This past Tuesday at the Classic Christian Small Group, we read George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermon, “The Higher Faith.” George MacDonald (1824-1905) was a Scottish Congregationalist pastor who had an influence upon CS Lewis — this was how he came to my attention. He was the son of a farmer, probably one of the first in his family to go to university. Lewis, in the brief biography he wrote for George MacDonald: An Anthology that is also at the beginning of most editions of Phantastes, says that George MacDonald, Sr., was a good father who made a strong impression on the younger George. This would come to influence MacDonald’s view of the Fatherhood of God, for someone with a strong father figure has difficulty fathoming why anyone would not be able to envision God as loving Father.
He studied at Aberdeen University and then at Highbury College, London. He was ordained as a Congregationalist pastor, taking on his first parish in 1850 in Arundel, West Sussex, England.
After three years at Arundel, MacDonald resigned. He and the governing body of the congregation had some theological difficulties. They had cut his salary in a move to make him resign; for a while, the average parishioners were still supporting MacDonald with goods, but it was not enough, so he resigned.
The theological difficulties sprang mainly from MacDonald’s rejection of the Calvinism of his youth, including predestination. George MacDonald believed that everyone could be redeemed. Everyone has a shot at Heaven, even those who in this life profess no belief in Christ. MacDonald believed that everyone is given an opportunity to ultimatel accept or reject Christ in the next life. This belief differs from Christian universalism (or apocatastasis) because that doctrine teaches that Christ’s death on the Cross teaches that Jesus saves all, not that Jesus can save all. It is an important distinction. A brilliant telling of this view is in CS Lewis’ The Last Battle‘s final chapter with the Calormene in Heaven.
After leaving active ministry, MacDonald and his wife (whom he wed in 1851) went to Algiers for health reasons. When they returned to England, MacDonald tutored, wrote, and occasionally preached for a living. This means that he was perennially poor and often relied on the charity of his friends to survive. He published some poetry in the 1850’s, but he did not meet with real success until the 1860’s when he published stories of Scottish country life — often including real Scots dialect!
In the 1870’s he took the opportunity to tour the USA where his teaching was well received. Although offered incentives to stay on the western side of the Atlantic, he returned to England where, as of 1877, Queen Victoria pensioned him, thus ending his money woes.
In 1881, he and his wife returned to the Mediterranean for health reasons, this time moving to Italy. They stayed there until 1902 when his wife died — yet she lived to see the Golden Wedding Anniversary. MacDonald returned to England where he died on September 18, 1905. His remains were transported to Italy and buried with his wife’s.
MacDonald’s most popular writings are Phantastes (1858), At the Back of the North Wind (1871), The Princess And The Goblin (early 1880’s), The Princess And Curdie (1883), and Lilith (1895).