Actually, it turns out that Dickens wasn’t so silent after all.
There has long floated around a story that Charles Dickens believed a report that the orphans in Mueller’s care were being mistreated. So he decided to investigate but ended up being well satisfied, even profoundly impressed with what he found. One version of the tale is that Mueller tossed Dickens the key to every door in the place and told him to go look for himself. It’s a great story but I must admit that I’ve never found any real documentation for it.
However, there is quite compelling evidence from another source that does prove that Dickens was well informed of Mueller’s orphanage ministry…and that it won from him deep respect and appreciation.
Here it is.
In addition to Dickens’ popular novels, he took his turns as a journalist as well, most notably in his publishing an influential magazine primarily dedicated to social reform. It was called Household Words. And in Volume 16 of that journal (published in November 1857), there appeared a lengthy article entitled “Brother Mueller and His Orphan-Work” written by Henry Morley. Now Morley was not only a close friend of Charles Dickens, he was a key colleague in Dickens’ work to make English institutions (prisons, schools, orphanages,) more humane and effective. Morley was an acclaimed academic – lecturing in language and literature at King’s College (London), publishing many books (including the 10-volume English Writers, and writing for many leading publications. And among those publications was Household Words. In fact, Morley wrote over 300 stories for the magazine – more than any other person, including Dickens himself.
One can easily see then how Morley’s detailed piece on George Mueller would not only underscore that Dickens’ knowledge of Mueller’s work but the article’s praiseworthy tone reveals Dickens’ obvious approval of what Mueller was accomplishing. To see just how much I cite below a few of the article’s relevant passages:
George Müller takes thought of the orphan, and has accomplished in his own way a substantial work that must secure for him the respect of all good men, whatever may be the form of their religious faith....
George Müller, believing himself to be elect, is one of those who thank the Lord that they are not as other men are; it grieves him to think that in the other world he shall be parted from his natural father and his brother, who are not among the chosen. He does not believe in any gradual amelioration of the world, but looks for the return of the Lord to reign on earth, and is not without expectation that the return may be in his own day.
He points to the Orphan-house on Ashley Down, near Bristol, for the justification of his faith. He has now been labouring in Bristol for a quarter of a century. He has undertaken large works of benevolence. He has established that asylum for destitute orphans, which for some time maintained three hundred inmates, and to which a new wing has just been added for the reception of four hundred more. He expects to add another wing and find room for a thousand. For the prosecution of this orphan-work, as he calls it, he has received ninety thousand pounds, without once asking for a penny. When he wants money he prays for it, and in his annual reports, which are summed up in the publication we have named, shows how it comes. His reports make no appeal. The spirit and intention of them is to bear testimony to the truth of which he is convinced, that “the Lord will provide…”
So much we have said, at once to secure respect for Brother Müller, and to separate him from self-seeking men, who trade upon religion. A precarious subsistence – one obtained by living upon prayer – is a safe one in his eyes, but it is accompanied by him with the most energetic labour to do good work in the world. It will be seen, too, as we tell the main facts of his story, that whatever error we find in his theology, his view of a Scriptural life tallies with some of the best precepts of worldly wisdom…
He rejected altogether the help of unbelievers in the conduct of his institution; but if they gave him money for it freely and unasked, he was not, by Acts, twenty-eighth chapter, second to tenth verses, warranted in refusing to accept their contributions. He rejected as unscriptural the practice of contracting debts, and then asking the charitable to assist in paying them. He based all hope of success on prayer…
So you see that even without “the keys” story, the evidence is in that George Mueller’s light was seen and valued by the reform-minded novelist Charles Dickens. That's important, in part, because Dickens' general view of the Church in his time was that it was as large a part of the problem as it was a part of the solution. Therefore, this sterling example of an evangelical ministry performing Christian love in action boldly, selflessly, and effectively was a corrective testimony of great relevance.
Of course, it's also great example to Christians of any era, reminding us of the importance to perform good deeds in the power of the Holy Spirit, to live out Jesus' commands regarding kindness and truth, and to winsomely share the good news about the heavenly hope that is in us through the sacrifice of Christ in our behalf.
“Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16, New American Standard Bible)