Arthur Tappan (A. T.) Pierson (1837-1911) was an American Presbyterian pastor and a prolific author of biography, theology, and especially missions. He succeeded Charles Spurgeon in the Metropolitan Tabernacle pulpit and was a key influencer in the Student Volunteer Movement.
George Müller of Bristol and His Witness to a Prayer-Hearing God (1899) is one of the great classics of Christian biography. George Müller served Christ for more than sixty years, managing Bible schools and an orphanage, as well as being a prominent public supporter of overseas missions. He is most famous for his orphanage and his lack of soliciting funds. The BBC writes,
When Müller died at the age of 92 in 1898, the Daily Telegraph wrote that he had “robbed the cruel streets of thousands of victims and the workhouses of thousands of helpless waifs”.
The author, Arthur Pierson, was his son-in-law, and had a personal knowledge of Müller’s life. The book was published in the year after Müller died and, brief as it is, is the authoritative biography of George Müller. It also masterfully explains the principles by which Müller lived, Pierson himself being a famous preacher and teacher.
Müller was strongly influenced by Anthony Norris Groves, who went to Baghdad in 1829 under a banner of Christian primitivism—meaning, he chose to travel with salary or no institutional backing. George Müller married Mary Groves in October 1830, and thus, Anthony Norris Groves became his brother-in-law; around this time, Müller also renounced his salary, believing that God called his ministers to live without a fixed income. This is known among evangelicals as “living by faith”, though it is something of a misnomer—implying, as it does, that those with fixed incomes are not living by faith—and thus, I place it between quotation marks for lack of a better term. For historical context, it’s worth noting that Hudson Taylor, founder of the China Inland Mission and popularizer of “faith” missions, was not yet born at the time! Groves and Müller were very early adopters of the principles of evangelical “faith” missions.
In 1831, the Memoirs of August Hermann Francke was published, Müller soon read it. Francke had been a seminal figure in the beginnings of Protestant missions in the late 1600s and early 1700s, and he also educated and supported thousands of poor children.
Reading the life of Francke was likely a watershed moment for Müller who became, according to Pierson, “in [many] respects [Francke’s] counterpart”. Both Francke and Müller were Germans; both supported and educated poor children; both lived and ministered for decades without a fixed income; both distributed over a million Bibles and New Testaments; both supported the work of pioneer missonaries.
In February, 1832, [George Müller] had begun to read the biography of A. H. Francke, the founder of the Orphan Houses of Halle [in Germany]. As that life and work were undoubtedly used of God to make him a like instrument in a kindred service, and to mould even the methods of his philanthropy, a brief sketch of Francke’s career may be helpful.
August H. Francke was Müller’s fellow countryman. About 1696, at Halle in Prussia, he had commenced the largest enterprise for poor children then existing in the world. He trusted in God, and He whom he trusted did not fail him, but helped him throughout abundantly.
The institutions, which resembled rather a large street than a building, were erected, and in them about two thousand orphan children were housed, fed, clad, and taught. For about thirty years all went on under Francke’s own eyes, until 1727, when it pleased the Master to call the servant up higher; and after his departure his like-minded son-in-law became the director. Two hundred years have passed, and these Orphan Houses are still in existence, serving their noble purpose.
In 1834, Müller began a school in Bristol for teaching children the Bible. In 1836, this work was expanded to include an orphanage. This orphanage was the work for which Müller became most well known; but, like Francke, he was involved in a vast variety of charitable and educational endeavors. As he is presented here, Müller led a profoundly impactful life of charity based on faith and biblical principles.
The chapter on “The Word of God and Prayer” is noteworthy and is worth reading by itself. I have no other work that so clearly states the importance and practicality of using scripture in prayer. According to Pierson, Müller’s prayers were steeped in the Word of God, and were grounded in God’s promises.
The author gives ample space to describing both the principles and outcome of Müller’s prayer life; throughout the book, he often departs from the narrative to describe the theological background in which the events took place. In my view, this book is a perfect blend of biography, theology, and devotion. It constitutes a transition point between nineteenth-century memoirs, which merely list dates and events, and modern reflections which merely meditate on their meaning without giving a full historical account.
Plymouth Brethren and “Faith” Missions
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the description of Plymouth Brethren principles practiced by Müller, which are unfamiliar to many Americans. Several of my favorite theologians came out of the Plymouth Brethren, and they were a profound influence on Watchman Nee. As Pierson describes it, Plymouth Brethren doctrine involves an outright rejection of hierarchy in church organization. Thus, even group meetings do not have an appointed leader. “you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged.” (1 Corinthians 14:31, NIV)
There are certain aspects of this book that have been exaggerated in the context of Christian fundraising. In certain circles, greatly influenced by lives like August Francke, Hudson Taylor, and George Müller, direct soliciting of funds is practically taboo, and ministers must be supported on a “faith” basis. In reality, Francke and Müller at least, had important believing patrons that had some awareness of the day-to-day needs of their institutions. Nonetheless, these lives are remarkable confirmations of Jesus’ words:
Food and clothing “dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs.” (Matthew 6:32, NLT)
I highly recommend this book to anyone embarking on a faith venture without a fixed salary. I would not advocate any restrictive version of this wherein no one may make their needs known to believers who are willing and ready to help. That’s not a principle I see in the New Testament. In my opinion, it is similar to denying medicine because you believe in healing; medicine may also be a method of healing! For all that, I have personally tested Jesus’ principles and found that our heavenly Father does know all our needs, and he does provide for his people out of his abundant mercy.