This year I decided to take on Tim Challies’ 2019 Christian Reading Challenge. Just recently I finished up my first biography for the year. Occasionally I will do a book review on some of the books I’m reading. You can read some of my thoughts about that process here. Today’s book is George Müller of Bristol by Arthur T. Pierson.
Meet George Müller
I don’t know if this is true for you, but before reading this book I felt as if I had heard a lot about George Müller without really knowing a lot about him. In college I even played the role of Müller in a play for the campus missions society. While I had good intentions of reading his autobiography to be a better actor, I never did. Instead, I gleaned most of my understanding about the life of George Müller from that play. If you think about it, you probably don’t want people to learn everything they know about your life through a drama staged by amateur college students, at least I don’t.
So I would encourage you to get better acquainted with Müller, and this book is a great place to start. Arthur Tappan Pierson carefully highlights select portions from Müller’s journal that recount significant aspects of his life. Pierson was a close personal friend of Müller, gifted with a strong command of language and keen spiritual insight (he succeeded Charles Spurgeon as pastor of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London). You won’t get to read every detail of Müller’s life, but you will get a good overview of the man, his personality, his character, and how God shaped him through the years.
Chronological & Topical
Pierson spends the first portion of this book doing a chronological sketch of Müller’s life. Starting at birth, Pierson traces Müller’s life through his early rebellious days, his astonishing conversion, his subsequent growth in Christ, his failed pursuit of missions, his developing biblical convictions, his early influences (especially through the biography of A.H. Francké), his lesser-known early years of ministry, his well-known orphan ministry, his personal hardships, and his worldwide missionary enterprise during the final years of his life.
While most would be satisfied with simply writing a chronological overview, Pierson presses in even further to the life of Müller. The second half of the book looks at key aspects of Müller’s life topically, tying together common themes and emphases from his journal and other related historical documents. This second overview is equally interesting, helpfully reemphasizing the aspects of Müller’s life that made him such an edifying and unique servant of Christ.
Only the Tip of the Iceberg
I used to think of the story of George Müller like this: It’s morning, and there’s not a scrap of food left on the table. The housemaid comes in and informs the Müller’s that the orphans, too, having nothing to eat. Müller drops on his knees before everyone and offers a desperate and dramatic prayer to God. The doorbell rings. The bread has come (I can see the scene from that college play in my mind right now)! Not only does that scene portray an inaccurate view of a peaceful, stable man who learned to cast his anxieties on the Lord, it also is very shallow. To know of the orphan work is to see only the tip of the iceberg.
Müller spent his life to the full in more ways than ministry to orphans. He, with the help of co-laborer Henry Craik, contributed to the health of multiple local church ministries. Together they also established the Scriptural Knowledge Institution for Home and Abroad which assisted in the teaching and dissemination of massive amounts of Bibles (over 2 million) and biblical literature both in England and worldwide. Müller personally supported over 115 missionaries, and at the end of his life he traveled over 200,000 miles for 17 years preaching the gospel to scores of people in various nations, tribes, and tongues. George Müller’s fruitful life spanned almost an entire century (1805-1898), and he credits peaceful trust in God as the key.
“Where Faith begins, anxiety ends;
Where anxiety begins, Faith ends.”
– George Müller
Yet his record of God’s dealings in the orphan houses at Ashley Down stands out above the rest (called the Narrative of the Lord’s Dealings with George Müller). Here is a man who would want us to look past the vessel and to the Savior who can and will supply all our true needs, if we would only seek first the kingdom of God. The theme of his life was power through prevailing prayer. As Pierson says, “To summarize Mr. Müller’s service we must understand his great secret. Such a life and such a work are the result of one habit more than all else—daily and frequent communion with God.”
Cautions to Consider
Müller was not a perfect man, and his understanding, interpretation, and application of Scripture is not beyond critique. I am concerned that Müller disliked frequent consulting of commentaries or other reference works in Bible study. In his zeal to allow the Holy Spirit to be the sole interpreter of Scripture, he unnecessarily shunned some of the benefits we can enjoy through God’s gifting of theologians and expositors who shed light on truth.
Also, while Müller succeeded in displaying wholehearted trust in God alone, at times he may have risked shunning wisdom portions of Scripture that encourage us to plan and prepare. I don’t want to overstate my case, though. Once Müller was convinced God wanted him to work on a project, he began to lay aside funds, pursue the goal, and carefully count the cost. He also would purposefully avoid ever telling anyone outside his orphanage if the orphanage was in desperate need. Here I differ with Müller. I am not convinced it is wrong to let people within the church know if I or my ministry is in a state of financial need. God has given us the body of Christ to bear appropriate burdens. Indeed, he chooses to use us as tools of his grace and mercy.
But Müller thought otherwise, and he held to his conviction. He saw it as a clear means of proving to others that the living God still hears and answers prayer, and it is a safe thing to rely on God alone. And the Lord blessed him abundantly either for or in spite of it. We should appreciate reading these kinds of stories, for they stretch our faith and challenge our assumptions. We need to think critically about Scripture. Doing so will grow us in maturity as we wrestle through and meditate on how Scripture applies to our lives, even if we end up disagreeing with another believer.
One final caution: Pierson tends to write in glowing terms about Müller. I did have to wonder if at times Pierson was not painting a “rosier” picture than reality, simply because he had little to say about Müller’s faults or spiritual struggles in his later life. Perhaps Müller had grown to the point of spiritual maturity where his struggles were hardly apparent to others, but this kind of insight would have helped provide a fuller picture of Müller’s life.
For the above reasons, I vacillated between rating this book at 4 or 5 stars. In the end I gave it 5 because the comprehensive scope and detail of the book far outweigh the relatively minor issues. I gladly recommend George Müller of Bristol to you. It will edify your soul, challenge your faith, and cultivate a deeper delight in the Living God who still hears and answers prayer.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Format: Print book
Reading length: 466 pages (aprox. 25-30 hours)
p.s. John Piper preached an outstanding biographical sermon on the life of George Müller. I highly recommend it to you. You can access it here: George Mueller’s Strategy for Showing God