Project Canterbury

John Henry Newman

London: Catholic Literature Association, 1933.

JOHN HENRY NEWMAN was born in 1801, and died in 1890, his life being thus roughly conterminous with the nineteenth century of which by common consent he is one of the greatest figures. 'Two writers,' says Froude the historian, 'have affected powerfully the present generation of Englishmen; Newman is one, Thomas Carlyle is the other.'

Newman was the son of a London banker and a lady of Huguenot extraction, thus owning on the one side a French descent. He was born in the City, where Broad Street Station now stands, and spent his childhood in the unromantic suburb of Ealing. He is the only one of the Oxford leaders to tell us his own life-story. From his Apologia pro Vita Sua, written in 1864, we learn that his mind had from the beginning a strong religious bent. Speaking of himself as a little child, he says: 'I thought life might be a dream, or I an angel, and all this world a deception, my fellow-angels by a playful device concealing themselves from me and deceiving me with the semblance of a material world.' At fifteen he fell under the influence of Calvinism, which led him, as he says, to rest more implicitly in 'the thought of two, and two only, absolutely and luminously self-evident beings--myself and my Creator.'

In 1817 he went up to Trinity College, Oxford, a devout Evangelical. Breaking down in his final examination, as a result of overwork, he failed to get a First Class in 1820, but two years later he atoned for his failure by winning in open competition a Fellowship at Oriel, which raised him, as he says, 'to the high and broad platform of University society and intelligence.' It was here that he came into touch with that picturesque and fiery figure who has been called the Lord Byron of the Oxford Movement--Richard Hurrell Froude. In 1826 Froude returned from reading with Keble at Southrop to become Fellow of Oriel, and to kindle the fires of the Catholic Revival by indoctrinating Newman with Keble's ideas. ' Do you know the story,' writes Froude,' of the murderer who had done one good thing in his life? Well, if I was asked what good deed I have ever done, I should say I had brought Keble and Newman to understand each other.'

The intimacy between Froude and Newman quickly deepened into a devoted friendship. In 1832 they spent the winter together in the Mediterranean, and it was during this time that Newman's convictions became fixed. A clear light rose before him--the sense of a mission to the English Church. It was while tossing about in an orange-boat in the Strait of Bonifacio that he wrote 'Lead, kindly Light,' the marching-song, as it has been called, of the Oxford Movement. He himself attributes the beginning of the Movement to Keble's sermon on National Apostasy, preached on July 14, 1833, within a few days of his own return to England. But it was the preparation of the ground in Newman's mind, and not the accidental word, that was the decisive fact. 'It was not,' says Dean Church, 'till Mr. Newman made up his mind to force on the public mind, in a way which could not be evaded, the great article of the Creed--"I believe one Catholic and Apostolic Church "--that the movement began.' It was the direct result of the searchings of heart and the communings for seven years, from 1826 to 1833, of Keble, Froude, and Newman.


In 1828 Newman had been appointed Vicar of St. Mary's, the University Church. His Sunday afternoon sermons had already attracted considerable attention by the spiritual power they revealed, and the directness and force with which they appealed to conscience, and they now became a most powerful instrument for drawing sympathy to the new Movement. 'Without those sermons,' says Dean Church, 'the movement might never have gone on, certainly would never have been what it was.

Even people who heard them continually, and felt them to be different from any other sermons, hardly estimated their real power, or knew at the time the influence which the sermons were having upon them. . . . They made men think of the things which the preacher spoke of, and not of the sermon or the preacher.' Matthew Arnold, a theological liberal who had no sympathy whatever with the Catholic Revival, pays a similar tribute to the influence of Newman's preaching: ' Who,' he writes, ' could resist the charm of that spiritual apparition, gliding in the dim afternoon light along the aisles of St. Mary's, rising into the pulpit, and then in the most entrancing of voices breaking the silence with words and thoughts which were a religious music--subtle, sweet, mournful. Happy the man who in the susceptible season of youth hears such voices. They are a possession to him for ever.'

Let us listen to one more witness, this time a strong and convinced Presbyterian: 'What there was of High Church teaching,' writes Principal Shairp of St. Andrew's, 'was implied rather than enforced. The local, the temporary and modern, were ennobled by the presence of the Catholic truth belonging to all ages that pervaded the whole. His power showed itself chiefly in the new and unlooked-for way in which he touched into life old truths, moral or spiritual, which all Christians acknowledge, but most have ceased to feel. . . . After hearing these sermons you might come away still not believing the truths peculiar to the High Church system, but you would be harder than most men if you did not feel more than ever ashamed of coarseness, selfishness, worldli-ness; if you did not feel the things of faith brought closer to the soul.'


During their winter abroad Froude and Newman had discussed the need for supplementing the spoken with the printed word. Newman was equal to the occasion. To the gifts of the preacher he added a consummate talent for the higher journalism, and on his return to England he began the issue of the Tracts for the Times. The first of these, written by Newman himself, and entitled, 'Thoughts on the Ministerial Commission, respectfully addressed to the Clergy,' was issued in September, 1833. It was a four-page leaflet, published at I d., and began: 'I am but one of yourselves--a Presbyter; and therefore I conceal my name, lest I should take too much on myself by speaking in my own person. Yet speak I must; for the times are very evil, yet no one speaks against them.'

Within a year forty-seven tracts had been published. Some of these were written by Keble, Froude, and a lay friend of Newman, John Bowden. No. 18, on Fasting, was written by Dr. Pusey, who signalized his formal adhesion to the Movement by signing his initials to his Tract. But nearly a third of the first series of Tracts were written by Newman himself, and throughout the inspiring, controlling, directing brain was his.

The Tracts soon became famous, and 'Tractarian' was the name given to those who believed in their teaching. During the Long Vacation in 1833, Newman and his friends rode round from parsonage to parsonage carrying bundles of the Tracts, and begging the clergy to read them. Newman tells us in his Apologia that his visits served to advertise the Movement, and showed that a rally in favour of Church principles was beginning. Once again, to quote Dean Church: ' The ring of these early tracts was something very different from anything of the kind yet known in England. They were clear, brief, stern appeals to conscience and reason. . . . They were like the short, sharp, rapid utterances of men in pain and danger and pressing emergency.'


So far as Newman's connexion with it is concerned, the Oxford Movement falls into three distinct periods. First, the period of preparation from 1826-1833, which was marked by the ever-growing intimacy between Keble, Froude, and Newman. Second, the period of prosperity, from 1833-1841, in which, with the pulpit of St. Mary's, the Tracts, and the British Critic (a quarterly Review of which in 1838 he became editor) as his organs, Newman led his gathering party from triumph to triumph. Third, the period of disillusionment and disastrous collapse, beginning with the publication of Tract XC in 1841, and ending with Newman's secession in 1845.

By 1839 the influence of Newman was in its flood-tide. The party of which he was now the acknowledged leader had lost 'the bright and beautiful' Froude, who died in 1836, but it had gained the adherence of men like Dr. Pusey; Archdeacon Wilberforce, who has been described as 'the greatest philosophical theologian of the Tractarians'; Charles Marriott, who was to prove such a tower of strength in the crisis following Newman's secession; Frederic Rogers, afterwards Lord Blachford, who in 1846, when the Movement seemed likely to break up, founded The Guardian newspaper to keep Church principles alive; William John Copeland, one of the most distinguished Latinists at Oxford; and Richard William Church, afterward the famous dean of St. Paul's. Moreover, the Movement had spread to London, where in 1839 the Margaret Chapel, the predecessor of All Saints', Margaret Street, had become a Tractarian centre with Frederick Oakeley, a Fellow of Balliol and Prebendary of Lichfield, as its incumbent. 'In the spring of 1839,' Newman writes, 'my position in the Anglican Church was at its height. I had supreme confidence in my controversial status. I had a great and still growing success in recommending it to others.'

But distant rumblings of the coming storm had already been heard. As early as 1836 Dr. Arnold had attacked the writers of the Tracts in a furious article in the Edinburgh Review, in which he stigmatized the aims of the Movement as 'so pitiful that, if gained ever so completely, they would make no man the wiser or the better; they would lead to no good, intellectual, moral, or spiritual; to no effect, social or religious, except to the changing of sense into silliness, and holiness into formality and hypocrisy.' In 1838 the publication of Froude's journal and letters, edited by Keble and Newman, roused intense suspicion and alarm. The publication was exceedingly ill-advised, for Froude wrote his diary and letters with no thought of publication, and with all the exaggeration of statement and outspokenness of judgment which were a characteristic of his intercourse with his friends. To the ordinary reader, who could not be expected to make allowance for these things, Froude's merciless criticism of the Reformers gave strong colour to a suspicion, which has not yet died away, that the Oxford Movement was nothing but a popish plot. As a protest against this publication, a stone memorial cross which is known as the Martyrs' Memorial was erected in Oxford outside St. Mary Magdalene's Church, not far from the spot (marked by an iron cross in the pavement in Broad Street), where Cranmer, Ridley, and Latimer had been burnt.

Far more serious than this opposition from without, there were influences at work within the Movement itself which threatened its disintegration. The first of these influences was the growth of a Romanizing party, including W. G. Ward, a Fellow and Tutor of Balliol; Frederick Oakeley, who has already been mentioned as the Incumbent of Margaret Chapel; F. W. Faber, the author of ' Hark! hark, my soul/ ' Sweet Saviour, bless us ere we go,' and many other well-known hymns; and J. D. Dalgairns, who afterwards as a Roman Catholic wrote a deservedly famous book on the Holy Communion. This party, says Newman, ' cut into the original Movement at an angle, fell across its line of thought, and then set about turning that line into its own direction.' Dean Church says of the men composing it that their direction was unquestionably Romeward, almost from the beginning of their connexion with the Movement. It became one of Newman's most preoccupying tasks to try to hold them back.

The second influence which threatened to disintegrate the Movement was the unsettlement of Newman's own mind. The teaching of the Tracts as to the Catholicity of the Church of England inevitably raised the question of her relation to the Church of Rome, and the influence of the new group forced this question into prominence. During the Long Vacation of 1839, when Newman was studying the history of the Monophysite heresy, a doubt as to the tenableness of Anglicanism first flashed across his mind. This impression was deepened by an article in the Dublin Review, in which Cardinal Wiseman compared the Anglicans to the Donatist heretics in Africa in the fifth century, and quoted the words in which St. Augustine summed up against them, Securus judicat orbis terrarum, 'the whole world judges right'--i.e., the Universal Church must be right against one local body. The words, he says, struck him with a power he had never felt from any words before. He saw 'the shadow of a hand upon the wall.'


It was in order to satisfy both his own doubts and the doubts of those whom he was trying to hold back from Rome that Newman wrote the famous Tract XC., which was published early in 1841, with the object of showing that the Thirty-Nine Articles had been composed as articles of peace between the opposing parties at the time of the Reformation, that they could not have been intended to contradict the teaching of the Council of Trent, which was formulated after the Articles, but were only aimed at the current popular Romanism, and consequently they were capable of a Catholic interpretation, for they were intended to keep the Catholic party in the Church: 'Though the offspring of an uncatholic age, they are, through God's good providence, to say the least, not uncatholic, and may be subscribed by those who aim at being Catholic in heart and doctrine.'

Newman sent the manuscript to Keble, who strongly recommended its publication. It appeared on February 27, 1841, and almost immediately the storm broke. On March 8, four Tutors, among them Mr. Tait, afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury, protested against the Tract, and a week later the Head of the Oxford Colleges, refusing to wait for any defence or explanation from Newman, though one was known to be coming, solemnly condemned the Tract, and branded it as dishonest, Dr. Pusey had written privately to the Vice-Chan-cellor bearing witness to the loyalty of the writer of the Tract, and to his desire to keep back anxious minds from Rome by writing it; and Keble had also written, taking upon himself responsibility for the publication. But these efforts were in vain. The condemnation of the Tract was by the order of the Heads posted up in the buttery hatches of all the colleges and halls, and at the gates of the schools.

The effect on Newman was disastrous and complete. 'I saw,' he says in his Apologia, 'that my place in the Movement was lost; public confidence was at an end; my occupation was gone. ... In every part of the country and every class of society, in newspapers, in pulpits, at dinner-tables, in coffee-rooms, in railway carriages, I was denounced as a traitor who had laid his train, and was detected in the very act of firing it.' In the spring of 1842 he retired, a broken-hearted and disappointed man, to Littlemore, a village on the outskirts of Oxford, which was then part of St. Mary's parish, and where in 1836 he had built a church. From this time, he tells us, he was on his deathbed as regards his membership of the Anglican Church. But he had still a long spiritual conflict before him. On February 2, 1843, he preached for the last time before the University. On September 18 of the same year he resigned his living of St. Mary's, and a week later he preached his last sermon as an Anglican at Littlemore. Henceforward he lived in lay communion and performed no ministerial act. On October 9, 1845, the light of the University, the greatest of its then living sons, was received into the Roman Church by a Passionist friar in his room in what is now the Free Cottage Library at Littlemore.


This is not the place to describe the events which followed Newman's secession, or to tell of the herioc efforts by which Keble, Pusey, and Charles Marriott rallied and reorganized the shattered forces of the Movement. Nor does it fall to us to tell the story of Newman's life as a Roman priest at the Birmingham Oratory. It must be sufficient to say that it was not until the publication of his greatest book, the Apologia, that the cloud of English suspicion was rolled away, and not until the end of his life, when Leo XIII. had come to the Papal throne, that he received full recognition by being made a Cardinal.

It remains to attempt some estimate of his character and influence. He was, beyond all controversy, one of the greatest sons the Church of England ever had, and it is infinitely pathetic that she drove him from her fold. It is one of the tragedies of the English Church (long since pointed out by Macaulay) that she does not know how to use her great men. And Newman was a very great man; he was more than a great man, he was a genius.

There is a misleading proverb which tells us that 'genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains.' But genius is on a very different plane from diligence and application; it is the power of creation. Why, for instance, does Charles Dickens stand out in lonely greatness among English novelists? Thackeray had a far purer style; George Eliot could write a much better story; Wilkie Collins could weave a more ingenious plot. The artistic genius of Dickens lay in this, that he had the power of creating people, like Mrs. Gamp, and Sam Weller, and Mr. Micawber, and Betsy Trotwood, who are priceless additions to the world's portrait gallery. We do not trouble to enquire where Dickens got his models and his inspiration. We are content with what he did with them. Dickens was a genius because he possessed in an exceptional degree the power of creation.

It is just this that is true of Newman. He created a Movement--the great movement which we know as Anglo-Catholicism. As we have seen, he gained his inspiration from Keble and Froude. As he was never tired of teaching, Anglo-Catholicism was no new thing; it was latent in the English Church, enshrined and preserved in the Prayer Book, claiming rightly to be the true expression of the religion of the English Church, supported by the teaching of her great Divines. But the Catholic Revival was something more than a Revival. It was new in the sense that it made English religion, for the first time since the Reformation, a living, vital, potent, energizing force. It gathered up the fragments of past religious movements, and created out of them a new spiritual feast. And the eye that could see the vision, the brain that could formulate the plan, the energy and resolution that could transfer the vision to the canvas of reality, were the eye, the brain, the energy, the resolution of Newman. No better tribute to the greatness and enduring power of his work could be paid than this, that the edifice he had raised withstood triumphantly the earthquake shock of his secession, and stands today, weather-beaten and defaced by many a storm, but secure and strong on its foundations.

Of his power as a preacher we have already spoken. One who was an undergraduate at the time, Principal Shairp, from whom we have quoted above, has described how men felt when it was known that Newman had ceased to be Vicar of St. Mary's: 'Looking over an interval of five-and-twenty years, how vividly comes back the remembrance of the aching blank, the awful pause which fell on Oxford, when that voice had ceased, and we knew that we should hear it no more. It was as when, to one kneeling by night in the silence of some vast cathedral, the great bell tolling solemnly overhead has suddenly gone still. Since then many voices of powerful teachers may have been heard, but none that ever penetrated the soul like his.'

As a writer, Newman is even more eminent than as a preacher. Had he written nothing else, 'Lead! kindly Light' and 'Praise to the holiest in the height' would have been sufficient to preserve his name, while his exquisite style has given him a place among the classic writers of English prose. His Apologia is an English classic. It has given him, says Mr. Gilbert Chesterton, a complete right to be in any book on modern English literature.

Greater than his sermons or his writings was the personality that expressed itself through them. He had not the humility of Keble, or the self-forgetfulness of Pusey; indeed, the history of the English Church during the last hundred years would have been very different if he had been able to forget himself in his cause as they did. He suffered from an extreme over-sensitiveness which in a less holy man might easily have degenerated into egoism, and which rendered him an easy victim to scorn and reproach. He was more apt to make passionate disciples than friends, and he seems to have had few intimates. Yet he was loved and honoured by men whose love is an honour, and he is admired by all who can appreciate a consistently holy and unworldly life.

Perhaps the supreme test of his greatness is this--like only the very greatest men, he has transmitted a personality. It is with him as with Napoleon, and Francis of Assissi, and Dr. Johnson, and Emily Bronte; people are interested in him, not only, indeed not chiefly, in what he has done. There is a tradition about him at Oxford. The place is still filled with the odour of the ointment of his personality. The quad at Oriel still seems to echo with his footsteps. Dean Inge, by no means a sympathetic witness, says in his Outspoken Essays that the Church of Rome has been less unpopular in England since she made Newman a Cardinal.

It is the clearness with which Newman realized and proclaimed the two complementary ideas of devotion to Christ and devotion to the Church which lifts his teaching above the limitations of time and circumstance. It is in proportion as the Catholic Movement remains true to those ideas and holds them together, that it will succeed in its great task of converting England to the Faith.

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