A Series by Barbara Amell

The title of George MacDonald’s 1867 volume Unspoken Sermons implies that the chapters were written especially for publication only, that the sermons do not represent any format of public preaching, and that they are not intended to be recited in pulpits. A study of the numerous press reports of George MacDonald’s public sermons from 1857 through 1891 indicates however that most if not all of the chapters in Unspoken Sermons commenced as spoken sermons. Later reports of MacDonald’s lectures reveal that some chapters in his Unspoken Sermons II, first serialized in Sunday Magazine 1884, and his Unspoken Sermons III from 1889 were based on a wider diversity of his public discourses given outside of pulpits. MacDonald’s choice of title for this series represented no dishonesty on his part, merely a statement of fact: these particular sermons were written, not spoken. But because George MacDonald was repeatedly described in the press as preaching for about an hour and lecturing for an average of ninety minutes, his written versions of these extempore discourses plainly represent a condensation rather than an expansion of what he said in public. Consequently the reports of his spoken sermons, while also obviously condensations and subject to potential errors by reporters, are often of much value. Many articles reporting on these sermons have been reprinted in Wingfold over the past twenty-three years.

While George MacDonald began his career as a minister in 1850, he eventually had to face the fact that no church denomination would then sanction his belief in a God who is literally Love, who will redeem all His creation. MacDonald’s determination to continue preaching after he resigned as a Congregational minister at Arundel in 1853 is evidenced in several of his letters from the mid-1850s, after he moved to Manchester. “Preaching is I think in part my mission in this world,” he wrote to his father on October 7, 1853, “and I shall try to fulfill it. But I wish to raise a church for myself.” In the biography George MacDonald and His Wife Greville MacDonald wrote that his father began preaching to a select group of people in a small room at Manchester; Greville provided a letter George wrote to his father dated June 26, 1854 in which he supposedly outlined such a plan. But Manchester newspaper advertisements and other family letters from 1854 reveal what Greville, not having yet been born, did not know: George MacDonald was actually being financially sponsored to hold worship services at Carpenter’s Hall in Manchester, a venue which could seat more people than the town’s largest Congregational church. My article “The Manchester Minister” in Wingfold winter 2014 chronicles the known history of this venture, which would culminate five months later with MacDonald’s sponsors moving his services to a Manchester schoolroom on Sunday evenings. MacDonald eventually abandoned “the bottom men,” as his father-in-law James Powell called the gentlemen who had been paying for the rent. “I shall not be in my right position, I think,” MacDonald wrote to his father on December 4, 1854, “till I not only preach without a salary, receiving only voluntary gifts, but likewise pay for the room myself.” 

In July 1855 MacDonald wrote to his wife Louisa, “I would gladly go to London and write & preach.  Would you not like it?” But by the time the move to London was made in 1859, George MacDonald had long since abandoned the title of Reverend. My article “A Pledge of Earnestness” in Wingfold summer 2014 documents MacDonald’s relationships with various London clergymen who enabled the novelist, poet and literary lecturer to preach as a layman in their churches, a potentially scandalous practice. In 1867 a reporter who heard MacDonald preach in London wrote, “Mr. Macdonald has published a little volume called Unspoken Sermons, and this was much like one of the discourses of the book . . . The place was connected with the Independents, but the sermon had nothing in common with the usual doctrinal position of that respectable sect.” George MacDonald would have three more novels published in 1867, along with his fairy tale collection Dealings with the Fairies, and poems for diverse periodicals. Yet in January 1868 London’s Illustrated Times proclaimed, “Mr. MacDonald is, by vocation and training, a preacher, and not seldom fills a pulpit.” By all accounts George MacDonald never accepted a salary to preach in any church as a layman. In 1878 his friend Rev. Dr. Henry Allon apparently pressed the issue of paying him to preach at Union Chapel in Islington. “I preach only as a layman,” MacDonald replied; “I do it for the love of it only, and not to add to my income . . . If you insist on my having money, I will preach somewhere else.”

The press reports of George MacDonald’s sermons in my records consistently indicate that he preached without notes. Rev. Samuel W. Duffield of Ann Arbor, Michigan wrote about George MacDonald’s sermon at his church on April 20, 1873, and related his conversation with MacDonald on the celebrated author’s approach to preaching: “In hearing (his sermon), I comprehended what he says privately is his theory of extempore preaching. He wants no manuscript, not even a scrap of paper before him. He desires to grasp some great thought, and to let it grow and grow before the minds of his hearers.” (See Wingfold fall 2011.) MacDonald made a similar statement in 1890 during his extempore lecture on Tennyson’s In Memoriam, a presentation which newspaper reports indicate plainly qualified as a sermon of sorts in itself: “I do not write out and read.  I have got the things somewhere, and so I just open my heart and my mouth, and they come out.”  (See Wingfold spring 2014.)

Yet George MacDonald did write out a representation of several of his extempore sermons. We will explore some of the fascinating histories of these unspoken sermons in future parts of this series.