The writings, spiritual vision, and legacy of George MacDonald & Michael Phillips

The writings, spiritual vision, and legacy of George MacDonald & Michael Phillips


The Legacy:
Who is George MacDonald?

Michael Phillips
Who is Michael Phillips?

George MacDonald's Writings:
A Historical 19th Century Bibliography of His Published Works

George MacDonald’s Writings: “The New Classics”

Michael Phillips’ Writings: A 20th and 21st Century Bibliography of His Published Works

Leben: The MacDonald/Phillips Magazine
Availability and Ordering Information
“Dear Michael Phillips…”: Responses From Readers
“Dear George MacDonald…”: Responses From Readers
From the Heart of George MacDonald: A Selection of Quotations

George MacDonald’s Scotland

George MacDonald’s Faith in Historical Perspective
George MacDonald’s Faith in Historical Perspective

(More to come!)


By Adam Mackay

Memorable Gathering in Huntly Parish Church

Mr. Mackay's address first appeared in The Huntly Express, Dec. 19, 1924 and was recently reprinted in  Vol. 45 of Wingfold, from which it has been reprinted.

        In connection with the centenary celebration of the birth of George MacDonald, those in Huntly were crowned on Sunday evening by the historic and outstanding commemoration service held in the Parish Church by Rev. Adam Mackay, B.D. The whole service was appropriately arranged, and proved alike interesting and impressive. There was a crowded congregation, many being present from considerable distances. The subject of Mr. Mackay's powerful and arresting address was - "George MacDonald: His message as a Preacher."

      While the congregation was assembling the voluntaries played were - "Andante Sostenuto" (Baptiste); and "He shall feed His flock like a Shepherd" (Handel). After the Call to Worship, and prayer, the hymn sung was that beginning -

"Heavenly Father, Thou hast brought us
Safely to the present day,
Gently leading on our footsteps,
Watching o'er us all the way."

      This was followed by the New Testament lesson, Matthew 11:1-19. Then came the first five verses of Psalm 106, sung to "Irish" -

"Give praise and thanks unto the Lord
For bountiful is He."

      After another appropriate prayer, the thanksgiving song was beautifully and sympathetically rendered by Miss Mary Mutch.  The words are adopted from George MacDonald's lines to F. D. Maurice, and the music is a chorale of Bach. The verses were as follows, being the same as sung at the celebration by the MacDonald Family in London on the Wednesday previous -

Lord, for Thy prophet's calm commanding voice,
For his majestic innocence and truth,
For his unswerving purity of choice,
For all his tender wrath and plenteous ruth;
For all his wise, obedient listening care
To hear for us what word The Word would say,
For all th' empassioned energy of prayer
With which he led up to the peaceful way;
For his high victories over sin and fear,
The captive hope his words of truth set free:
For his abiding vision, holy, dear;
Because he loved the Father utterly;
We praise, we magnify Thee, Lord, for him
Whose life is still, was ever, hid in Thee:
Grant that remembrance grow nor cold nor dim
Of his long fight, his lasting victory!

By Adam Mackay

      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 the Kingdom."

George MacDonald in 1901
 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                  

because 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.

Reprinted 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:

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