just sixteen.
After the death of her mother, she moved to live with her brother, now married and a successful dentist in Exeter. Anthony had gone from being a Sunday church-goer to an increasingly committed Christian. He gave an ever-greater proportion of his income to the church and soon was considering pioneering missionary work to the Middle East – for which he intended to live entirely by faith. Living with her brother, Mary soon became a Christian and saw the wonderful ways God answered prayer. Although she stayed behind when her brother and his family set off for Baghdad, she was determined to live her life whole-heartedly for Christ. It was while in Exeter she met George Müller.
Living by faith
George was an unlikely husband for Mary. He was German. He was seven years younger than she was – twenty-five to her thirty-two. His early life had consisted of gambling, drinking and blaspheming. He was now an itinerant preacher, delivering sermons in heavily accented English in various churches in the south west England. He was hardly the conventional and respectable husband she dreamt of as a young woman. On the other hand, he too was determined to live whole-heartedly for Christ and was excited by the prospect of living by faith. They soon married and immediately resolved to pray together daily and live by faith – never even revealing their needs to those closest to them, but relying entirely on God’s provision.
It was the beginning of the most extraordinary partnership. George kept detailed accounts of his daily activities and the almost daily miraculous answers to prayer. This certainly did not mean that they had a comfortable or easy life. Their first child was stillborn and Mary almost died during the delivery, but they praised God for his protection. Only one of her four children lived beyond infancy. When they moved to Bristol, where George was to be the permanent pastor of two churches, they prayed for – and got – the perfect home which to most today would sound cramped and scruffy! God always provided for their needs, often just enough and often at the last minute. They praised God that they were constantly kept dependent on him and not on their possessions or bank balance. Exactly the right amount of money would be slipped through the letterbox, or elderly ladies would feel led to donate a set of silver spoons of just the right value to cover the bills.
Praying for every need
Soon George needed a new challenge. Following a recent cholera epidemic, Bristol had even more homeless orphans than usual. Mary was feeding sixty to eighty children on their doorstep each day while George told them Bible stories. A more permanent solution was needed. He decided to adapt their home to house thirty orphan girls. Although he was motivated in part by compassion, he also wanted to prove that it was possible for such an enterprise to succeed by faith alone. They prayed for the £40 needed and £50 was given. Eventually, three more homes on the same street were bought to house more orphans. Unsurprisingly the neighbours complained about the noise and the smell from the overstretched drains! Somewhere new was needed if even more children were to be looked after, with more outdoor space for them to play. This would cost £10,000 – an enormous amount! They raised the money in a year and in 1849 built a purpose-built home outside Bristol. Over the next twenty years, three more homes were built where over two thousand orphans were cared for. Every need – usually around fifty per day – was brought before the Lord in prayer. Every need was met.
Showing God’s love to all
Mary was the heart and soul of the children’s homes. She was in charge of the day to day running of the homes. She was the chief accountant and administrator – a particularly challenging role when she was never quite sure where or when the necessary funds would appear. She ordered quality fabrics for bedding and uniforms. She made sure the children ate nutritious meals – far better than most poor families would have eaten at home. She managed the sickrooms, school rooms and dormitories. Mary was far more than just an efficient manager. She genuinely loved the children in her care. They remembered her kindness and gentleness that made the institutions feel like a real home. She sat with the sick, greeted the children cheerfully (although surely she can’t have known all of them by name) and prayed with and for them. George was a great man of faith, but it was through Mary’s loving care that many came to trust in her Lord and Saviour for themselves.
As Mary grew older and weaker their one surviving daughter Lydia took on more of the everyday tasks, but Mary never stopped working – or praying – until the day she died aged seventy-two. Thousands attended her funeral, including many of those she had cared for. Hundreds contributed money towards an appropriate tombstone and wrote to George about the love and care she had shown them and the Bible teaching she had shared.
Trusting in a remarkable God
Mary Müller’s life was very different from the life of middle-class comfort she might have expected as a girl. She never had possessions or money of her own. Her health was quite poor, and she lost three of her four children. However, Mary learnt that God is trustworthy and generous at all times and spoke of a ‘conscious nearness’ to the Lord that only comes through prayer and dependence on him. Her influence for good and for God was far greater than it would have been had she settled for a conventional life of conformity and ease. She was not a particularly remarkable woman, but she trusted in her remarkable God, and so did remarkable things. We say we trust in the same remarkable God – let’s aim to trust him as she did and who knows what will happen.