Recent theological research reveals a global involvement in spirituality studies, with mysticism as its key focus. The importance of this development has been illustrated by the often quoted remark of Karl Rahner (1971:15) that the Christianity of the future will be mystical or cease to exist. Ignorance and prejudice, especially in Protestantism, played a significant role in opposing mysticism. This was the result of the Reformation’s opposition to the monastic life, but it became even stronger after the 19th century as a result of Barthian orthodoxy. The situation in South Africa shows the same trend. In the past mysticism was regarded with suspicion by some Afrikaans theologians. This opposition reached a peak during the apartheid years as theology became increasingly rationalistic, with an emphasis on the intellectual and a criticism of mysticism as being about arbitrary, emotional and individualistic experiences. The irenic, ecumenical and open religious discourse that existed in the nineteenth century was replaced from the first half of the 20th century by a cold, intellectualist theology that engaged in a defence of orthodox doctrine and polemics against dissenting views.
This change, in turn, determined the way in which nineteenth century Protestantism has been portrayed in historiography: important devotional and spiritual traditions that developed during the awakenings of the 19th century under the influence of the Dutch Réveil, German Piëtism and Scottish piety, were sidelined or suppressed. This is especially true of research on the towering figure of Andrew Murray, who was known for his mystical thought and life. Murray was arguably the most influential church leader in the history of the church, especially because of his piety and spirituality. His involvement in the spiritual awakenings of the 1860s with their mystical and ecstatic experiences, but also his theological training in evangelical Scottish traditions, contributed to his stature as perhaps the most respected spiritual leader in the church. His competence and leadership were respected to such an extent that he was elected to the moderatorship of the church five times. He served as pastor of key congregations in the church, and was also actively involved in protracted struggles against liberal clergy in the church.
His impressive international reputation was also a result of his interest in the mystical life. He was keenly aware of the international revivals that were taking place globally in the second half of the 19th century and sought to become actively involved in them. Known for his inspirational sermons, he was invited to address audiences of thousands in Europe and the USA at major meetings of the holiness movement. Furthermore, he wrote more than 200 devotional publications that were ultimately published as part of a series of classics in Western Spirituality and are still being marketed and read across the globe.
Given this reputation, it is not surprising that few of his contemporaries wanted to, or dared to, accuse him of unorthodox activities. His mystical leanings were, consequently, supported, accepted, tolerated or rationalised by many. How mystical he was is aptly illustrated by the fact that some dissenters left the church because of what they regarded as his and other Scottish pastors’ unorthodox activities and beliefs.
A closer look at his writings confirms the decisive role of mystical thought in Murray’s life and work. Extraordinary mystical and ecstatic events took place in his ministry. His devotional books have a mystical nature, as a survey of some of the titles reveals (Waiting on God, Absolute surrender, The secret of intercession, Abide in Christ, The prayer life, The ministry of intercession, With Christ in the school of prayer and The spirit of Christ). It is, however, his relationship with two of the more controversial, but widely read, mystics of his time, that reveals the extent of his mysticism. He edited three books by William Law, the English mystic. In a preface to Wholly for God he lavishly praises Law as an author whose books, of all mystical works, had had the most profound influence on him. He also explicitly mentions his admiration for the German mystic Jacob Böhme, from whom Law had learned much. In the introduction Murray carefully discusses mysticism as a key factor in his life and thought. He explains with insight and understanding the key elements of mysticism as consciousness of the divine presence, as a divine gift to those who believe and as an intimate, transformative and reciprocal relationship. He spells out the way in which the mystic awaits the divine touch, becomes nothing and, finally, lives a mystical existence.
In this article, Murray’s discussion of the nature and contents of mysticism is scrutinized, because it is not often researched and the full mystical implications of his remarks not always spelled out. An analysis of this introduction and a comparison of the contents with contemporary Spirituality Research by reputable scholars of mysticism, like Waaijman and McGinn, further reveal the mystical nature and contents of Murray’s ministry and thought.
This revisionist reading of Murray confirms the significant place of mysticism in the Afrikaansspeaking communities of faith in South Africa. It also underlines his important statement in the introduction that mysticism belongs to the essence of the religious life and transcends doctrinal positions or intellectual insights. It further confirms that mysticism has an essential and necessary place in religious discourse in general. It also explains the open, irenic nature of Murray’s mysticism. Finally it reveals an interaction with religious traditions beyond his own reformed background. It shows Murray’s continuity with long established mystical traditions that transcend his Scottish heritage.
Keywords: Andrew Murray, devotion, mysticism, orthodoxy, Protestantism, spirituality