I intimated to you last Sunday that, in view of the fact
that the centenary of the birth of George MacDonald fell on
Wednesday of last week, I intended to take as my subject here
this evening "His Message as a Preacher." I then added, "Great
as his merits may be as a poet and prose-writer, they are even
greater as a preacher. Over his own day and generation he exercised
a wonderful influence; and for years to come Huntly will be
a place of pilgrimage to many who feel that they owe to him
the best impulses of their lives." Since I made that intimation
I have been interested to find that I am not alone in this estimate
of George Macdonald's work. John Malcolm Bulloch, who contributed
an article upon him on Wednesday last, speaks of him as "a most
persuasive preacher." While Professor Grierson, I find, in
a criticism and appreciation which appeared in the Aberdeen
University Review for November is quite emphatic on the point
that preaching was his forte - that only as a preacher can he
be understood. Let me quote merely one sentence. "It was not
for fame," he says, "that George MacDonald wrote, but . to deliver
a spiritual message to his nation and generation. . . . A preacher
he was, and as a preacher you must read him, or leave him alone."
I make no apology, therefore, for choosing his message as my
theme tonight. I consider, indeed, that we should fail in our
duty as a church if we allowed the centenary of his birth to
pass without seeking to understand what it was which he sought
to tell us, or without trying to catch something of the inspiration
which makes the story of his life so remarkable and so beautiful.
For as Mr. Bulloch truly remarks - "Between his private life
and his literature, there is perfect unity - he regarded both
as an expression of all things under and beyond the sun."
His message, let it be said at once, is both negative and positive
- negative as to many of the dogmas commonly regarded as inviolate
in his day; and positive as to the great facts of Christian
teaching which have been the heritage of believers in every
generation - faith, hope, love of Christ and love of one's fellow-men.
His message has sometimes been characterized as vague. One writer,
for example, while admitting that all George MacDonald's books
reveal "deep spiritual instincts," yet speaks of "the nebulosity
of his mental atmosphere and his inability for sustained thought."
But that is obviously an unfair criticism. He certainly formulated
no system (we may thank Heaven for the fact), and sometimes
no doubt he stressed aspects of his teaching to the exclusion
of other aspects which are equally precious (what preacher does
not occasionally make that mistake?): but whether he is destroying
dogmas that offend or upholding dogmas that appeal, he invariably
finds the conscience of his reader. He "gets home," as we say,
and no preacher who does that can be dismissed as "nebulous."
George MacDonald of course suffered, as all preachers of his
day and generation suffered, by having to work through much
that was false before he could reach the true. The passage from
the negative to positive was in his case both logical in sequence
and chronological in time; and for that reason we cannot do
better than deal with his negative or destructive teaching first,
and then pass on to his positive or constructive teaching.
First, then, let us consider his negative teaching. It was negative,
as I have stated, as to many of the dogmas commonly regarded
as inviolate in his day. For keep in mind that during the formative
period of George MacDonald's life, a very narrow and a very
rigid type of orthodoxy held sway in his Huntly home. Mr. George
Cowie, who became minister of the Congregational Church in 1771
(the "Missionar Kirk" as it was called then) was a strict Calvinist.
He preached a noble faith, and he did a noble work; and far
and wide he made converts. Among them was Isabella Robertson,
George MacDonald's grandmother, who was a young girl of fifteen
when Mr. Cowie began his Huntly ministry. Unfortunately, the
faith which he preached had all the faults of its virtue. It
was unbending in its sternness to sin, and uncompromising in
its treatment of sinners. In short, it produced, as it could
only produce, either saints or hypocrites.
Now Isobel Robertson undoubtedly ranked among the saints. She
is the "Mrs. Falconer" described by George MacDonald with such
lifelike accuracy in the third of his Huntly novels; and no
one, whose sympathies are true and whose moral vision is sound,
can read that story without loving Mrs. Falconer. To say so,
however, is not to blind oneself to her obvious deficiencies;
and what those were may be gathered from the fact that all worldly
pleasures was in her eyes "anathema," and that she burned her
grandson's fiddle in the kitchen fire lest it should prove a
snare to his soul. As a boy, indeed, George MacDonald regarded
her with awe and fear. She was the embodiment of "the missionar's
religion"; and for him that religion seemed to be summed up
in perpetual maxims of restraint. The advice he invariably received,
going or coming, was "Noo, be douce."
Happily, his father had a broader outlook, and afforded him
a very different idea of religion both in theory and in practice.
George MacDonald, Senior, shared the grandmother's faith - he
was a deacon indeed (as was also his brother James), in the
Congregational Church, but the Celtic blood in him was strong,
and his instincts were altogether finer and tenderer. Deep sorrows,
moreover, and the hard blows of circumstance had done much to
modify his Calvinism. He loved his children; and in return George
MacDonald loved his father. He loved him as much as he feared
his grandmother. His father's portrait he has also given us,
for he is the "David Elginbrod" of the story of that name, and
one has only to contrast the two pictures - Mrs. Falconer on
one hand and David Elginbrod on the other - to clearly realize
the religious influences that moulded the poet's early life.
The truth is that when he left home, and had to face the problems
of life for himself, he knew only three types of religion -
his father's, which he loved; his grandmother's, which he respected
but feared (his appreciation was a thing of later life); and
the type of religion represented by that large class of hangers-on
of an evangelical faith who, unable to rise to its heights,
yet ape its manners, and bring it into contempt. It was that
last type against which he inveighed, denouncing it in bitter
sarcasm and fierce invective.
For inevitably he was driven to the conclusion that the narrowness
of the creed created it, and the creed therefore shared his
condemnation. To his mind religion should have nothing to do
with creed. Religion must be a passion - passion which brings
a man into vital contact with God Himself. "My quarrel," he
represents David Elginbrod as saying, "wi a' thae words, an
airguments, an' seemilies, as thae ca' them - is just this -
they haud a puir body at airm's length oot ower frae God Himsel'.
They raise sic a mist an stour a' aboot Him..Gin fowk wad be
persuaded to speak a word or two to God Him lane, the loss in
my opinion, wad be unco' sma' an' the gain very great." For
the same reason he had little or no faith in a "conversion"
which was based on mere belief. The process seemed to him altogether
too mechanical, and the results for the life of the so-called
converted altogether too negative. "Till we begin to learn,"
he says (and again we seem to catch his father's accents), "that
the only way to serve God in any real sense of the word is to
serve our neighbor, we may have knocked at the wicket-gate,
but I doubt if we have got one foot across the thresh-hold of
George MacDonald in 1901
Teaching like that must have descended upon the Calvinists of
the past century like a tonic visitation. In Scotland it certainly
made its immediate appeal. Nay, it swept across the religious
life of the country like a health-giving breeze. It was almost
the first brush with reality which the religious community had
experienced since the days of Robert Burns; and it may fairly
be claimed that George MacDonald, like Burns, did not a little
to emancipate Scotland from the thralldom of an outworn creed,
and to make its practice somewhat more consistent with its preaching.
But we can well understand how he roused criticism; and how
in the hearts of the "tince guid" there was no slight dismay.
In nonconformist England indeed he was completely misunderstood;
and the Congregational Church at Arundel, which he had elected
to serve, thought that his teaching verged on the blasphemous.
Even before he had been there two years, criticism of his orthodoxy
began to be freely circulated; and when he added to his sins
the publication of a small collection of the songs of Novalis
(a book having a German origin and therefore tainted with German
theology!) his cup of iniquity was full. In the freer atmosphere
of an established church, where he might have stated his serious
convictions without being penalized, it is just possible that
George MacDonald might have found a useful niche in the ministry.
At a later date, indeed, prompted by the intense yet human preaching
of F. D. Maurice, he joined the communion of the Church of England.
But the deacons at Arundel effectually put a stop to George
MacDonald's pulpit career. They first reduced his salary and
then they intimated to him that his preaching was not acceptable
(they had no idea that one among them, the latchet of whose
shoes they were not worthy to unloose); and therefore it was
no longer possible, as George MacDonald wrote to his father,
"to stand toward them in this position - to be regarded as their
servant rather than Christ's."
It must be borne in mind, however, that such treatment never
shook his faith. The very reverse. Six months later we find
him writing to his father, "Till my heart is like Christ's great
heart, I cannot fully know what He meant. . . . You must not
be surprised if you hear that I am not what is called 'getting
on.' Time will show what use the Father will make of me." On
this negative aspect of his teaching let me, indeed, merely
add this - that important as was the service which he rendered
by it to the cause of true religion, in his own eyes it was
of the least moment. The eternal verities were what moved his
soul. Far on in life we find him summing up that early experience
in a letter which leaves no doubt on this point - "With the
faith to be found in the old Scottish manse," he writes, "I
have a true sympathy. With many of the forms gathered around
that faith . I have none. At a very early date I began to cast
them from me; but all the time my faith in Jesus, as the son
of the Father of men and the Saviour of us all, has been growing..
Do not suppose that I believe in Jesus because so-and-so is
said about Him in a book. I believe in Him, because He is Himself.
. The Bible is to me the most precious thing in the world just
it tells me the story of Jesus." All of George MacDonald's negations
indeed were dictated by incontrovertible facts. Even Calvinism
he did not reject. As Mr. Chesterton says, he was himself an
"optimistic Calvinist." He simply rejected caricatures of that
teaching - interpretations which in the pure crucible of his
own thought and life seemed to him to dishonour God and conscience.
from Volume 45 of Wingfold, a magazine celebrating the
works of George MacDonald. Information on this fine publication
may be obtained from Barbara Amell at 5925 SE 40th,
Portland, OR 97202, USA, and at the website: http://www.wingfold.net.