Project Canterbury

Isaac Williams

London: The Catholic Literature Association, 1933.

THE Catholic Revival was marked from its outset by the diversity of the types which it attracted. Men found their way to the movement by widely sundered paths of personal experience; and the exposition of the Catholic position in the English Church was enriched by the contributions of minds which had converged from remote fields. Each contributor had his own history behind him, each had his own gift to bring. And if Isaac Williams had not the subtle genius of Newman, the fiery brilliance of Hurrell Froude, or the massive scholarship of Pusey, he had nevertheless a distinct service to perform, very necessary at the time and of solid value to the Catholic cause. He was, it is true, a poet, and as a poet is not to be despised; but Newman and Keble wrote finer poetry. He was a preacher, but not to be compared with Newman in that art. He was profoundly devout; but saintliness was a common characteristic of the Tractarians. His particular value to the movement must be sought elsewhere.

The special contribution of Isaac Williams to the Catholic Revival was the witness of a slow-moving common sense, coupled with an unsleeping concern for practical morality, which reassured the rank and file of followers who were apt to be doubtful of the passionate flights of Hurrell Froude and the sheer intellect of Newman. There was in Isaac Williams an elemental conservatism which appealed to scores of people in whose judgment even Keble was 'dangerous.' 'We have too much sail,' said a friend of the movement, 'and we want ballast.' It was precisely 'ballast' that Isaac Williams was able to provide.

His emergence as a Tractarian divine is a strange story. It was due to what the secular mind would call an accident: a momentary event whereof the causes were apparently trivial and the results amazingly large. A few steps, a few words, and the movement of his life was completely changed--but those who have known such events can never again escape the sense of God's guidance in their lives. Isaac Williams came to the Catholic Revival, not, as some, from a tradition of careful and diligent churchmanship, or as others, from the school of evangelical piety, but from a youth of religious indifference, when he was drifting towards a manhood sensitive of life's sorrow and unaware of any saving and healing power.

He was born at Cwmcynfelin, near Aberystwyth, in 1802, the son of Isaac Lloyd Williams, a chancery barrister of Lincoln's Inn. His early years were spent in London, in Southampton Street, Bloomsbury Square, a neighbourhood then inhabited by wealthy city men and described for all time in the pages of Thackeray. His education was at first entrusted to a private tutor, Polehampton by name, who awakened in him a love of Latin verse and laid in his mind the foundations of sound scholarship. Young Williams afterwards proceeded to Harrow, where his proficiency in Latin verse won prizes, and where also he distinguished himself as a cricketer. He appears to have lived a normal schoolboy life, more than moderately successful in study and play, popular with his circle, but entirely apart from any religious influence. He had no religious instruction, and at chapel was given a place where he could neither hear nor see anything of the services. 'I was surrounded,' he says in his Autobiography, 'with alluring temptations, and flattered, with no one in that little opening world to guide me or speak to me of Christianity.' Yet thoughts arose, sometimes, to trouble the pleasant surface of his life. He recalls in the Autobiography that even as a child and a youth he was at times oppressed by the sorrowful in life, its brevity and its end.

He remained at Harrow from 1817 until 1821, and matriculated at Trinity College, Oxford, in 1822. In the young freshman of that year there was no discernible promise of the man he was to become. Ambitious, dashing, something of a scholar, something of a sportsman, yet careless about most things and quite irreligious, he might have been expected to find a place in some cheerful circle of undergraduates, but rather strangely he now found himself deeply unhappy. He drifted from his former Harrovian friends, and discovered no others. This he described as ' an exceedingly miserable period of my life, when I was already as one utterly lost.' Without knowing it, he had reached a stage at which life must be transformed and revalued by the acceptance of the supernatural, of the divine Will, as its guide and master, if it is to be saved from disillusion and cynicism. Like thousands of men of all times, Williams was young, fortunate, with the world before him, and profoundly wretched at the prospect.

It was John Keble who, under God, saved Isaac Williams, coming into his life at a crucial moment, and quietly drawing him into worlds he had not known. They had met at Aberystwyth in 1822, but the acquaintance did not ripen into friendship until Williams had won a Latin verse prize, and Keble came to offer his services in preparing the verses for publication. Williams was now impressed by Keble's poetic powers, and to that extent was under his spell; but at this time occurred the ' accident' which was to alter everything. Keble offered to take Williams to Southrop, near Fairford, in Gloucestershire, to read with him during the summer of 1823. What prompted the unexpected offer cannot now be known. Keble had only recently declined to take Richard Wilberforce, saying that he wished to be alone. Now, without preliminaries, he makes this sudden suggestion to Williams. He took Wilberforce also, eventually, and Hurrell Froude joined the party. ' It was this trivial accident/ says Williams, 'this short walk of a few yards, and a few words spoken, that was the turning point of my life.'

In the great days of that summer vacation Keble ushered Williams into a new universe. The combination of impartial goodness and gentleness, with high spirits and masculine courage, which he found in his new friend was a moral revelation to the younger man. He had not met this complex of piety and gaiety, meekness and vigour, which is only to say that he was entirely unacquainted with a specific product of the Catholic Faith. Another element in Keble's character caused him great wonder. He discovered that Keble regarded the poor with as much respect and interest as he gave to any class. In the Autobiography he remarks upon this. 'At Harrow,' he says, 'as at other public schools, the poor were never spoken of but by some contemptuous term--looked upon as hateful boors, to be fought with, or cajoled for political objects; but for them to be looked upon with tender regard and friendship more than the rich, and in some cases even referred to as instructors of the wisdom which God teaches--this was a new world to me.' He had discovered the fundamental humanism of the Catholic Faith, and it staggered him. It was this spirit of Keble that was to send the Catholic Revival into the slums, and to set Catholic thinkers to work upon the problems of sociology.

Upon the return to Oxford, Williams was admitted freely to Keble's circle. Upon them all--Froude, the Wilberforces, Henry Ryder, and Williams--Keble's influence was very great, but he touched none of them more effectively than Williams, for whom the next year was a moral and intellectual climacteric. The Isaac Williams of Harrow and early Oxford days was deeply changed. Keble's example led him to self-analysis, and he tells us that he became ' preyed upon by secret shame and sorrow ' in the new light in which he now viewed himself. His ambitions were transformed. He developed a horror, almost to the point of morbidity, of all display and applause. He became suspicious of all excitement and 'effect'--characteristics which in later days kept him under the sober guidance of Keble and prevented him from following Newman to Rome.

He spent the summer vacation of 1825 with Hurrell Froude in Devonshire, where he met the Champernowne family, a daughter of which, Catherine, subsequently became his wife. Returning to Oxford, he resolved to work for a 'double first'; but though his classics were good, he had to labour at mathematics, and his health suffered. A London doctor ordered him to cease work entirely, with the result that he had to content himself with an ordinary degree. This illness destroyed the last vestiges of pride and self-sufficiency in him, for he saw how vain are human determinations set upon mere ' success.' But without work to do his mind ' turned to prey upon itself,' and was threatened by melancholia, and it was wisely arranged that he should go to Bisley, of which parish Thomas Keble, John's brother, was the incumbent, and there busy himself in the vicar's assistance. Thomas Keble was without the gaiety, charm and essential distinction of his great brother, but he was a good man, somewhat austere, but simple and sincere. He possessed a gift for simple and practical sermonizing, which left a deep mark upon Williams. In later years, when he himself was preaching, he owned to having preached Thomas Keble's sermons through mistrust of himself; and Newman once observed that Williams would do better to be more himself in his sermons and less like Thomas Keble. Nevertheless, the practical strain which he thus derived won him the confidence of many in after days, and proved to be an immensely valuable asset in the Oxford Movement, when its leaders were suspected of juggling with truth in the interests of their theories. Men who knew Williams understood that he was incapable of mental trickery, and that his chief aim in life was goodness.

He was ordained deacon in 1829, and found a curacy at Windrush, not far from Fairford. Here he meditated in quietness, read devotional works, studied Hebrew, and wrote poetry. In 1831 he was recalled to his college as a fellow, took priest's Orders, and settled down as tutor. His life at Bisley and Windrush had developed his moral and spiritual powers, but he made little intellectual advance. He seems to have been obsessed at this time with a fear of the intellect, and the sermons which he now preached were full of attacks upon intellectual pride and mere knowledge. As a tutor, he made but small appeal to undergraduates, who looked for masculine strength and mental aggressiveness, but his vein of intense moral seriousness appealed to the best, and his ' shy but warm temperament,' allied with his ' great modesty and humility,' won the respect of all his intimates. His own academic career proceeded from success to success. He was appointed Dean of his college in 1833. In the previous year he had held a lectureship in philosophy and from 1834 to 1840 he was lecturer in rhetoric. He received a divinity degree in 1839, and was vice-president 1841-1842.

Meanwhile, there had occurred those germin-ative events which had been noised abroad throughout the land and were to change the face of the English Church. Williams threw himself heart and soul into the movement and for eleven years was in the thick of all the battles. His devotional poetry assisted the cause upon its imaginative side, as the sterling example of his character gave it practical recommendation. But he was not over-eager for dramatic changes, lacked Newman's subtle sense of changes in the air, and would have been content to see his witness bear little immediate visible fruit. He was a constant preacher of reality, and for him the true end and meaning of a church revival was the amendment of the lives of men. ' Our principles were those of the Caroline divines,' he wrote of the first year. He formed then a friendship with John Copeland, and observed that Newman was ' becoming a churchman.' He had been introduced to Newman by a Mr. Hughes, who was shocked at his friendship with Keble and desired to procure for the young man ' a restraining influence.' Mr. Hughes must have been more deeply shocked at a later date.

Williams was intimately connected with the whole literary side of the revival. He collaborated with Keble and Hurrell Froude in the Lyra Apostolica. His poems appeared above a nom-de-plume in the British Magazine. When the Tracts were first proposed, Froude said to him, 'We must make a row in the world.' To which Williams replied, 'I have no doubt we can make a noise and get many people to join us, but shall we make them really better Christians?' Hurrell Froude, however, considered it necessary that the 'Peculiars' (his name for Low Churchmen) should have 'Church opinion forced upon them,' and in the event Williams actually found himself the author of a tract which provoked a storm.

He had now undertaken some parochial work, 'without which,' as he said, 'no one can be more than half a divine,' becoming assistant curate to Newman at St. Mary's. Though he was a great friend of Newman and had the distinction of remaining so after the latter's 'defection' he never completely trusted Newman's opinions, seeing what he regarded as too much sheer intellect among the elements of his character. Moreover, unlike Keble, Newman gave Williams no confidence; for he, unlike Newman, was a staunch adherent of the 'Bisley-Fairford school'--the influence of which had never touched Newman. Yet Newman left him in complete charge of St. Mary's and Littlemore while he was away on the Continent with Froude.

As the Tracts became known and the numbers of the movement's friends increased, the new influence was making its mark upon the life of Oxford. 'A marked change,' says the Autobiography, 'was now taking place in the whole character of the University. College chapel was less looked upon as a mere roll-call, or like appearing on parade in the army, to which tutors had before likened it. Fridays in Lent were still the chief days for party-giving with the heads of houses, but the younger members of the University were much changed: many did not dine in Hall on Fridays, and much less wine was drunk in common room.' Meanwhile, Isaac Williams, known for his character, his poetry, his preaching, and his academic distinction, was making a prominent place for himself amongst the Tractarians, not by sensational brilliance, but by the solidity of his teaching and the practical moral ends to which his efforts were addressed. It was now his ludicrous fate to be singled out as the progenitor of the most wicked and Romanizing tendencies.

This distinction was procured for him by Tract 80, published at Newman's express desire, On Reserve in communicating Religious Knowledge. The thesis of the Tract was harmless enough, for it is impossible to question the assertion that there are occasions upon which such reserve is in the best interests of those under instruction. But there were ears in which the title sounded evil, and a tempest broke upon the innocent author, and two bishops were in the van of the attack. Williams, in Tract 87, provided a reply which should have satisfied reasonable men; but Bishop Monk, who had read neither of the Tracts, persisted in his onslaught. Williams contented himself with a final defence in the form of a small pamphlet, A Few Remarks on the Charge of Bishop Monk. Tract 86 was also his work.

Time passed, and Williams' connection with Newman remained close; but he began to experience anxiety over what he felt to be New-man's intellectual instability, and the possible effects of the fascination undoubtedly exercised upon him by Rome. Newman was frequently making remarks which disturbed Williams, and, as he believed, brought unnecessary suspicions upon the movement. He begged Keble to publish something steadying and reassuring, but at length himself undertook the office, and with Copeland edited the Plain Sermons. They were all of devotional character, and their publication was intended to allay the fears and doubts of timid followers and of the interested public. Sermons by both Kebles and by Williams were included, and Newman supplied a 'year' of non-controversial efforts. They actually did much to convert the clergy, being sermons by recognized masters in the art of preaching, and they were read and preached throughout the land.

Oxford was the centre of the revival, and Williams had become a considerable figure in Oxford, when the event occurred which decided him to leave the University. Keble had already announced his intention of retiring to Fairford, and desired that Williams should follow him in the chair of poetry. As a poet, Williams had no opponent to fear, but the enemies of the Catholic Revival put up Garbett, a scholar of parts, but with no known qualifications for the post. Pusey's pamphlet, pointing out that the opposition to Williams was the result of odium theologicum, had the unfortunate result of provoking the first open battle in the University, and the Tractarians were defeated. Williams was distressed both by the contest and by its issue. He was further disappointed by the conduct of some who had posed as his friends, but had voted against him solely because of his association with Newman and Ward, when, in fact, he had never much approved of Ward. He retired from that Oxford life in which he had for so long joined with eager zest. Having married Catherine Champernowne, he became assistant curate to Thomas Keble, in which position he remained from 1842 to 1848.

He had broken his connection with Newman, having come to a positive distrust and fear of the latter's influence, though each continued to cherish sincere affection for the other, and corresponded with some regularity. Newman's subsequent defection brought the Oxford Movement to terribly difficult days. Williams in his country curacy suffered in mind, as did others. In 1846 he fell dangerously ill in a decline, showing all the symptoms of consumption.

His friends said 'Good-bye/ and the end seemed certain; but he rallied wonderfully to live a further nineteen years, though weak and ailing and troubled with chronic asthma. In 1848 he left Thomas Keble and went to Stinch-combe, his sister's husband's parish, and there lived in virtual retirement. Here he spent his time writing poetry, compiling his Autobiography, and educating his sons, and living in the quietness which so pleased him. He died peacefully in 1865.

Newman was sincerely sorrowful to hear of the passing of Isaac Williams. He said, 'He has really died of his old love for me '--a remark containing more truth than appears upon the surface. 'Well,' continued Newman, 'I have sent him out of a world in which he had no part except so far as it contained souls with whom he was so lovingly bound up. ... I shall say Mass on Saturdays for his dear soul. May God wash it white in his most precious Blood, and receive it into that eternal peace and light which it coveted above all things.'

Isaac Williams deserves a place in our grateful memory, chiefly for the teaching and influence of his life. But his writings are not inconsiderable. He had a true poetic gift, though he lacked vigour, and, as Dean Church has said, his numbers were composed in 'a lower and sadder key' than were John Keble's. But his poetry is a surviving witness to the spirituality and delicacy underlying the austerity of the 'Bisley school.' His poetical works include The Cathedral, The Side of the Hill, Hymns translated from the Parisian Breviary, The Baptistery, Hymns on the Catechism, Sacred Verse, The Altar, The Christian Scholar, The Seven Days and The Christian Seasons. His theological writings, in addition to the Tracts and the Plain Sermons, included a devotional commentary on the gospel narrative in eight volumes, a work on the Apocalypse, and other volumes of sermons. But it is as a hymn-writer that he will live in literary memory. Several of his hymns and translations are to be found in Hymns Ancient and Modern, and in the English Hymnal, though one of his loveliest, 'The child leans on his father's breast' is not in either. The well-known 'Be thou my guardian and my guide' is a translation from the Parisian Breviary, though usually given as Williams' own work. His translations were important, for he directly inspired Chandler and Neale.

Though the bulk of his writings are forgotten, there are passages of real beauty and genuine thought in his pages, which testify to a mind of rare grace and a character of quiet holiness. 'The name of Isaac Williams,' said A. W. Haddan, 'will always be included among the soundest, and most loving, and the most thoughtful of the devotional writers.' Yet Williams was greater than anything that he wrote, and his place in the Oxford Movement was due to what he was, rather than to what he did. It seems always, as one reads the story of the revival, that Williams counted with his contemporaries in some personal fashion that cannot be measured.

Nevertheless, he bore a definite witness which helped to save the movement from complete disaster when Newman passed over to Rome. Williams had long loved Newman and had long distrusted his mentality. It was not that he objected to the desire for a full and visible Catholicism of worship and life, but rather that he saw danger in Newman's restlessness and exasperation in face of indifference and opposition. He discerned the rise in Newman's mind of an assumption that the Oxford Movement had weighed the English Church in the balance, and had found it wanting. He saw that this view of the movement must reduce it to unreality, since, if the Church of England was not the Catholic Church in this country, the Oxford Movement had no right to exist. Newman, impatient of circumstances, eager for dramatic changes, ready to despair at delays, solved his problem by abandoning it. Williams believed in the English Church to the end. His faith in his Church supported his belief in the movement, as the movement in turn encouraged his hopes for the Church. He cared little if external progress was retarded, and was content to maintain his witness in the sure confidence that truth must at last prevail.

He had nothing of Newman's genius, but he had a persistence which Newman lacked, a mind more at home with plain facts and more ready to make the best of an unsatisfactory situation.

Is it too much to say that it is Williams, rather than Newman, who has been vindicated by a century of English history? Was not Williams always closer to the Anglican reality? Newman's sermon on 'The Parting of Friends' was a magnificent lament for the Church of England, except that it was so mixed with half-truths and false generalizations. After all, the Church which, according to Newman, had no nourishment for its children, had nurtured Keble, Pusey, and Williams, and it had produced the Oxford Movement. The causes of its defection were obvious. They were external causes which had assailed the Church. The cause of the Catholic Revival cannot be found in outward circumstance. It arose from within, through the devotion of those who loved the English Church, and it thereby revealed that Church's basic and permanent nature. The patient faith of Isaac Williams, persisting through sorrow of mind and sickness of body, helped to reveal that obscured foundation of our Church upon which we build today. Therefore we remember him and thank God for his testimony.

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