17 – The Landlady’s Master

Published in 1989 as Introduction to The Landlady’s Master, the Bethany House edition of George MacDonald’s The Elect Lady

            The Elect Lady, first published in 1888, stands out among George MacDonald’s novels as shorter and less detailed in plot, characterization, and style. No doubt this apparent lack of depth explains why The Elect Lady is one of the least reprinted, least studied, and least widely known of MacDonald’s books, with scant sales in the one hundred years since its release. I came to this project, therefore, with a bias probably shared by many familiar with MacDonald, of considering this title one of his less significant works. I am happy to say I was in for a delightful surprise! The book, as every MacDonald eventually does, took me over as I became more involved in it.

            I am not going to claim that The Elect Lady ranks with MacDonald’s greatest literary achievements, that it contains the stature of books like Malcolm, or Sir Gibbie. There is a simplicity to its style and a frustrating lack of development in the description and characterization that critics might point to as deficiencies. I found myself saying, “If only MacDonald had spent more time deepening these characters and expanding these themes!” Yet from another perspective, it hardly mattered.

            I appreciate MacDonald’s wonderful characters and their varied nuances of personality, emotion, and growth. I love his descriptions of the Scottish moors and mountains, seascapes and countryside. I relish his plot intricacies. But it is not primarily for his characters, his descriptive power, nor his plot-making ingenuity that I read MacDonald. What makes me savor his insights as a connoisseur might a fine wine, and brood over his words as a lover meditates upon the virtues of his beloved, is the God-breathed and, I firmly believe, supernatural wisdom he brings to bear upon my daily breathing, struggling, interactive, practical life with God–in the next five minutes, and all my life long.

            That is George MacDonald’s power: the capacity to open the heart hungry for greater revelations of truth, to deepen God’s immediacy, to practicalize faith, to change attitudes and relationships by bringing God into every tiniest facet of them. Who is God, what is He like, how are we to relate ourselves to Him and obey Him and love Him, and how are our thought patterns and relationships and priorities to grow and change as a result? These are the questions to which George MacDonald gave his life as an author–not to mere descriptions and plots. His characters exist on the page to help me as a reader relate more intimately to God my maker, not to provide fodder for analysis. Whatever refinement may be missing on the literary side of The Elect Lady is found on the deeper spiritual level. The book offered wonderful insights that fed my soul.

            MacDonald’s perception on the subject of unity and the true composition and calling of God’s church caused my greatest emotional response. There are those who take the comments of his characters and the author’s own commentary in this book and others to conclude that MacDonald liked neither the church nor the pulpit and wanted nothing to do with either, pointing to MacDonald’s repeated depiction of clergymen as shallow, insensitive misrepresentations of Christ.

            I take the opposite view. Such portrayals reveal how deeply George MacDonald did love the church and how desperately he longed for it to emerge victorious into the fulfillment of its purpose. He criticized the system for the same reason God punishes sin–not to tear down and destroy, but to build up, redeem, and raise into righteousness. I look to some of MacDonald’s shining saints–men like Sandy Graham, Harry Walton, Thomas Wingfold, the reformed James Blatherwick, the humble and growing Mr. Drake, and Robert Falconer’s unnamed mentor whom he calls “one of the holy servants of God’s great temple”–clergymen all–as evidences of just how greatly George MacDonald loved the clergy, and in what high esteem he held the office.

            Indeed, the two men he revered most and whom he felt were most influential in his own life–A. J. Scott and F. D. Maurice–were both ministers, one a liberal charismatic Presbyterian, the other an Anglican.

            If George MacDonald had merely pointed his finger accusatorially, without insight, without sensitivity, and without love for truth as his undergirding guide, then perhaps his words could be dismissed. But George MacDonald had a right to comment on the church, its function, and the state of those who lead it, because he spoke from within. He was no external finger-waving fault-finder, but a sore-hearted member of its ranks. He himself was a clergyman. He gave his life for the church, pastored in three or four locations, including temporary assignments, and preached throughout his life in hundreds of pulpits. He bore no grudges nor promoted any organizational agenda. He merely burned with the desire to see God’s true church emerge glorious and triumphant.

            No doubt MacDonald’s heart-cry strikes such a deep root in my soul because of my own experience. Before I had ever heard of George MacDonald, before I had begun writing or editing or selling books, before my wife and I were married, the Lord gave us a burning vision of unity among God’s people–a unity transcending denominational and doctrinal barriers. That vision has remained a focal point throughout the whole of our adult Christian lives and has never diminished.

            At the time of its inception, we were actively involved in the life of our church and perceived that the fulfillment of that unity would occur in and through various churches and different denominational groups. Thus, as time went on, I gradually began to voice the deepening desire of my heart, that we as God’s people were called to be one with our brothers and sisters in God, to the disregarding of doctrinal differences. I went so far even as to suggest that “the church” was not to be found in various buildings around town every Sunday morning, but that its true reality existed throughout the week as heart met heart.

            Admittedly, I made blunders in my youthful attempt to communicate a message I felt God had shown me. But, I was yet unprepared for the strength with which those comfortable with existing church norms would resist the ideas I was attempting to communicate. I ultimately found myself cut off from the fellowship of many close spiritual friends, and spent several years floundering and alone, despondently reexamining many aspects of my faith.

            Thank God, His sustaining hand comforted me, encouraged me, and gradually lifted me back to my feet, so that I could once again walk with confidence that He was indeed my Master. And He used George MacDonald in manifold ways during that critical period to rebuild my sorely bruised and wounded spiritual psyche.

            Throughout all this, the vision of unity and of the church as a binding of hearts rather than a meeting in buildings never diminished. With more traditional doors closed, the Lord turned my attention in other directions as I sought a wider means to foster that unity among God’s people. For twenty years that has been the founding priority of the ministry of our Christian bookstore, outweighing business and financial concerns. And now we find the fulfillment of that vision going forth through what we have undertaken with the works of George MacDonald, for wherever MacDonald’s books go, they engender unity, and hearts are drawn together.

            In George MacDonald we discovered one of like mind, a man who loved God’s people as we did, one who desired something more for them. Thus, as over the years my wife and I found ourselves evaluating the whole concept of what church meant to us, we realized that George MacDonald was one of our closest and truest friends, a kindred spirit–in search of God’s heart. So we read, we learned, we groped, we wept, and we prayed … and we grew with MacDonald toward a more expansive sense of God’s design in our lives.

            I have taken the liberty of this personal detour because over the years I have become aware that this search is a quest upon which many hungering hearts have embarked. Yet it is a path they must often walk alone, banished by misunderstanding and criticism of family and friends. It is my prayer, therefore, that MacDonald’s words will be of encouragement and hope to such persons, as they have been to me.

            It is out of this personal background that I came to The Elect Lady and discovered within its pages such a refreshingly simple yet courageously bold edict: “I don’t believe that Jesus cares much for what is called the visible church. But he cares with his very Godhead for those that do as he tells them.” I had followed MacDonald through many stories, and through the painful ups and downs of my own spiritual pilgrimage. Here, as he approached the end of his life, I found such a simple, unsophisticated tale in which he succinctly reveals his heart concerning unity and the church.

            I find another feature of this new publication of The Elect Lady (retitled The Landlady’s Master for the Bethany House series of reprinted MacDonald classics) personally significant. The original edition of this title is extremely rare and difficult to find. In sixteen years of searching for old MacDonald volumes, I had never so much as seen a single copy for sale through the rare book dealers with whom I had tracked the MacDonald oeuvres, and had resigned myself to never owning a copy. If I ever hoped to edit it for this series, I thought I would have to borrow a xeroxed reproduction from one of the MacDonald libraries.

            As it happened, at a small gathering of MacDonald enthusiasts two years ago, some friends purchased a copy they had located through an antiquarian bookstore. It cost them, I think, something over $150, and I was speechless when they presented it as a gift to me. Who but a fellow bibliophile whose heart has been deeply touched by MacDonald could appreciate what I felt in that moment when my eyes fell on the hundred-year-old red cover inscribed The Elect Lady?

            This little story, however, is bigger than a mere personal anecdote. In a deep and real sense, I think it typifies the very nature of how God is using George MacDonald in our own day–books being passed from hand to hand to hand, circulated and shared, friend to friend, father to son or daughter, child to parent, wife to husband, pastor to congregation … all over the world. It is impossible to predict the impact of any book that is loaned or given away. Truly the Lord multiplies many-hundredfold our feeble efforts on behalf of His kingdom. How beyond our imagining is His capacity to bring forth fruit from tiny beginnings.

            It has been almost twenty years since a friend casually dropped in my hearing the name of an old Scottish author I’d never heard of. But as a result, over a million copies of George MacDonald books are back in print in five languages–and being circulated around the globe. A book you or I give away today could well prove the life-changing catalyst that starts tomorrow’s man or woman of God on a path of growth and change which will result in untold millions experiencing a deeper walk with God.

            So here I sit at this present moment with a single copy of The Elect Lady on the table in front of me–just one book, a rare title nearly impossible to find, its timeless truths locked away and inaccessible to large numbers of God’s people. Yet out of this one book, a gift given to me by friends, will emerge this new edition; and by the time you are reading these words, ten, twenty, fifty, perhaps a hundred thousand copies will be in the hands of Christians the world over. That is the creative and multiplying power of God visibly at work! Truly, “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces much fruit.”

            So thank you, my friends–you who are responsible for placing that copy of The Elect Lady in my hands two years ago so that it could now be shared with God’s people. And thank you, Dave and Brenda Hiatt, for knowing my heart and for finding this book that so many will now be able to enjoy!

            As a result of the publication of these editions of MacDonald’s novels, a steady stream of inquiries has come my way from individuals wanting to obtain MacDonald’s works in their original form. Unfortunately, I have had nothing encouraging to tell them, since the only means, until now, of locating the original full-length publications was through rare and antique book dealers, usually at prohibitive costs.

            For years my goal has been to point a new generation of readers toward MacDonald–in any and all ways in which they can find his works. So I have bent my own efforts toward expanding the availability of MacDonald’s books, not merely in one or two genres, but in all forms. I hope someday to see all his books available again in both edited and original form, as well as in easy-reading editions for young readers, and in various compilations and topical arrangements. I long to see a complete spectrum of MacDonald readily available for any reader, no matter what the age, the interest, or the reading level.

            Toward that end, therefore, in addition to these edited editions from Bethany House, I have also been working on two other new groups of books. One, a series of essays and studies about MacDonald by various scholars who have studied his work. And, secondly, a new republication of MacDonald’s books in their complete original format–not only the novels, but also his sermons, poems, essays, and stories. If you are interested either in reading about MacDonald or in tackling his books in their originals, please contact me for further information.

            Michael Phillips

            1707 E Street, Eureka, CA 95501