8 – The Curate’s Awakening

Published in 1985 as Introduction to The Curate’s Awakening, the Bethany House edition of George MacDonald’s Thomas Wingfold, Curate


              George MacDonald (1824-1905) was not the sort of writer who in our generation would be “critically acclaimed” by the secular press or the Pulitzer committee. This is no reflection on his writing but simply on his priorities as an author. He was trying to accomplish something which runs counter to the values of our secular society. His message was essentially a spiritual one, and it is only in that context that he can be understood and his work fully appreciated. In each of his books, different facets of his vision of God’s character emerge. Through no single one do we obtain the complete scope of MacDonald’s perception of God, yet each contributes to the total picture. In Thomas Wingfold, Curate, here The Curate’s Awakening, MacDonald penned one of his strongest novels from a spiritual vantage point–one which adds a forceful and radiant brushstroke to the image of Christ he sought to present to the world.

            George MacDonald often seemed to poke fun at organized religion. Christianity in England and Scotland during the late nineteenth century was, despite pockets of revival and great fervency, locked for the most part into the constricting doctrines of Calvinism carried to the extreme. God’s wrath was severe and greatly to be feared, and woe to him who had not been born one of the “chosen elect.”

            In the midst of this legalism, MacDonald emerged with a warm view of a God of love and compassion. From the pulpit and the printed page, MacDonald proclaimed that God’s essence was love. It was not, according to the outspoken Scotsman, God’s will that any should perish, that any should be so far removed that He could not reach down and pour His love into him. MacDonald’s writings portrayed an entirely contrasting picture of God–a tender and compassionate Father. Much of today’s awareness of God’s loving fatherhood has sprung from evangelical pioneers like MacDonald–men who dared stand against the tide of the commonly held views of God’s character.

            People flocked to MacDonald and devoured his writings because of the deeper sense of truth they found in them. However, MacDonald was scorned by official churchdom. He had rebelled against the established order and refused to relax his attacks upon the Phariseeism within the church in which he had been raised and in which he had unsuccessfully sought to become a leader. Trying to influence the system from within, he had been ousted because of his strong views. Thus he took his case directly to the public. And their response to his books affirmed the truths he believed in his heart.

            In 1876, at the height of his popularity, MacDonald released a novel which departed from his usual mode. In the story of Thomas Wingfold,> MacDonald reveals his true heart toward the church–it was not the men themselves in positions of church leadership which he disdained, but rather the narrowness of their mindset. In fact, we observe all the more clearly the great love MacDonald had for the church. For in his new novel MacDonald chose as his principal character a member of the clergy. Thomas was a shallow man with no personal faith, a man who plagiarized his sermons, a man with little personality, unequipped to occupy the pulpit and still less to lead even the humblest of his parishioners.

            And yet in spite of all this, Thomas Wingfold quickly endears himself to us, and we immediately sense MacDonald’s own love for him. For Wingfold possessed the one quality which MacDonald revered above nearly all others–openness. His ears were not plugged with self-satisfaction and tradition but were ready to listen, ready to look for truth outside the usual boundaries, ready to learn from any quarter.

            With this openness came an honest heart, one willing to take a thorough look at whatever new presented itself. Might there indeed be truth present? In the character of Wingfold we see a host of qualities which accompany openness–humility, a willingness to admit oneself ignorant, a lack of airs, an absence of defenses. Thomas had no walls standing between his true self and the outside world, no predisposition to argue or justify or defend or show where another was in the wrong. And intrinsic to the open mind and heart, MacDonald clarifies the vital and necessary role of doubt. The open mind, he insists, has the courage to voice uncertainties and to seek logical and reasonable and scriptural answers–answers compatible with God’s character. In The Curate’s Awakening we encounter one of MacDonald’s most contemplative, spiritual books which directly confronts the most basic of questions: Is Christianity true? Does it make sense? Are its precepts to be believed? Or is it a hoax?

            To MacDonald, the attributes lived out by his title character comprise the essence of spirituality. It is not how much a person knows, but how willing one is to learn; not where one stands, but in which direction he is progressing; not what doubts he harbors, but into what truth such doubts eventually lead; not how spiritual one may appear in men’s eyes, but how much truth that one is seeking in the quietness of his own heart. In such views MacDonald’s forerunning influence on C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer and other contemporary writers can clearly be seen. For like these men, MacDonald stood strongly for a Christian faith which was reasonable and consistent. He firmly believed in the practice of that faith as the key to substantiating God’s existence.

            Hence, in Thomas Wingfold we are presented with an unusual MacDonaldian hero–a non-man, a personality totally asleep, but (and most important of all) a man who is willing to listen and whose dormant heart loves the truth. Therefore, when he is confronted by an atheist with the question, “Tell me honestly, do you really believe one word of all that?” (a reference to what he preaches in church from Sunday to Sunday), the curate’s complacency is dealt a lethal blow. Thus begins Wingfold’s awakening and his moving journey into spiritual vitality.

            But this is not the story of merely one waking, but of two. Alongside the story of the curate runs the parallel account of Helen, another personality sound asleep. A shocking catastrophe suddenly intrudes into her life, after which she can never be the same again. Like a splash of icy water in a sleepy face, her brother’s alarming troubles serve to rouse Helen’s deeper nature into wakefulness, as does unbelieving Bascombe’s badgering of Wingfold’s shaky faith. Even Bascombe himself plays a significant role by illustrating graphically the very antithesis of openness. His smug, unquestioning self-satisfaction is typical of all MacDonald rejected.

            Wingfold and Helen as well as fellow pilgrim Mr. Drew are helped by an unlikely deformed dwarf by the name of Polwarth, a vintage MacDonald saint who finds very little to feed him in the local church, but whose heart daily grows more in love with his Lord by the humble service he renders to those who cross his path.

            However, this is not merely a story about openness and growth, but about the very nature of the God-man relationship, the sin that separates man from his Maker, and God’s response. In the story of Thomas Wingfold, we have another example of MacDonald’s confrontation with a knotty issue, one without simplistic answers. In recounting the trials concerning the integrity of a preacher trying to live truth consistently in his own life, the hero runs headlong into a dilemma of integrity in another. But the new difficulty is no “small” sin in the world’s eyes, such as reading someone else’s sermons, but it is the very worst of all possible sins–murder. Suddenly we are face-to-face with the contrast between a horrible sin and a seemingly trifling one. And the question is: What is to be man’s response? And what is God’s response?

            As we work our way through the drama and the formidable questions raised, MacDonald’s point becomes clear–sin is sin, and God is sufficient to deliver man from all of it–from the tiniest to the most gruesome. God is the God of all men, and all men are sinners alike–though the degrees vary tremendously. The Curate’s Awakening can be viewed as a parable of the heart of man and God’s loving response. No matter how small or how ugly the sin, God in His compassion seeks our deliverance, healing, and rebirth. Repentance and recompense are man’s response to the conviction of the Holy Spirit, and then God’s forgiveness washes clean the evil heart of man.

            It can be easy to discuss spiritual themes in the comfortable surroundings of our “normal” lives. But when murder breaks through the door, are our theories sufficient to the task? Is God’s grace big enough to cover even that?

            MacDonald here is not offering any commentary on social justice. Many of his contemporaries did that very thing, and through their writings much of the corruption of the nineteenth century was changed. But MacDonald was making no attempt to say what ought to have been the response toward the authorities had Leopold lived a full and normal life. He was offering no solutions on the physical plane, but on the spiritual. He was making the point that, yes, God’s love is great enough and far-reaching enough to cover all sins and all men who come before Him for forgiveness.

            Thomas Wingfold, along with the characters in MacDonald’s other books, represents for us another facet of that “ideal” character which can serve as a model as we progress through life’s journey. In his portrayals, MacDonald was painting a portrait of Christ–a portion of the Ideal Man here, another quality there. In Gibbie we see the eyes of love, in Robert Falconer the hands of service, in Annie the radiance of humility, in Hugh and Alec the prodigal’s search and return, in Malcolm the authority which comes from simplicity. Every character reveals a different stroke of the brush, which all taken together illumine MacDonald’s lifetime masterpiece: the portrait of the Christ he loved and served. The story of Thomas Wingfold adds one of the most vital ingredients of all to the sacred image–the picture of the Christlike heart. In Wingfold we are shown the response of the open heart when confronted with truth–however unpleasant that confrontation at first may be. It is a response of openness and humility, which leads to growth and eventual oneness with Christ.

            This edition of Thomas Wingfold, Curate, retitled The Curate’s Awakening and edited for the Bethany House series, is the first of a trilogy involving the title character. The different books by George MacDonald which I already have edited form a unity, each contributing, as I have said, its own unique brushstroke to the whole. It is my hope that you will enjoy and be spiritually nurtured not only by this book, but that you will gain truth and gather strength from the whole series, both those which have come before and those which will follow.

            For years my personal vision has been to work toward a revitalization of interest in MacDonald and a republication of his classics. At this point I would like to publicly express my appreciation to those who have contributed to the renewal of interest in his works. I am particularly grateful to Carol and Gary Johnson of Bethany House who took a chance with this series of edited MacDonald novels at a time when few other publishers had shown any interest in resurrecting the works of this obscure writer of a century past. Since that time the entire Bethany House staff has worked to achieve excellence in this continuing series, both editorially and in terms of design and production, and I thank them all for their diligence. Though MacDonald is now becoming more widely recognized and published, it is Bethany’s groundbreaking work which has paved the way. For their courage in making this publishing commitment, all of us who love MacDonald owe them a debt of gratitude. I am so grateful to all these people for their part in making this vision a reality, and to the hundreds of you who have written to both myself and the publisher, confirming that MacDonald’s work is indeed of interest and importance in our own day.

 Michael Phillips, One Way Book Shop

1707 E Street, Eureka, CA 95501