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Essay on George MacDonald


George MacDonald: Scottish Poet, Preacher and Novelist – Page 2

Major Influences – Continued

College Days

When fifteen-year-old George MacDonald went to King’s College at Aberdeen in 1840, his beliefs still reflected much of the Calvinist upbringing of his childhood. Though he was uncomfortable with these beliefs, he had not yet truly begun to work through them in earnest. With his move away from home, the new sense of emerging maturity and responsibility, and the atmosphere of learning, seeking, and growing that he met with in college, MacDonald began, along with his other studies, to explore his faith and engage the struggle that had been brewing in him. It continued to brew throughout his college experience, but by the time he received his Master’s degree five years later, MacDonald’s faith had undergone much development, and the theology and views he held for the rest of his life were largely intact, though the extent and power of them would increase.[42]

Before entering King’s College, MacDonald had tested for scholarship funds and been awarded a scholarship of fourteen pounds per year, enough to pay his tuition and take care of much of his expenses during the five-month session.[43] He was well liked as a student, but subject to mood swings, being quite jovial and outgoing at times, then withdrawing into loneliness and introspective reflection, even depression.[44] Books were his constant friends, and he had always had a great proclivity toward reading. A friend from college days, Robert Troup, who would later marry MacDonald’s cousin, recalled that “he was studious, quiet, sensitive, imaginative, frank, open, speaking freely what he thought. His love of truth was intense, only equaled by his scorn of meanness, his purity and his moral courage.” He went on to say, “I have recollections of him sitting by himself after the meal was over, silent and thoughtful, sometimes apparently musing, and sometimes reading while the others were talking. At other times he took his part heartily in the conversation that was going on. His older friends were anxious about his spiritual state.”[45] MacDonald had a bit of a flair for the dramatic; another fellow student, William Geddes, who later became the Principal of the University, commented that MacDonald was quickly recognized as “a youth of imaginative power, but, like the typical Celt, dreamily careless of fame and class-list positions.” He also remarked, “I remember the radiance of a tartan coat he wore—the most dazzling affair in dress I ever saw a student wear, but characteristic of the young Celtic minstrel.”[46]

George MacDonald’s college days were days of great social and religious change. The Industrial Revolution was working profound changes in Great Britain, gradually urbanizing the country and thus altering the framework of the working class. The relationship of the upper, middle, and lower classes began to change, the superiority of the upper classes being challenged, and political rights being demanded. The rights of women and children were being put forth. The pot was beginning to boil. As Michael Phillips reports, “politically and socially, Britain in the 1840’s was a powder keg, waiting to explode.”[47] At the same time, the Church of Scotland was fighting its own internal battles. It was the Established Church, and had had no challenge until the early 1800s. Now, not only was it being challenged, but schisms were also developing over various doctrinal issues, and multiple splinter groups were tearing away. The various dissenting[48] denominations, most of them Calvinistic, were all touched in some way by the rising controversies, and students were constantly discussing the theological issues. One of the major controversies, raging especially in the Congregational Church in Scotland, centered around the Calvinistic doctrine of election, or predestination. Some were saying that the scope of Christ’s redemption was not limited to the “elect.” They began to explore and discuss the possible extent to which the loving grace of God could reach. Michael Phillips reports that “in Glasgow some students were expelled from the Congregational Theological Academy for adhering to the belief that Christ’s atoning work was available to all men, not just the ‘elect,’ and would in fact ultimately triumph even over hell itself.”[49] It is during these days that MacDonald would first have entertained the idea of universal redemption, that all creation and all men would in the end be redeemed.

In the 1842-43 session of King’s College, MacDonald was unable to afford all his expenses, even with the scholarship. His father, whose finances were tight, was not able to help him, and George missed the session. He found employment at a nobleman’s mansion in the north of Scotland, possibly doing some tutoring, but primarily cataloguing the estate library. These months were profoundly formative for MacDonald. The literature to which he was exposed in this library marked him for life. The exact location of the estate is unknown, but Greville MacDonald had a strong suspicion that it may have been Thurso Castle, the property of Sir George Sinclair.[50] In the library MacDonald found the most intriguing collection he had ever seen: medieval romances, romantic poetry, sixteenth century poets, and above all, German literature. MacDonald describes his experience through the protagonist of his novel The Portent: “…I found in the library…many romances of a very marvelous sort, and plentiful interruption they gave to the formation of the catalogue. I likewise came upon a whole nest of the German classics….Happening to be a tolerable reader of German, I found in these volumes a mine of wealth inexhaustible.”[51]

In a day when it was dangerous for a Scot to be “tainted with German theology,” MacDonald plunged into the writings of the German mystics and romantics. He read Schiller, Goethe, Hoffman, Swedenborg, and Jacob Boehme. The one who impacted MacDonald the deepest was Novalis[52] (Georg Friedrich Philipp von Hardenberg, 1772-1801), author of Henry Von Ofterdingen, “one of the more significant products of the so-called older Romantic school in Germany.”[53]

The circumstances in which MacDonald stumbled upon these German writers are very significant. He was perhaps at one of the most formative times in his education. The internal struggles of his own psyche, mixed with the religious and political upheaval of society, and the multitude of new considerations that these brought, primed MacDonald to receive the new seed that was being planted in him. In these Germans MacDonald found a mystical and poetic element that resonated deeply with his own soul, unlike anything he had read before. The romantic melancholy and sehnsucht of the Germans and other mystics were a strange and marvelous delight to him. It is very likely that these authors were the largest influence on MacDonald with regard to the fairy tale. Novalis contained something deeper than the Grimm brothers. There was a mysterious mingling of Christian mysticism and fairy tale in Novalis. Perhaps Novalis was the foremost stimulator of MacDonald’s mythopoeic vision, of which Lewis noted the excellence. He comments, “What he does best is fantasy—fantasy that hovers between the allegorical and the mythopoeic. And this, in my opinion, he does better than any man.”[54]

MacDonald did not simply adopt the theology of the German mystics he was reading. Some of their views were quite different from his own. But they did strengthen in him the idea of the valid beauty and goodness of nature, and that the God who created nature was revealed in it, and that he loved all that he had made. The love of God, rather than the wrath of God, was characteristic of their teaching. In this way, the mystics he read opened him up and stimulated him as he considered his faith, which was in the midst of formation. But MacDonald took what was best of the mystics, and used it to more fully serve the God he was growing to know and love. They had given him a language through which he could come closest to expressing the logos in his own heart. Lewis described the genius of MacDonald’s gift in this way: “It is in some ways more akin to music than to poetry—or at least most poetry. It goes beyond the expression of things we have already felt. It arouses in us sensations we have never had before, never anticipated having, as though we had broken out of our normal mode of consciousness and ‘possessed joys not promised to our birth.’”[55]

If this German mystic influence was indeed a major stimulant in MacDonald’s writing of fantasy and fairy tales, it is surely of extreme importance. MacDonald serves as a kind of catalyst for bringing the genre of the fairy tale into the stream of a much broader Christian tradition than it had known before. Lewis confessed of himself that when he stumbled upon MacDonald’s Phantastes as an atheist, he “had already been waist-deep in Romanticism; and likely enough, at any moment, to flounder into its darker and more evil forms, slithering down the steep descent that leads from the love of strangeness to that of eccentricity and thence to that of perversity.”[56] But MacDonald, a lover of what might be called a “holy” romanticism, was there to meet Lewis at the critical moment and capture his heart with a sehnsucht of “goodness.”[57] Is it presumptuous to say that without MacDonald’s exposure to Novalis, we would not have Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia or his Space Trilogy? Who can fully weigh out the importance of the webs of influence that connect us? MacDonald’s influence on the likes of Oswald Chambers, G.K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkein, Dorothy Sayers, and Madeleane L’Engle[58] may have shaped the history of Christianity in the 20th century more than we imagine.

Arundel

In October of 1850, six months before his marriage to Louisa Powell, George MacDonald accepted a “Call” to the pastorate of a Congregational Church of just over 60 adult members in Arundel, Sussex, England. He was twenty-five years of age. With great excitement he poured himself into his assignment, and soon had a wife at his side. In the first Christmas of his marriage, MacDonald privately published his first work to give as a gift to close friends. It was a translation of his entitled Twelve of the Spiritual Songs of Novalis.

It was not long before MacDonald found himself in trouble with the congregation. A rumor had begun that he believed animals would share a place in heaven, and that he believed the heathen might even have a chance to repent after death. This sounded dangerously close to the Catholic notion of Purgatory, and in a town where the Catholic influence was strong, the Congregationalists were especially wary.[59] Furthermore, the question of German influence was a serious one. From Germany had arisen the threat of biblical criticism, which had cast doubts into the hearts of many regarding the authority of the Scriptures. Anything German was viewed with deep suspicion.[60]

George had been seriously considering approaching the church about raising his salary. His and Louisa’s first daughter, Lilia, had been born in January of 1852, and the couple, whose finances were tight, were considering moving into a larger house. Seeing their opportunity, the deacons from the church made a formal visit to MacDonald to let him know that they had the unpleasant duty of informing him that the church could no longer afford to continue paying MacDonald 150 pounds per year,[61] even in light of his infant daughter. MacDonald’s response caught them entirely off guard: “I’m sorry enough to hear it, but if it must be, why, I suppose we must contrive to live on less.” The minister’s landlord stammered around and finally admitted “We thought you might take it as a kindly hint, so to speak—” “Of what?” asked MacDonald. “That your preaching is not acceptable, and that you should resign,” was the reply. The reasons they gave were two: 1) In a past sermon he had expressed his belief that some provision was made for the heathen after death, and 2) He was tainted with German Theology. MacDonald accepted the reduction of his salary without a fight, but he determined to bring the matter before the entire congregation. The entire church had called him, and it would not be right for him to resign at the request of a few. The church’s response in writing was that they did not at all share the opinion of the deacons, but warned MacDonald that it would cause serious difficulties in the church if he continued to speak his belief that the heathens’ time of trial did not cease at their death.[62] Twenty people signed this written resolution, which MacDonald did not accept as a reason for resignation since it was from such a small minority. Apparently his salary was cut by nearly a third, and MacDonald sought various means of employment to supplement their income. A year after the confrontation with the deacons, seeing that his remaining would be divisive and unhealthy for the church, MacDonald resigned.

MacDonald never again held a pastoral charge. Though this experience at Arundel was indeed painful, it cast him out upon the sea of a greater destiny. Had he remained in the pastorate, we may never have heard of him. But the writing that became his life’s work has preserved for us his memory. His novels, especially Thomas Wingfold, Curate, include the conflict of dealing with small minds in the church.

Scott and Maurice

Finally, two mentors of considerable influence should be mentioned: A. J. Scott and F. D. Maurice. MacDonald found in them a kindred spirit. Not only did their faith and theology, which was not in line with that of the Church of Scotland, shape his own, but they had also suffered for their divergence, and thus offered comfort and confidence to him.

Alexander John Scott was appointed the first Principal of Owens College in Manchester in 1851.[63] He also held there the Chairs of Logic, Mental Philosophy, and English Literature. Concerning Scott, Archdeacon Hare had maintained that there were “scarcely three men in England who have meditated so deeply on the great moral and political problems of his day; and assuredly there is none who would possess the same power of uttering his thoughts in clear, strong, convincing words.”[64] Greville MacDonald adds, “His name is now forgotten, mainly because he had little gift for writing. His spoken word was an uprush from living springs. My father always thought him the greatest intellect he had known.”[65]

A. J. Scott had been minister to the Presbyterian Church at Woolwich, but ran into trouble with the Westminster Confession, unable to assent to the doctrine that “none are redeemed by Christ but the elect alone.” In 1831 he was found guilty of heresy by the Presbytery of Paisley and deprived of his license to preach. He nevertheless remained at Woolwich, pastoring a small congregation. It was from Woolwich that Scott moved to Manchester to accept the appointment at Owens College. MacDonald moved to Manchester after his “failure” at Arundel to be near to Scott, “the first man of authority whom MacDonald had met in whom he could place a whole-hearted faith.”[66] Scott was nineteen years older than MacDonald and further on the road that MacDonald wanted to be on. He had a wider view of salvation, a love of literature, a concern for the poor, and an interest in the education not only of working men, but also of women.[67] MacDonald was interested in all these things and expanded under Scott’s influence. The Scotts remained faithful friends to the MacDonalds all their lives.

Frederick Denison Maurice also had a profound influence on MacDonald, especially in the area of universal redemption. This mentor, after whom MacDonald named one of his sons, was expelled from his chair at King’s College in London for heresy after the publication of his Theological Essays in which he claimed that the doctrine of eternal punishment was “rather a popular superstition than sanctioned by the strictest interpretation of the Thirty-Nine Articles.”[68]

Through one of the characters in his David Elginbrod MacDonald speaks of Maurice:

He believes entirely that God loves, yea, is love; and, therefore, that hell itself must be subservient to that love, and but an embodiment of it; that the grand work of Justice is to make way for a Love which will give to every man that which is right and ten times more, even if it should be by means of awful sufferings which the love of the Father will not shun, either for himself or his children….[69]

Greville MacDonald reports that he thinks his father and Maurice were identical in their doctrine and only slightly different in their opinion.[70] Through the influence of F. D. Maurice, MacDonald became a lay member of the Anglican Church because in it he found a greater freedom of belief than any other Christian tradition.[71]

It seems clear from MacDonald’s writings that he is indeed a universalist. Perhaps it is chiefly concerning this that C.S. Lewis writes, among all the surrounding praise, “I dare not say that he is never in error….”[72] But Lewis goes on to explain that “[MacDonald] hopes, indeed, that all men will be saved; but that is because he hopes that all will repent. He knows (none better) that even omnipotence cannot save the unconverted. He never trifles with eternal impossibilities.”[73] MacDonald was not interested in systems of belief. Surely this was true even regarding universalism. MacDonald had a word to say through his fantasy Lilith to those who had grown settled in a system that seemed to do away with hell through universalism. His son comments that “the book was written, I do think, in view of the increasingly easy tendencies in universalists, who, because they had now discarded everlasting retribution as a popular superstition, were dismissing hell-fire altogether, and with it the need for repentance as the way back into the Kingdom.”[74] MacDonald’s all-consuming passion was to be in vital, obedient relationship to the Father, just as Jesus is. For him, any doctrine or belief that clouded that relationship had slipped into a place where it did not belong. Michael Phillips gives admirable context to MacDonald’s beliefs:

… though he himself held strong personal viewpoints on many issues, beyond urging obedience and living the example of obedience, he did not forcibly attempt to catechize his views. He recognized all too clearly his own human fallibility. He knew many of his own earthly viewpoints would in the end, in heaven’s light, turn out to be wrong. He knew all too well the equally scriptural arguments that could be mustered against everything he said. Therefore, he urged people to think, to question, to pray, to read their New Testaments, to ask God what he would have them do; above all he urged people to act upon the Lord’s instructions.[75]


  1. [42] Phillips, Storyteller, 101.
  2. [43] Triggs, Stars and Stillness, 17.
  3. [44] Phillips, Storyteller, 102.
  4. [45] Greville MacDonald, MacDonald and Wife, 76, 78.
  5. [46] Ibid, 75, quoting “Poetic Ideals of Education,” a lecture by Principal W. D. Geddes, 1896.
  6. [47] Phillips, Storyteller, 107. For a fuller description of the changes at work during MacDonald’s years at college, see pp. 101-114, which has proved very helpful in this part of the study.
  7. [48] This term refers not only to the fact that the state church of Scotland broke with Roman Catholicism in 1560 in becoming Protestant, but also that it broke with the Anglican Church in becoming Presbyterian. The Scottish denominations were “dissenters” from the Church of England. See footnote, Ibid., 109-110.
  8. [49] Ibid., 115.
  9. [50] See footnote 2, Greville MacDonald, MacDonald and Wife, 73.
  10. [51] George MacDonald, The Portent: A Story of the Inner Vision of the Highlanders Commonly Called the Second Sight (London: Smith, Elder, 1864), 82-83, quoted in Greville MacDonald, MacDonald and Wife, 73.
  11. [52] Glen Edward Sadler quotes an unpublished letter of C. S. Lewis’s (Aug. 13, 1930) in which he says, “—indeed Novalis is perhaps the greatest single influence on MacDonald—full of ‘holiness’, gloriously German-romantic (i.e. a delicious mingling of earthy homeliness and magic, also of a sort of spiritual voluptuousness, with innocence)….” See footnote 14, Sadler, Fantastic Imagination in MacDonald, 218.
  12. [53] Palmer Hilty, Introduction to Henry Von Ofterdingen, by Novalis (The Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc., 1964; reprint, reissue, Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, Inc., 1990), 5. The back cover describes this book as “a strange, ingenious fusion of novel, fairy tale, and poem, the most representative work of early German Romanticism.” MacDonald’s Phantastes is of the same genre, and Lewis’s The Pilgrim’s Regress bears similarities.
  13. [54] Lewis, preface to MacDonald Anthology, xxvi.
  14. [55] Ibid., xxviii.
  15. [56] Ibid., xxxiii.
  16. [57] Lewis recalled, “The quality which had enchanted me in his imaginative works turned out to be the quality of the real universe, the divine, magical, terrifying, and ecstatic reality in which we all live. I should have been shocked in my teens if anyone had told me that what I learned to love in Phantastes was goodness.” Ibid., xxxiv.
  17. [58] Michael Phillips, preface to George MacDonald, Discovering the Character of God, comp., arr., ed. Michael Phillips (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1989), 8.
  18. [59] Raeper, George MacDonald, 90.
  19. [60] Ibid., 79.
  20. [61] Michael Phillips explains that “though 150 Pounds went considerable further than it would today, in 1850 the poverty level was probably around 100 Pounds; 150 Pounds was barely a working class wage. A “middle class” income would have been 400 to 1000 Pounds per year.” See footnote, Phillips, Storyteller, 211.
  21. [62] Greville MacDonald, MacDonald and Wife, 178-180.
  22. [63] Greville MacDonald notes that “In his early days, when the advisability of lowering the standard of Owens College to the level of a training school, in order to increase its popularity, was hotly debated, Scott stood so strongly for an even higher standard that Owens rather raised other teaching institutions to its own level than modified its own ideals.” See footnote, Ibid., 193.
  23. [64] Ibid., 192.
  24. [65] Ibid.
  25. [66] Raeper, George MacDonald, 68.
  26. [67] Ibid.
  27. [68] Greville MacDonald, MacDonald and Wife, 397.
  28. [69] MacDonald, Elginbrod, 199ff, quoted in Greville MacDonald, MacDonald and Wife, 398.
  29. [70] Greville MacDonald, MacDonald and Wife, 400.
  30. [71] Raeper, George MacDonald, 242.
  31. [72] Lewis, preface to MacDonald Anthology, xxx. See Catherine Durie, “George MacDonald and C. S. Lewis,” in The Gold Thread: Essays on George MacDonald, ed. William Raeper (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1990), 174-176.
  32. [73] Lewis, preface to MacDonald Anthology, xxxii.
  33. [74] Greville MacDonald, MacDonald and Wife, 551-552.
  34. [75] Phillips, Storyteller, 209.