Prussian Playboy

Half a century earlier, Wolfenbüttel's medieval castle had been the favourite residence of the dukes of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel; by the early nineteenth century, although the royal visitors had departed, the little seventeenth-century town nestling in the hills of Lower Saxony had lost none of its charm. In one of the half-timbered buildings, clustered around the castle, a police officer looked up from his desk. Two soldiers stood guard over a handsome Prussian youth. The officer began his interrogation.

'What is your name?'

'George Muller.'



'Place and date of birth?'

'Kroppenstaedt, Prussia, September 27 th 1805.'

'Is it true that you have been living in style at Wolfenbuttel, and that you are unable to pay the innkeeper?'

'Yes it is, but…'

'Is is also true that you spent last week at another hotel near Brunswick, living in similar luxury, and that when asked for payment you were forced to leave clothes as a security?'

There was little that Muller could say in his defense. It was true that he was penniless, and in debt. After three hours of questioning, and with no indication as to when he could expect a trial, the two soldiers marched him away—to prison.

December 18th 1821: George Muller looked at the cell where he was to spend his first night in prison. It was small and dark: lit only by a narrow window covered with large iron bars. Thick wooden partitions divided it from adjacent cells. The heavy door was bolted and locked: there was little chance of escape. That evening, Muller received some meat to eat with his bread, but he loathed the smell of it and left it untouched. This must have offended the chef, for there were no more special favours. On the second day he was treated to the same menu as his fellow-prisoners: for lunch, water and coarse bread; for dinner, vegetables but no meat—and, beginning to feel distinctly underfed, he ate a little.

Muller was locked in his cell day and night. He was given no work and no exercise. In order to help pass the time, he asked the keeper for a Bible, but his request was refused. On the third day he ate all his food, and after the fourth, would always have been glad of more.

Some time elapsed before he discovered that there was another prisoner in the cell next to him. He shouted through the thick wooden partition and discovered that his neighbour had been imprisoned for stealing. The governor decided to allow the two prisoners to share Muller's cell and they then spent their time describing their adventures. Warming to his task, Muller began to invent stories which impressed his friend immensely.

After about ten or twelve days, the two prisoners disagreed and for day after day, they refused to speak to each other. In the silence, Muller began to reflect on his life.

His earliest memory was of January in 1810 when, at the age of four, his family had moved from Kroppenstaedt to Heimersleben where his father was appointed collector of taxes. Before his tenth birthday, he had begun to steal government money from his father; and he remembered the day when his father had scored a tactical victory. Suspecting his son, Herr Muller had counted a small sum and placed it in the room where he was. Left alone for a while, George had taken some of the money and hidden it in his shoe. His father returned and counted the money; George was searched and found out. He remembered being punished on this and other occasions, but recalled that his reaction to being found guilty of mischief was usually to consider how he might do the thing again more cleverly, so as not to be detected.

Herr Muller had hoped that George would become a clergyman: not that he might serve God, but in order that he should have a comfortable living. There in his cell, George reflected on his five years at the cathedral classical school at Halberstadt; and remembered—with some shame—the Saturday night, some two years previously, when his mother had died. Not knowing of her illness Muller had played cards until two on the Sunday morning. Then, having quenched his thirst at a tavern, he had toured the streets, half drunk, with some friends.

He remembered that on the following day he had attended the first of a series of confirmation classes. On returning to his rooms, he found his father waiting to take him to his mother's funeral. Later he wrote:

    This bereavement made no lasting impression on my mind. I grew worse and worse. Three or four days before I was confirmed (and thus admitted to partake of the Lord's supper), I was guilty of gross immorality; and the very day before my confirmation, when I was in the vestry with the clergyman to confess my sins,…I defrauded him; for I handed over to him only the twelfth part of the fee which my father had given me for him.

With nothing to disturb the routine of life in the cell, and with neither prisoner showing any inclination to communicate, Muller continued to reflect on the past. He had taken his first communion in Halberstadt cathedral on the Sunday after Easter 1820. That afternoon and evening, in search of quiet, he had stayed at home while the young people who had been confirmed with him were out and about. He had resolved to turn over a new leaf, and spend more time studying. But his resolution was soon broken and his behaviour had grown worse rather than better.

In the twenty months that had elapsed since his confirmation he had spent some of his time studying, but a great deal more time playing the piano and guitar, reading novels, drinking in taverns, making resolutions to improve, but breaking them almost as fast as they were made.

On January 12th 1822, Muller's recollections were interrupted by the welcome sound of the unbolting of his cell door. It was the keeper of the prison.

'You are wanted at the police office. Follow me, please.'

The commissioner told Muller that his father had sent the money which was needed for his travelling expenses, to pay his debt at the inn and for his maintenance in prison. He was therefore free to leave at once.

Herr Muller celebrated his reunion with his son by severely beating him. He took him home to Schoenebeck, near Magdeburg, where he had held another government appointment since the summer of 1821. George tried desperately hard to regain his father's favour. He began to tutor pupils in Latin, French, German grammar and arithmetic. He progressed in his own studies, became popular with everyone—including, after a time, his father. But, as he later admitted: 'All this time I was in heart as bad as ever; for I was still in secret habitually guilty of great sins.'

When he was just seventeen, Muller commenced studies at the gymnasium (pre-university school) at Nordhausen, one of the oldest towns in Prussia. Despite his enthusiasm for study, and occasional attempts to reform himself, Muller frequently disgraced himself at Nordhausen. One of his great failings was still an inability to make ends meet; he had contracted debts that he had no means of repaying. On one occasion, after receiving an allowance from his father, he purposely showed the money to some of his friends. Then, he carefully damaged the locks of his trunk and guitar case. A few minutes later he ran into the director's room with his coat off, and announced, breathlessly, that his money had been stolen.

Everyone was wonderfully sympathetic. Some of his friends kindly clubbed together and managed to give him as much money as he had lost, while his creditors agreed to extend their loans. However, the director—older and wiser—was suspicious and never fully restored George to his confidence. And for his part, Muller never again felt at ease in the presence of the director's wife, who had been like a mother to him during an illness caused, as he admitted, by his 'profligate and vicious life'.

Muller's great ambition was to enter Halle, the famous university founded in 1694 by elector Frederick III of Brandenburg who later became King of Prussia. It had been closed by Napoleon in 1806 and 1813, but it was re-established in 1815 and strengthened by a merger with the old University- of Wittenberg. It was recognised as one of the principal seats of Protestant theology in Europe, and also had faculties of law, medicine and philosophy.

He entered Halle in the Easter of 1825, when he was nineteen. The town is built on a sandy plain on the right bank of the River Saale. The inner town is old; it has a market square in the centre overlooked by a fine medieval town hail, and the Gothic Marienkirche—where Handel learnt to play the organ. Just west of the market square was the Tal where the town's famous salt springs rose.

On arrival at Halle, he made another resolution to change his course of life for the better. This time he was in earnest. He knew that in his present state no parish would ever choose him as its pastor. And even if he were accepted, he would need a good knowledge of divinity to obtain a comfortable living, which in Prussia depended on the standard. of a man's university degree.

Almost at once, his resolution came to nothing. The freedom of university life offered too many temptations, and George Muller yet again found it impossible to manage money. He was forced to pawn his watch, some of his linen and his clothes; he began, once more, to borrow extensively. He felt utterly miserable: worn out by his constant, but unsuccessful, attempts at self-improvement.

It was in one of Halle's taverns (where he once drunk ten pints of beer in a single afternoon), that he thought he recognised a young man from his old school at Halberstadt. They had not been close friends, for Beta had been quiet and serious, but it occurred to Muller that if he struck up a close friendship now, it might help him to lead a steadier life. He picked his way across the crowded Bierkeller and shook the old timer warmly by the hand.

'Beta! How are you? How nice to see you after so long!'

'George Muller! I hardly recognised you.'

Beta welcomed the friendship because he thought it would enliven his social life.

At this time, Muller had a passion for travel. He suggested to his friends that they should make a trip to Switzerland.

'But we have no money, and no passports.'

Muller was not deterred. He persuaded his companions to forge letters from their parents which entitled them to passports. He took charge of the financial side and arranged that the group pledged all they could—particularly books—in order to obtain the necessary funds for the expedition. The party, which included Beta, left Halle on August 18th 1825.

They travelled, to Erfurt and then westward to Frankfurt and south via Heidelberg, Stuttgart and Zurich to the heart of Switzerland. There before them, nestling between steep limestone mountains and a rising mist was Lake Lucerne. There was no railway then, but they climbed the Rigi and the view took Muller's breath away. He looked at the great promontories which thrust themselves into the lake: Bürgenstock, Seelisburg and away to the south-west Pilatus, all so irregular but magnificent. 'Now,' he thought, 'I have lived!'

They travelled home via Lake Constance and then east to Ulm and medieval Nuremberg in Bavaria, arriving back in Halle on September 29th. None of Muller's friends discovered that the man they had trusted with their money had cleverly arranged things so that he himself paid far less towards the cost of the trip than any other member of the party.


'Constrained by the Love of Jesus'

One Saturday afternoon, about the middle of November 1825, Muller and Beta were out for a stroll in Halle. As they talked, Beta grew serious.

'For some weeks I have been attending a meeting on Saturday evenings at the home of a Christian."

He paused, wondering what George's reaction would be.

'And what happens at this meeting?'

'They read the Bible, they sing, they pray, and someone normally reads a sermon.'

'I should like to go with you, this evening.'

'I am not sure you will enjoy it.'

George had made up his mind: 'I am most anxious to go.'

'Then I will call for you this evening.'

Muller felt that at the meeting he might find something for which he had been searching all his life. But he felt sure that Herr Wagner, at whose home the meeting was held, would not welcome him. On arrival, he apologised for coming. Herr Wagner smiled: 'Come as often as you please; house and heart are open to you!'

He ushered George and Beta in to join the rest of the gathering and they sat down. They sang a hymn and then Herr Kayser--later to become a missionary in Africa with the London Missionary Society--knelt down and asked God to bless the meeting. Muller had never before seen anyone on his knees; he had never himself knelt to pray.

Herr Kayser read a chapter from the Bible and then a printed sermon. Prussian law, at the time, made the extempore exposition of Scripture an offence unless an ordained clergyman were present. At the end of the sermon, they sang another hymn and Herr Wagner closed the meeting with prayer. While he prayed, Muller thought, 'I could not pray as well, though I am much more learned than this man.'

The meeting made a deep impression on Muller. He felt strangely happy. As they walked home, he said to Beta: 'All we have seen on our journey to Switzerland, and all our former pleasures, are as nothing in comparison with this evening.'

It was the turning point of his life; and that night he lay peaceful and happy in his bed.

The next day and on several days during the following week, Muller returned to Herr Wagner's house to study the Bible with him and another Christian. Writing about this time later, he wrote:

    It pleased God to teach me something of the meaning of that precious truth: 'God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.' I understood something of the reason why the Lord Jesus died on the cross, and suffered such agonies in the Garden of Gethsemane: even that thus, bearing the punishment due to us, we might not have to bear it ourselves. And, therefore, apprehending in some measure the love of Jesus for my soul, I was constrained to love Him in return. What all the exhortations and precepts of my father and others could not effect; what all my own resolutions could not bring about, even to renounce a life of sin and profligacy: I was enabled to do, constrained by the love of Jesus. The individual who desires to have his sins forgiven, must seek it through the blood of Jesus. The individual who desires to get power over sin, must likewise seek it through the blood of Jesus.



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