10 – The Baron’s Apprenticeship

Published in 1986 as Introduction to The Baron’s Apprenticeship, the Bethany House edition of George MacDonald’s There and Back


              In 1891, after a lapse of twelve years since the publication of Paul Faber, Surgeon (The Lady’s Confession), George MacDonald wrote the third and final book of the Thomas Wingfold trilogy, entitled There and Back, newly edited and retitled The Baron’s Apprenticeship for the Bethany House series. In the story, consistent with MacDonald’s own life, ten or twelve years have passed since the last Wingfold story. Thomas (now approximately forty) and Helen (thirty-seven) and their young son are no longer in Glaston but have moved; they now serve a country parish some thirty or forty miles outside London.

              The people and surroundings in The Baron’s Apprenticeship have therefore changed, but the essential themes have not, for this third book continues and concludes MacDonald’s multifaceted examination of the fundamental theme concerning salvation, man’s need for God, and the validity of the Christian faith in the lives of men and women.

            The Curate’s Awakening laid the groundwork for spiritual birth, with the “awakening” of Wingfold himself after a long struggle to come to grips with the truthfulness of Christianity as revealed in the New Testament. The Lady’s Confession followed as the natural outgrowth of the curate’s new faith–the spread of that faith into those around him. Many were touched as a result, particularly Juliet and Paul–a man and a woman with few apparent needs, but each, in fact, concealing a core of hidden sin which could be cleansed only by the forgiveness and redeeming love of Christ. Now finally in The Baron’s Apprenticeship, the opposite dilemma of man is raised: that of moral goodness. Do those without ugly and obvious sin need God, too? What about the good man and woman? Do they stand in need of salvation as well? Is an injunction placed upon man to respond to God simply by virtue of who he is, by virtue of integrity, by virtue of being true to the truth?

            In The Baron’s Apprenticeship, we are introduced to Richard and Barbara, two morally virtuous young people who must each face responsibility for responding to the truth of God’s existence, to the imperative of his goodness, and to the mandate of obedience to his principles. They must each ask, though their individual backgrounds and intellectual reasonings may resist the notion at first, whether or not God’s existence is true, what God’s character is like, and what demands are placed upon them as a result.

            MacDonald here approaches the question of “salvation” from a different aspect, as he notes in the story. He presents the “thoughtful” conversion, prompted not by tearful repentance over wrongs done but instead by a dawning recognition of what must be: God must exist, he must be good, therefore I must respond to him!

            As is often the case, MacDonald’s characters must reason out the Christian faith. For MacDonald there would be no pat answers, no “humbug,” as he called it. The Christian faith was a reasonable, sensible faith. God was not only the source of life’s joy, contentment, meaning, and fulfillment, but his principles were true. And this true-ness pervades each of his books as the focal point for the spiritual quest within the hearts of each of his characters.

            In The Baron’s Apprenticeship, Barbara’s internal quest comes first to the fore. Prompted by her own deep and unconscious reactions to the death of a pigeon, Barbara finds herself unable to accept Richard’s empty statements that there is no life beyond death. A compelling, highly independent and thoughtful character–indeed, one of MacDonald’s strongest fictional women–Barbara searches for “something more,” bolstered by her deepening friendship with Thomas and Helen Wingfold, who are now able to act the part Polwarth played in their own lives years earlier.

            And Barbara’s searching and questioning ultimately prompt Richard to reevaluate the notions he had long taken for granted. Paralleling Bascombe’s interchange with Wingfold in the second chapter of The Curate’s Awakening, the profound question which Barbara poses uncovers the shallowness and lack of true-ness of Richard’s position. She asks: “Tell me honestly, are you sure there is no God? Have you gone through all the universe looking for him and failed to find him? Is there no possible chance that there may be a God?”

            The glory of the world about her as well as the instincts within Barbara’s heart all cry out that God must exist, and that he must be good. On her the burden of proof does not rest; everything around her and within her confirms God’s presence and his goodness. To acknowledge him is but to recognize the obvious. On the other hand, upon Richard a burden of proof does rest. His denial of God, because he cannot substantiate it throughout all corners of creation, is a flawed theory; it runs contrary both to the created world and the instincts and yearnings of man’s heart, based on little more than misrepresentations and a shallow spiritual upbringing.

            Thus when Barbara probes into Richard’s superficial denials with Are you sure? and Is there no possible chance?, he finds himself with paltry arguments on which to base an answer.

            “I do not believe there is,” he responds.

            “But are you sure there is not?” presses Barbara. “Do you know it, so that you have a right to say it?”

            Again Richard fumbles for an answer, and once more Barbara queries: “Nevertheless, are you sure?”

            “I cannot say,” he finally admits, “that I know it as I know a mathematical fact.”

            “Then what right do you have to say there is no God?” she asks again.

            Following this interchange, Richard falls silent, then says finally, “I will think about what you say.”

            And because he is a man of integrity, he does think honestly about what she has said. Eventually he falls in, as had she, with the Wingfolds, who help lead him, by the example of their lives, into the fullness of God’s truth.

            In these three books we meet a multitude of characters along the spectrum of spiritual receptivity. In that sense, these stories can be viewed as an extended sower parable: the seed of God’s truth is sown equally to all–some respond, others shut the door. In addition, MacDonald brings home the truth that the seed is not always sown in precisely the same manner. God sows the seed in a way that will most perfectly suit each individual. Some, like Paul and Juliet, respond through their deep personal sense of guilt and sin; others, like Helen and Leopold, come to know God through intense suffering and sorrow; and still others, like Wingfold, Richard, and Barbara, find themselves compelled to respond to the truth-ness of God’s being.

            Thus the three books, threaded together with the central character of Thomas Wingfold, provide a threefold picture, a parable, of God’s salvation. They tell a trilogy of life-stories, and in so doing reveal God’s infinite and loving means to draw the human hearts of the creation to himself.

Michael Phillips