No work for God surpasses in dignity and responsibility the Christian ministry. It is at once the consummate flower of the divine planting, the priceless dower of His church, and through it works the power of God for salvation.
Though George Müller had begun his ‘candidacy for holy orders’ as an unconverted man, seeking simply a human calling with a hope of a lucrative living, he had heard God’s summons to a divine vocation, and he was from time to time preaching the Gospel, but not in any settled field.
While at Teignmouth, early in 1830, preaching by invitation, he was asked to take the place of the minister who was about to leave, but he replied that he felt at that time called of God, not to a stationary charge, but rather to a sort of itinerant evangelism. During this time he preached at Shaldon for Henry Craik, thus coming into closer contact with this brother, to whom his heart became knit in bonds of love and sympathy which grew stronger as the acquaintance became more intimate.
Certain hearers at Teignmouth, and among them some preachers, disliked his sermons, albeit they were owned of God; and this caused him to reflect upon the probable causes of this opposition, and whether it was any indica- tion of his duty. He felt that they doubtless looked for outward graces of oratory in a preacher, and hence were not attracted to a foreigner whose speech had no rhetorical charms and who could not even use English with fluency. But he felt sure of a deeper cause for their dislike, especially as he was compelled to notice that, the summer previous, when he himself was less spiritually minded and had less insight into the truth, the same parties who now opposed him were pleased with him. His final conclusion was that the Lord meant to work through him at Teignmouth, but that Satan was acting, as usual, the part of a hinderer, and stirring up brethren themselves to oppose the truth. And as, notwithstanding the opposers, the wish that he should minister at the chapel was expressed so often and by so many, he determined to remain for a time until he was openly rejected as God’s witness, or had some clear divine leading to another field of labour.
He announced this purpose, at the same time plainly stating that, should they withhold salary, it would not affect his decision, inasmuch as he did not preach as a hireling of man, but as the servant of God, and would willingly commit to Him the provision for his temporal needs. At the same time, however, he reminded them that it was alike their duty and privilege to minister in carnal things to those who served them in things spiritual, and that while he did not desire a gift, he did desire fruit that might abound to their account.
These experiences at Teignmouth were typical: “Some believed the things which were spoken, and some believed not;” some left the chapel, while others stayed; and some were led and fed, while others maintained a cold indifference, if they did not exhibit an open hostility. But the Lord stood by him and strengthened him, setting His seal upon his testimony; and Jehovah Jireh also moved two brethren, unasked, to supply all the daily wants of His servant. After a while the little church of eighteen members unanimously called the young preacher to the pastorate, and he consented to abide with them for a season, without abandoning his original intention of going from place to place as the Lord might lead. A stipend, of fifty-five pounds annually, was offered him, which somewhat increased as the church membership grew; and so the university student of Halle was settled in his first pulpit and pastorate.
While at Sidmouth, preaching, in April, 1830, three believing sisters held in his presence a conversation about ‘believers’ baptism,’ which proved the suggestion of another important step in his life, which has a wider bearing than at first is apparent.
They naturally asked his opinion on the subject about which they were talking, and he replied that, having been baptized as a child, he saw no need of being baptized again. Being further asked if he had ever yet prayerfully searched the word of God as to its testimony in this matter, he frankly confessed that he had not.
At once, with unmistakable plainness of speech and with rare fidelity, one of these sisters in Christ promptly said: “I entreat you, then, never again to speak any more about it till you have done so.”
Such a reply George Müller was not the man either to resent or to resist. He was too honest and conscientious to dismiss without due reflection any challenge to search the oracles of God for their witness upon any given question. Moreover, if, at that very time, his preaching was emphatic in any direction, it was in the boldness with which he insisted that all pulpit teaching and Christian practice must be subjected to one great test, namely, the touchstone of the word of God. Already an Elijah in spirit, his great aim was to repair the broken-down altar of the Lord, to expose and rebuke all that hindered a thoroughly scriptural worship and service, and, if possible, to restore apostolic simplicity of doctrine and life.
As he thought and prayed about this matter, he was forced to admit to himself that he had never yet earnestly examined the Scriptures for their teaching as to the position and relation of baptism in the believer’s life, nor had he even prayed for light upon it. He had nevertheless repeatedly spoken against believers’ baptism, and so he saw it to be possible that he might himself have been opposing the teaching of the Word. He therefore determined to study the subject until he should reach a final, satisfactory, and scriptural conclusion; and thenceforth, whether led to defend infant baptism or believers’ baptism, to do it only on scriptural grounds.
The mode of study which he followed was characteristically simple, thorough, and business-like, and was always pursued afterward. He first sought from God the Spirit’s teaching that his eyes might be opened to the Word’s witness, and his mind illumined; then he set about a systematic examination of the New Testament from beginning to end. So far as possible he sought absolutely to rid himself of all bias of previous opinion or practice, prepossession or prejudice; he prayed and endeavoured to be free from the influence of human tradition, popular custom, and churchly sanction, or that more subtle hindrance, personal pride in his own consistency. He was humble enough to be willing to retract any erroneous teaching and renounce any false position, and to espouse that wise maxim: “Don’t be consistent, but simply be true.” Whatever may have been the case with others who claim to have examined the same question for themselves, the result in his case was that he came to the conclu- sion, and, as he believed, from the word of God and the Spirit of God, that none but believers are the proper subjects of baptism, and that only immersion is its proper mode. Two passages of Scripture were very marked in the prominence which they had in compelling him to these conclusions, namely: Acts 8:36-38, and Romans 6:3-5. The case of the Ethiopian eunuch strongly convinced him that baptism is proper, only as the act of a believer confessing Christ; and the passage in the Epistle to the Romans equally satisfied him that only immersion in water can express the typical burial with Christ and resurrection with Him, there and elsewhere made so prominent. He intended no assault upon brethren who hold other views, when he thus plainly stated in his journal the honest and unavoidable convictions to which he came; but he was too loyal both to the word of God and to his own conscience to withhold his views when so carefully and prayerfully arrived at through the searching of the Scriptures.
Conviction compelled action, for in him there was no spirit of compromise; and he was accordingly promptly baptized. Years after, in reviewing his course, he records the solemn conviction that “of all revealed truths, not one is more clearly revealed in the Scriptures—not even the doctrine of justification by faith—and that the subject has only become obscured by men not having been willing to take the Scriptures alone to decide the point.”
He also bears witness incidentally that not one true friend in the Lord had ever turned his back upon him in consequence of his baptism, as he supposed some would have done; and that almost all such friends had, since then, been themselves baptized. It is true that in one way he suffered some pecuniary loss through this step taken in obedience to conviction, but the Lord did not suffer him to be ultimately the loser even in this respect, for He bountifully made up to him any such sacrifice, even in things that pertain to this life. He concludes this review of his course by adding that through his example many others were led both to examine the question of baptism anew and to submit themselves to the ordinance.
Such experiences as these suggest the honest question whether there is not imperative need of subjecting all current religious customs and practices to the one test of conformity to the scripture pattern. Our Lord sharply rebuked the Pharisees of His day for making “the commandment of God of none effect by their tradition.” and, after giving one instance, He added, “and many other such like things do ye.”2 It is very easy for doctrines and practices to gain acceptance, which are the outgrowth of ecclesiasticism, and neither have sanction in the word of God, nor will bear the searching light of its testimony. Cyprian has forewarned us that even antiquity is not authority, but may be only vetustas erroris—the old age of error. What radical reforms would be made in modern worship, teaching and practice,—in the whole conduct of disciples and the administration of the church of God,— if the one final criterion of all judgment were: ‘What do the Scriptures teach?’ And what revolutions in our own lives as believers might take place, if we should first put every notion of truth and custom of life to this one test of scripture authority, and then with the courage of conviction dare to do according to that word—counting no cost, but studying to show ourselves approved of God! Is it possible that there are any modern disciples who “reject the commandment of God that they may keep their own tradition”?
This step, taken by Mr. Müller as to baptism, was only a precursor of many others, all of which, as he believed, were according to that Word which, as the lamp to the believer’s feet, is to throw light upon his path.
During this same summer of 1830 the further study of the Word satisfied him that, though there is no direct command so to do, the scriptural and apostolic practice was to break bread every Lord’s day. (Acts 20:7, etc.) Also, that the Spirit of God should have unhindered liberty to work through any believer according to the gifts He had bestowed, seemed to him plainly taught in Romans 12; 1 Cor. 12; Ephes. 4, etc. These conclusions likewise this servant of God sought to translate at once into conduct, and such conformity brought increasing spiritual prosperity.
Conscientious misgivings, about the same time, ripened into settled convictions that he could no longer, upon the same principle of obedience to the word of God, consent to receive any stated salary as a minister of Christ. For this latter position, which so influenced his life, he assigns the following grounds, which are here stated as showing the basis of his life-long attitude:
1. A stated salary implies a fixed sum, which cannot well be paid without a fixed income through pew-rentals or some like source of revenue. This seemed plainly at war with the teaching of the Spirit of God in James 2:1-6, since the poor brother cannot afford as good sittings as the rich, thus introducing into church assemblies invidious distinctions and respect of persons, and so encouraging the caste spirit.
2. A fixed pew-rental may at times become, even to the willing disciple, a burden. He who would gladly contribute to a pastor’s support, if allowed to do so according to his ability and at his own convenience, might be oppressed by the, demand to pay a stated sum at a stated time. Circumstances so change that one who has the same cheerful mind as before may be unable to give as formerly, and thus be subjected to painful embarrassment and humiliation if constrained to give a fixed sum.
3. The whole system tends to the bondage of the servant of Christ. One must be unusually faithful and intrepid if he feels no temptation to keep back or in some degree modify his message in order to please men, when he remembers that the very parties, most open to rebuke and most liable to offence, are perhaps the main contributors toward his salary.
Whatever others may think of such reasons as these, they were so satisfactory to his mind that he frankly and promptly announced them to his brethren; and thus, as early as the autumn of 1830, when just completing his twenty-fifth year, he took a position from which he never retreated, that he would thenceforth receive no fixed salary for any service rendered to God’s people. While calmly assigning scriptural grounds for such a position he, on the same grounds, urged voluntary offerings, whether of money or other means of support, as the proper acknowledgment of service rendered by God’s minister, and as a sacrifice acceptable, well-pleasing to God. A little later, seeing that, when such voluntary gifts came direct from the givers personally, there was a danger that some might feel self-complacent over the largeness of the amount given by them, and others equally humbled by the smallness of their offerings, with consequent damage to both classes, of givers, he took a step further: he had a box put up in the chapel, over which was written, that whoever had a desire to do something for his support might put such an offering therein as ability and disposition might direct. His intention was, that thus the act might be wholly as in God’s sight, without the risk of a sinful pride or false humility.
He further felt that, to be entirely consistent, he should ask no help from man, even in bearing necessary costs of travel in the Lord’s service, nor even state his needs beforehand in such a way as indirectly to appeal for aid. All of these methods he conceived to be forms of trusting in an arm of flesh, going to man for help instead of going at once, always and only, to the Lord. And he adds: “To come to this conclusion before God required more grace than to give up my salary.”
These successive steps are here recorded explicitly and in their exact order because they lead up directly to the ultimate goal of his life-work and witness. Such decisions were vital links connecting this remarkable man and his “Father’s business,” upon which he was soon more fully to enter; and they were all necessary to the fulness of the world-wide witness which he was to bear to a prayer-hearing God and the absolute safety of trusting in Him and in Him alone.
On October 7, 1830, George Müller, in finding a wife, found a good thing and obtained new favour from the Lord. Miss Mary Groves, sister of the self-denying dentist whose surrender of all things for the mission field had so impressed him years before, was married to this man of God, and for forty blessed years proved an help meet for him. It was almost, if not quite, an ideal union, for which he continually thanked God; and, although her kingdom was one which came not ‘with observation,’ the sceptre of her influence was far wider in its sway than will ever be appreciated by those who were strangers to her personal and domestic life. She was a rare woman and her price was above rubies. The heart of her husband safely trusted in her, and the great family of orphans who were to her as children rise up even to this day to call her blessed.
Married life has often its period of estrangement, even when temporary alienation yields to a deeper love, as the parties become more truly wedded by the assimilation of their inmost being to one another. But to Mr. and Mrs. Müller there never came any such experience of even temporary alienation. From the first, love grew, and with it, mutual confidence and trust. One of the earliest ties which bound these two in one was the bond of a common self-denial. Yielding literal obedience to Luke 12:33, they sold what little they had and gave alms, henceforth laying up no treasures on earth (Matthew 6:19-34; 19:21.) The step then taken—accepting, for Christ’s sake, voluntary poverty—was never regretted, but rather increasingly rejoiced in; how faithfully it was followed in the same path of continued self-sacrifice will sufficiently appear when it is remembered that, nearly sixty-eight years afterward, George Müller passed suddenly into the life beyond, a poor man; his will, when admitted to probate, showing his entire personal property, under oath, to be but one hundred and sixty pounds! And even that would not have been in his possession had there been no daily need of requisite comforts for the body and of tools for his work. Part of this amount was in money, shortly before received and not yet laid out for his Master, but held at His disposal. Nothing, even to the clothes he wore, did he treat as his own. He was a consistent steward.
This final farewell to all earthly possessions, in 1830, left this newly married husband and wife to look only to the Lord. Thenceforth they were to put to ample daily test both their faith in the Great Provider and the faithfulness of the Great Promiser. It may not be improper here to anticipate, what is yet to be more fully recorded, that, from day to day and hour to hour, during more than threescore years, George Müller was enabled to set to his seal that God is true. If few men have ever been permitted so to trace in the smallest matters God’s care over His children, it is partly because few have so completely abandoned themselves to that care. He dared to trust Him, with whom the hairs of our head are all numbered, and who touchingly reminds us that He cares for what has been quaintly called “the odd sparrow.” Matthew records (10:29) how two sparrows are sold for a farthing, and Luke (12:6) how five are sold for two farthings; and so it would appear that, when two farthings were offered, an odd sparrow was thrown in, as of so little value that it could be given away with the other four. And yet even for that one sparrow, not worth taking into account in the bargain, God cares. Not one of them is forgotten before God, or falls to the ground without Him. With what force then comes the assurance: “Fear ye not therefore; ye are of more value than many sparrows”!
So George Müller found it to be. He was permitted henceforth to know as never before, and as few others have ever learned, how truly God may be approached as “Thou that hearest prayer.” God can keep His trusting children not only from falling but from stumbling; for, during all those after-years that spanned the lifetime of two generations, there was no drawing back. Those precious promises, which in faith and hope were “laid hold” of in 1830, were “held fast” until the end. (Heb. 6:18, 10:23.) And the divine faithfulness proved a safe anchorage-ground in the most prolonged and violent tempests. The anchor of hope, sure and steadfast, and entering into that within the veil, was never dragged from its secure hold on God. In fifty thousand cases, Mr. Müller calculated that he could trace distinct answers to definite prayers; and in multitudes of instances in which God’s care was not definitely traced, it was day by day like an encom- passing but invisible presence or atmosphere of life and strength.
On August 9, 1831, Mrs. Müller gave birth to a stillborn babe, and for six weeks remained seriously ill. Her husband meanwhile laments that his heart was so cold and carnal, and his prayers often so hesitating and formal; and he detects, even behind his zeal for God, most un-spiritual frames. He especially chides himself for not having more seriously thought of the peril of child-bearing, so as to pray more earnestly for his wife; and he saw clearly that the prospect of parenthood had not been rejoiced in as a blessing, but rather as implying a new burden and hindrance in the Lord’s work.
While this man of God lays bare, his heart in his journal, the reader must feel that “as in water face answereth to face, so the heart of man to man.” How many a servant of God has no more exalted idea of the divine privilege of a sanctified parenthood! A wife and a child are most precious gifts of God when received, in answer to prayer, from His hand. Not only are they not hindrances, but they are helps, most useful in fitting a servant of Christ for certain parts of his work for which no other preparation is so adequate. They serve to teach him many most valuable lessons, and to round out his character into a far more symmetrical beauty and serviceableness. And when it is remembered how a godly association in holiness and usefulness may thus be supplied, and above all a godly succession through many generations, it will be seen how wicked is the spirit that treats holy wedlock and its fruits in offspring, with lightness and contempt. Nor let us forget that promise: “If two of you agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of My Father which is in heaven.” (Matt. 18:19) The Greek word for “agree” is symphonize, and suggests a musical harmony where chords are tuned to the same key and struck by a master hand. Consider what a blessed preparation for such habitual symphony in prayer is to be found in the union of a husband and wife in the Lord! May it not be that to this the Spirit refers when He bids husband and wife dwell in unity, as “heirs together of the grace of life,” and adds, “that your prayers be not hindered”? (1 Peter 3:7)
God used this severe lesson for permanent blessing to George Müller. He showed him how open was his heart to the subtle power of selfishness and carnality, and how needful was this chastisement to teach him the sacredness of marital life and parental responsibility. Henceforth he judged himself, that he might not be judged of the Lord.” (1 Cor. 11:31.)
A crisis like his wife’s critical illness created a demand for much extra expense, for which no provision had been made, not through carelessness and improvidence, but upon principle. Mr. Müller held that to lay by in store is inconsistent with full trust in God, who in such case would send us to our hoardings before answering prayer for more supplies. Experience in this emergency justified his faith; for not only were all unforeseen wants supplied, but even the delicacies and refreshments needful for the sick and weak; and the two medical attendants graciously declined all remuneration for services which extended through six weeks. Thus was there given of the Lord more than could have been laid up against this season of trial, even had the attempt been made.
The principle of committing future wants to the Lord’s care, thus acted upon at this time, he and his wife consistently followed so long as they lived and worked together. Experience confirmed them in the conviction that a life of trust forbids laying up treasures against un- foreseen needs, since with God no emergency is unforeseen and no want unprovided for; and He may be as implicitly trusted for extraordinary needs as for our common daily bread.
Yet another law, kindred to this and thoroughly inwrought into Mr. Müller’s habit of life, was never to contract debt, whether for personal purposes or the Lord’s work. This matter was settled on scriptural grounds once for all (Romans 13:8), and he and his wife determined if need be to suffer starvation rather than to buy anything without paying for it when bought. Thus they always knew how much they had to buy with, and what they had left to give to others or use for others’ wants.
There was yet another law of life early framed into Mr. Müller’s personal decalogue. He regarded any money which was in his hands already designated for, or appropriated to, a specific use, as not his to use, even temporarily, for any other ends. Thus, though he was often reduced to the lowest point of temporal supplies, he took no account of any such funds set apart for other outlays or due for other purposes. Thousands of times he was in straits where such diversion of funds for a time seemed the only and the easy way out, but where this would only have led him into new embarrassments. This principle, intelligently adopted, was firmly adhered to, that what properly belongs to a particular branch of work, or has been already put aside for a certain use, even though yet in hand, is not to be reckoned on as available for any other need, however pressing. Trust in God implies such knowledge on His part of the exact circumstances that He will not constrain us to any such misappropriation. Mistakes, most serious and fatal, have come from lack of conscience as well as of faith in such exigencies—drawing on one fund to meet the overdraught upon another, hoping after- ward to replace what is thus withdrawn. A well-known college president had nearly involved the institution of which he was the head, in bankruptcy, and himself in worse moral ruin, all the result of one error—money given for endowing certain chairs had been used for current expenses until public confidence had been almost hopelessly impaired.
Thus a life of faith must be no less a life of conscience. Faith and trust in God, and truth and faithfulness toward man, walked side by side in this life-journey in unbroken agreement.
2 Matthew 15:6.