Rolland Hein–Wheaton’s Pioneer in MacDonald Studies

FatherOfTheInklings is proud to include this brief autobiographical sketch requested from Dr. Rolland Hein of Wheaton College, one of the pioneers of studies related to the works of George MacDonald and a key figure in contributing to the awakening of renewed interest in MacDonald in the 1970s and 1980s. His numerous books, articles, and seminars, his courses at Wheaton College, and his compilations of MacDonald’s writings have introduced thousands to MacDonald. His George MacDonald, Victorian Mythmaker is one of the most highly researched, readable, and authoritative biographies of MacDonald ever written and will surely be considered a classic in MacDonald studies for generations to come. Of the significance of Hein’s work in his own life, Michael Phillips says, “Rolland Hein was one of two writers whose work gave me a vision, and thus paved the way for my own. He showed what might be achieved through new editions of George MacDonald’s work, as well as new studies about MacDonald. My appreciation for his pioneering work is incalculable. The entire MacDonald and C.S. Lewis world owes him a debt it can never repay. It is an honor to be joined with him in the continuing effort to introduce more readers throughout the world to the remarkable Scotsman whom C.S. Lewis called his master.”


C. S. Lewis says somewhere that we are so made to talk about that which means the most to us.  For me, beyond the love and grace of Jesus Christ, the writings of George MacDonald are foremost, for his impact upon my life has been, and continues to be, very great.   Having both a seminary degree and a doctorate in literature, together with a career in teaching, I have done a fair amount of reading, and have, of course, been impacted by many authors, but none have impressed me more.  Indeed, it is his thinking more than any others that has shaped my understanding of Divine Truth.  This is not to say that I agree with MacDonald’s every judgment—he was human as we all are, and before God all people are in some degree in the wrong—but I know of no author whose spirit seems to be more imbued with the Spirit of Christ.

I am uncertain just when I first encountered his work.  I was raised in a strongly evangelical home and as a young man enrolled in a strict fundamentalist university.  As I was exposed to its extremely narrow views on the nature of Christianity, I began to feel that if such was a Christian view of life, I really needed something else.   But one thing that impressed me during those years was a Greek teacher who began his classes with devotional excerpts from C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters.  I felt I had to see if this Lewis wrote anything else.

I did pray earnestly for guidance, and through a series of events that I look back upon as being directed by God’s gracious hand, I heard of, applied to, and was accepted as a student at Wheaton College.  Among the classes in which I was enrolled my first semester there were two taught by Clyde Kilby—Shakespeare and Romantic Literature—and among the many other things for which I owe this stellar teacher aprofound debt was his championing of the thought of C. S. Lewis.  In Kilby’s classes my thinking on the nature of Christian truth was revolutionized, and I began to see how it resides at the very heart of life, encompassing all its aspects, and offering the most soul-satisfying responses to all its enigmas.

Delving into Lewis’s writings, I soon encountered his statements on the immense debt which he owed to the writings of George MacDonald. The book of Lewis’s that meant the most to me was his little anthology of MacDonald’s writings, a small volume composed of several two or three sentence quotations taken mostly from the Unspoken Sermons.  I determined I must find and read the works of this mysterious Scotchman for myself.  This was just past mid-century, a time when all MacDonald’s works were out of print, and I quickly found that securing them was a very slow process.

It took me years to gather, one by one, MacDonald’s works.  During the busy time I was taking a degree from Grace Theological Seminary, earning a master’s degree in English from Purdue University—the while pastoring a church in central Indiana and caring for a growing family— my desire to know more of MacDonald’s thought grew.  My search was extensive through interlibrary loans and used book sources.  I found the most fruitful source was used book stores in England.  One of the first volumes I secured was The Diary of an Old Soul, a devotional guide which has been a vade mecum to me through the years and remains so today.

How vividly I recall the time in Bethel Seminary library in St. Paul, Minnesota, that I finally found a copy of Unspoken Sermons: Series Three.  I was teaching English at Bethel College and working on my doctorate in English at the University of Minnesota.  Reading those sermons literally brought tears to my eyes, for I felt they came nearer to pure truth than any thing I had read to that time.

When I started thinking about writing a doctoral dissertation, I purposed to integrate my theological interests with my literary ones, achieving a unified view.  It was then I discovered that the University of Minnesota would not recognize theology as a legitimate discipline.  I was told I must develop a minor in philosophy, something I was not averse to doing, except I had a growing family, had been doing graduate work for a number of years, and wanted a degree.  When I shared my frustration with my former adviser at Purdue, he invited me to return, as they would allow me to fulfill my intentions.  Taking a sabbatical from Bethel College, I returned to Purdue and was able to have as mentor a fine scholar whose interests were similar to my own.  He welcomed my doing a  dissertation on the writings of George MacDonald, considering with what success he unified his theological and literary interests.

 A few years later, having taken my degree and a position on the faculty of the English Department at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, I began to feel strongly that MacDonald’s sermons should be reprinted and continually available to today’s Christians.   I was pleased to discover that Harold Shaw Publishers in Wheaton expressed an interest in doing so, but they were reluctant to undertake so large a project as an edition of the full text of the Unspoken Sermons.  I then suggested an abridgment of MacDonald’s The Hope of the Gospel.  Securing their agreement, I set to work, and Life Essential: the Hope of the Gospel came out in 1974.  Seeing that it sold well, Shaw was willing to bring out an edition of The Unspoken Sermons, which I set about editing.  It appeared in 1976 under the title Creation in Christ.  These two volumes have been reprinted through the years, and are currently available from Regent College Publishing in Vancouver, British Columbia.   I then put together two more volumes:  an anthology of short passages, mostly from MacDonald’s novels, which Shaw published under the title The World of George MacDonald  in 1978, and an edition of Miracles of Our Lord in 1980.

Gratified with the interest that was being shown in MacDonald’s thought, I undertook to rewrite my dissertation with a view to publishing it.   The Christian College Coalition lent its support, and Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. brought out The Harmony Within: The Spiritual Vision of George MacDonald in 1982.  When it became out of print, Michael Phillips–who also was convinced of the immense value of MacDonald’s works and was publishing editions of his many novels with Bethany Publishers in Minneapolis, Minn.–-brought out a handsome clothbound edition with his firm, Sunrise Books Publishers, in 1989.

When in the early eighties I learned that a huge collection of MacDonald’s letters, that formerly had been entailed, were now available to the public, I determined to write a biography based on them, adding my attempt to the biographies already in print by Michael Phillips, William Reaper, and Elizabeth Saintsbury.  The letters are reposited at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library on the Yale University Campus. After receiving a sabbatical leave from Wheaton College, I went to the Beinecke, spent time researching them, and wrote George MacDonald: Victorian Mythmaker, which was published by Star Song Publishers in 1993.   A second edition is presently available from Johannesen Printing and Publishing in Whitethorn, California.  In 1994 Shaw Publishers brought out my anthology, The Heart of George MacDonald, which contains selected letters, sermons, essays, and poetry, together with The Golden Key and The Princess and Curdie.  A reprint is currently available from Regent College Publishing.

 My essay, “Doors Out and Doors In: The Genius of Myth,” which uses a scene from Lilith as a key to understanding the nature of Christian myths, appeared in a collection entitled Truths Breathed Through Silver, Jonathan  Himes, ed., in 2008.  During the early 1990’s I was engaged in writing Christian Mythmakers, which in addition to treating the fantasies of George MacDonald contains chapters on the works of C. S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, J. R. R. Tolkien, G. K. Chesterton, and others.  It was published by Cornerstone Chicago in 1998, and a second edition, with a chapter on Dante added, appeared in 2002.   Cornerstone also published a revised edition of The Harmony Within in 1999.

The scrupulous care MacDonald took with his final fantasy for adults, Lilith, is evident in the five successive manuscripts that are reposited in the British Library.  Fascinated by the evolvement of this masterpiece, I secured copies of the manuscripts from the British Library and, with the aid of two diligent student assistants–Christopher Andrew Lapeyre and Teresa Caldwell Board–edited and published them under the title,  Lilith: A Variorum Edition, which Johannesen brought out in two volumes in 1997.  In studying these manuscripts a person cannot but be struck with the many references to Dante’s The Divine Comedy.  My article exploring Dante’s influence upon Lilith was published in Lilith in a New Light, Lucas H, Harriman, ed., by McFarland in 2008.

 It was my happy experience in the 1990s to make the acquaintance of Larry E. Fink, Professor of English at Hardin-Simmons University, a professional photographer, who also is a lover of MacDonald’s works.  We determined to collaborate on a picture biography, he doing the pictures and I the introduction, together with choosing appropriate quotations from MacDonald’s works for each of the shots.  He made trips abroad, taking several exceedingly fine photographs  of the various places associated with MacDonald’s life.  George MacDonald: Images of His World, appeared from Pasture Spring Press in Abilene, Texas, in 2004.  Copies are available from the Marion E. Wade Center on the Wheaton College campus.

The Wade Center contains an impressive collection of George MacDonald’s works, together with a selection of his letters, including my own collection.   Located on the Wheaton College campus, the center was established by Clyde S. Kilby  in 1965 as a repository for the works and letters of C. S. Lewis and six authors closely associated with and influential upon  him: George MacDonald, G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, and J. R. R. Tolkien.  The center received its name from an endowment established by the family of Marion E. Wade, founder of the ServiceMaster Company.  It presently contains over 12,000 volumes and more than 65,000 pages of manuscripts and letters.

It is my privilege to conduct discussions of the works of these authors at the Wade Center on Saturday mornings of each school year for people from the campus and community.  Whenever we read and discuss together one of MacDonald’s works, I am struck again with the depths of his insights into Christian truth and the apt applications of it to a vast variety of  life situations.   I post the syllabuses for each session on my blog,

 I have recently completed and placed in the hands of a literary agent a devotional calender entitled Through the Year with George MacDonald.   It consists of 366 300 – 400 word selections from MacDonald’s works, one for each day of the year.  Its purpose is twofold: to offer a comprehensive overview of the essence of his thought, and to provide a daily devotional guide.  I chose a Bible verse or passage to accompany each day’s reading, suggesting how thoroughly MacDonald knew the Bible and how deeply his thought is rooted in Biblical truth.

 In the novel Thomas Wingfold, Curate, the curate gives his own testimony, and largely through the influence upon me of MacDonald’s writings, it is mine as well:  “All I now say is, that in the story of Jesus I have beheld such grandeur—to me apparently altogether beyond the reach of human invention, such a radiation of divine loveliness and truth, such hope for man, soaring miles above every possible pitfall of Fate; and have at the same time, from the endeavor to obey the word recorded as his, experienced such a conscious enlargement of mental faculty, such a deepening of moral strength, such an enhancement of ideal, such an increase of faith, hope, and charity towards all men, that I now declare with the consent of my whole man-–I cast in my loft with the servants of the Crucified; I am content even to share their delusion, if delusion it be, for it is the truth of the God of men to me; I will stand or fall with the story of my Lord; I will take my chance—I speak not in irreverence but in honesty—my chance of failure or success in regard to whatever may follow in this life or the life to come, if there be a life to come—on the words and will of the Lord Jesus Christ, whom if, impressed as I am with the truth of his nature, the absolute devotion of his life, and the essential might of his being, I yet obey not, I shall not only deserve to perish but in that very refusal draw ruin upon my head” (Chapter 96).