Birth and Early Years
JOHN KEBLE, 'the true and primary author' of the Oxford Movement, as Newman says of him in his Apologia, was born at Fairford in Gloucestershire on St. Mark's Day, 1792, being thus eight years older than Dr. Pusey, nine than Newman, ten than Isaac Williams, and eleven than Hurrell Froude. His father was a scholar of parts who had been a Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, before becoming vicar of Coin St. Aldwyn's, near Fairford; his mother was a lady of Scotch descent, the daughter of the incumbent of Ringwood in Hampshire. Both his parents had been brought up in the great tradition of the Caroline divines, and from them John Keble learnt the old Catholic doctrines of the Real Presence, the Apostolical Succession, and the Visible Church. He was educated by his father at home, and won an open scholarship at Corpus Christi College when he was not yet fifteen years old.
At Oxford Keble had the most brilliant academical career of his time. In 1810, when he was only a little over eighteen, he obtained the very rare distinction of a double first-class in Classics and Mathematics. In the following year he was elected to an open Fellowship at Oriel College, and immediately proceeded to win both the Latin and the English Essays. Isaac Williams in his Autobiography tells us that these achievements invested him with a bright halo and something of awe in the eyes of an undergraduate,' and Newman, writing in 1823, says, 'Keble is the first man in Oxford.'
Almost immediately after reaching his twenty-third birthday, he was ordained Deacon by the Bishop of Oxford on Trinity Sunday, 1815, and Priest in the following year. His fellowship served him as a title, but he also assisted his father at Coin, riding over each Sunday from Oxford for the purpose. The following extract from a letter to Coleridge, written just before his ordination, will show the spirit in which he approached his life-work: 'Pray for me earnestly, my dear, my best friend, that he would give me his grace, that I may not be altogether unworthy of the sacred office on which I am, rashly I fear, even now entering; but that some souls hereafter may have cause to bless me. Pray that I may be free from vanity, from envy, from discontent, from impure imaginations; that I may not grow weary, nor wander in heart from God's service; that I may not be judging others uncharitably, nor vainly dreaming how they will judge me, at the very moment that I seem most religiously and most charitably employed.'
In 1817 he was appointed Tutor at Oriel, and retained this office for six years, devoting himself almost entirely to academical work. At the end of this time his mother died, and he at once decided to leave Oxford that he might live near his father. Accordingly, he became curate of Southrop, near Fairford, being responsible also for two other small villages East Leech and Burthorpe. Here he remained for three years, refusing in 1824 the Archdeaconry of Barbados, and leaving in the following year to become curate-in-charge of Hursley, near Winchester. In September, 1826, the death of his favourite sister caused him to change his plans again, and he returned to Fairford to act as his father's curate. In 1835 his father's death left him free to accept the living of Hursley, and there he remained until his death.
Preparation for the Movement
When Keble left Oriel to become curate at Southrop, several of his pupils followed him to read with him during the Long Vacation for their degree. Among these pupils was Richard Hurrell Froude, who eagerly drank in his convictions and ideas, and determined to be their mouthpiece and champion. The seeds of the coming revival were sown in the association of these two men. 'Froude,' says Dean Church, 'took in from Keble all he had to communicate'--principles, convictions, moral rules and standards of life, hopes, fears, antipathies. And his keenly tempered intellect, and his determination and high courage, gave a point and an impulse of their own to Keble's views and purposes. As things came to look darker, and dangers seemed more serious to the Church, its faith or its rights, the interchange of thought between master and disciple, in talk and in letter, pointed more and more to the necessity for coming action.'
The religious outlook was dark indeed. Rarely had things looked blacker for the English Church than they looked a hundred years ago. For a generation the clergy had been closely allied with the Tory Party, and the Whigs were now in power, with the result that the Church had become exceedingly unpopular both with the Government and with the people, particularly in the large towns. The tyranny of the State over the Church had been steadily increasing during the eighteenth century, and had now become almost complete. Added to this there had been since the French Revolution a rapid growth of secularism throughout England. The popular philosophy of the time regarded religion as 'the rubbish of superstition,' and looked to education, enlightenment, and reason to provide the cure for the ills from which mankind was suffering. The internal condition of the English Church was not such as to afford much hope that it would be able to meet successfully the onslaughts of these combined forces. With but scanty realization of sacramental life, dull and conventional services, worldly bishops and clergy, and a widespread absence of devotion and enthusiasm, the Church was not likely to have a powerful hold on the hearts of her children.
Such was the condition of affairs when, in 1826, Froude returned from Southrop to take up a Fellowship at Oriel. He came back to Oxford filled with Keble's ideas of reform and renewal, and passionately determined to make them public and aggressive. At Oriel he found a colleague who was growing dissatisfied with the Evangelicalism in which he had been brought up, and whose keen and eager mind was ready to receive the Catholic ideas which Froude had learned from Keble. This was John Henry Newman, in some respects the greatest of the Oxford Leaders. 'Keble had given the inspiration,' says Dean Church, 'Froude had given the impulse; then Newman took up the work, and the impulse henceforward, and the direction, were his.'
It was Froude who was responsible for bringing Keble and Newman together. Wit death in view he said, at the end of his brief life: 'You know the story of the murderer who had done one good deed in his life. Well, if I was ever asked what good deed I had done, I should say I had brought Keble and Newman to understand one another.'
The Assize Sermon
In 1832 Froude and Newman went on a voyage to the Mediterranean in an unsuccessful attempt to patch up Froude's failing health. While in Sicily Newman had a serious illness, and his recovery from it strengthened in his mind the conviction that he had a work to do for the Church. His verses--'Lead, kindly Light'--written at this time, show the spirit that was in him. But he looked to Keble to lead the way. In a letter from Sicily to a friend, he writes: 'We are in good spirits about the prospects of the Church. We find Keble is at length roused, and (if once up) he will prove a second Ambrose.' He and Froude, with Keble and others, had already begun a book of poems, Lyra Apostolica, which was to rouse the slumbering Church, and had taken for its motto a line from Homer:' And let them know that I too long have held aloof from war.' In July, 1833, the travellers were back in England again, and on the 14th of that month Keble gave the signal for concerted action in the Assize Sermon which he preached before the University. 'I have ever considered and kept the day,' writes Newman in his Apologia, 'as the start of the religious movement of 1833.'
The text of the sermon was i Sam. xii. 23: 'As for me, God forbid that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you; but I will teach you the good and the right way.' The preacher's aim was to draw public attention to the grave and pressing dangers that threatened the Church both from State interference with her liberties, and from the widespread decay of religious convictions. At such a time it was the duty of all who valued the cause of the Apostolic Church to devote themselves to its defence. 'Surely,' said the preacher, 'it will be no unworthy principle if any man is more circumspect in his behaviour, more watchful and fearful of himself, more earnest in his petitions for spiritual aid, from a dread of disparaging the holy name of the English Church in her hour of peril, by his own personal fault and negligence. . . . There may be, as far as he knows, but a very few to sympathize with him. He may have to wait long, and very likely pass out of this world, before he see any abatement in the triumph of disorder and irreligion. But if he be consistent, he possesses to the utmost the personal consolations of a good Christian; and as a true Churchman, he has the encouragement which no other cause in the world can impart in the same degree; he is calmly, soberly, demonstrably sure that, sooner or later, his will be the winning side, and that the victory will be complete, universal, eternal.'
The sermon was published on July 22, under the title National Apostasy. It does not seem to have excited much attention at the time. One of the two judges before whom it was preached is said to have remarked that it was 'an appropriate discourse.' Dr. Pusey, we are told, considered 'some passages rather too pointed.' But there were others who had a truer realization of its significance. To Newman's judgment, already quoted, may be added the words of Dr. J. B. Mozley, one of the ablest of the Tractarians, and one of the deepest thinkers of his time: 'I cannot help thinking it a kind of exordium of a great revolution--shall I call it?--coming on, whether rapidly or slowly we cannot tell, but at any rate most surely.'
Ten days later a conference was held at Hadleigh in Suffolk, to consider what practical steps could be taken to carry on the campaign. This conference was attended by the Revd. Hugh James Rose, Rector of Hadleigh; the Revd. William Palmer, a Dublin graduate who had settled at Oxford; the Revd. the Hon. Arthur Philip Perceval, an Oriel man and a fellow of All Souls, who had been a pupil of Keble; and the Revd. Richard Hurrell Froude. Keble was prevented by home-ties from coming, and Newman also was absent.
This meeting had no immediate results except to show that those who attended it were practically agreed both in their principles and in their conviction that definite action must be taken. But the Conferences were continued in Oxford, and had two main results. First, an Address to the Archbishop was prepared, expressing devoted adherence to the Apostolical Doctrine and Polity of the Church. This was ultimately signed by more than 7,000 clergy, and was presented in February, 1834. It was followed by a similar Lay Address which was signed by 230,000 heads of families.
The second result was of far greater importance. It was decided 'to provide and circulate books and tracts to attempt to revive among Churchmen the practice of daily common prayer, and more frequent participation of the Lord's Supper; to resist any attempt to alter the Liturgy on any insufficient authority, and to explain any points in discipline or worship which might be liable to be misunderstood. Thus were born the Tracts for the Times. These were short papers--at first price 1d. or 2d.--dealing with important points of Faith and Practice. Later on, they developed into elaborate treatises. Newman was mainly responsible for the Tracts, writing nearly a third of the first series himself. Indeed, he claims in the Apologia that he began the Tracts 'out of his own head.' Seven of the Tracts were written by Keble (Nos. 4, 13, 52, 54, 57, 60, 89).
The story of the development of the Movement thus begun will be told in other booklets in this series. Throughout the long struggle, until his death in 1866, Keble remained in the background at Hursley, helping with his writings, his advice, and above all with the stimulus and inspiration of his spirituality. Both Newman and Pusey ever regarded him as their leader and head, and bore constant witness to his influence as the guiding power of the Movement he had done so much to begin.
'The Christian Year'
Keble, as Dean Church says, was 'born a poet,' and while he was still at Oxford had formed the idea of a complete collection of poems to illustrate the Church's Year. But he underestimated the value of his own compositions, and it was only after much hesitation that in 1827 he published anonymously in two small volumes The Christian Year. These poems were meant to throw light and interest on the services of the Prayer Book, and to quicken meditation and devotion. The plan of the book is simple. There is a poem for every Sunday and Holyday in the year, and a poem for each of the Occasional Services in the Prayer Book. Some of these, or rather extracts from them, are familiar to us as hymns--e.g., 'Ave Maria! blessed Maid!'; 'Bless'd are the pure in heart'; 'There is a book who runs may read'; 'New every morning is the love'; 'Sun of my soul!' But the majority of the poems are quite unsuitable for hymns; their tone is that of quiet personal meditation rather than of corporate worship. Throughout they are deeply Scriptural in thought and expression, and are full of clear Church teaching. Moreover, they are instinct with the beauty of nature. Keble had the deepest sympathy with what was then a new school of poetry which, with Wordsworth as its representative, was searching out the deeper relations between nature and the human soul. He lived in the heart of the country, and studied nature unceasingly. He had an eye for the 'soft green willow' and for 'the greenest dark tree.' For him there is a sermon 'in every leaf, in every nook.' In the poem for All Saints' Day he rose to his utmost heights in showing how nature can reflect our deepest feelings:
How quiet shows the woodland scene,
Each flower and tree, its duty done,
Reposing in decay serene,
Like weary men when age is won.
The volume was a success at once. Keble's sister writes, soon after its publication: 'The commendation from all the choicest people is so great as to satisfy even our voracious appetite for praise.' Newman, no unworthy judge, describes the poems as 'quite exquisite.' A second edition was called for within the year, and in twenty-five years the sale had reached more than a hundred thousand copies. It is not too much to say that The Christian Year has secured a place which has been granted to no other volume of religious poetry in the language.
One result of the publication of these poems was Keble's election to the Professorship of Poetry at Oxford, an office which he held for ten years (1831-1841). This had the advantage of bringing him up to Oxford once a term for his terminal lecture, so that through the most eventful years of the Tractarian Movement he was able to be in constant personal touch with the other leaders.
Three other books of poems may here be mentioned: Lyra Apostolica, to which reference has already been made, containing nearly fifty of Keble's poems; The Child's Christian Year, which was edited by him, but of which only four of the poems are known definitely to be his own; and Lyra Innocentium, a book of poems about children and their ways, which he published anonymously in 1846.
Keble as a Theologian
Though Keble was by no means so prolific a writer as either Newman or Pusey, he made some valuable contributions to the theology of the Movement. His share in the Tracts for the Times has already been mentioned. In 1836 he edited an edition of Hooker's works with critical notes, and he also wrote a Life of Bishop Wilson for the Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology. After his death, twelve volumes of his sermons were published by Pusey and other friends. Pusey said of these that their chief characteristics are affectionate simplicity and intense reality.
The most important of his prose writings, however, was his treatise on Eucharistical Adoration. This was written in support of Archdeacon Denison, who had been attacked for two sermons preached in Wells Cathedral in which he stated that the Body and Blood of Christ are received by those who eat and drink unworthily, and that worship is due to the real though invisible presence of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Holy Eucharist under the forms of bread and wine. On refusing to retract these statements, Archdeacon Denison was deprived of his vicarage and archdeaconry, but this sentence was overthrown by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council on February 6, 1858. Keble had published his treatise in the previous year, after the sentence of deprivation had been pronounced. It consists partly of a careful examination of the grounds of the practice of Eucharistical Adoration, partly of a consideration of the duty of Churchmen in face of the judgment. Its object was, not to reason out at large what he calls 'that great and comfortable, and I will add necessary, truth of the Real Presence,' but rather, 'calmly, and not without deep reverence of heart,' to allay troublesome thoughts which interrupt devotion. The book is consequently almost as much a devotional treatise as a theological disquisition; and it is lighted up, here and there, by touches of the poetry which played like sunshine round Keble's deepest thought. Liddon in his Life of Pusey describes it as 'perhaps the most beautiful of Keble's contributions to the theological treasures of the Church of England.'
His Character and Influence
Newman, when asked to describe Keble, said that it was impossible to paint a man who would not sit for his picture. These words seem to point to the innate humility which is the foundation virtue of the saintly life, and which was the central feature of his character. He was absolutely without ambition, with no care for the possession of power or influence, hating show and excitement, and distrustful of his own abilities. It was not his way to set store on anything that he did; he was impatient of allusions in conversation to The Christian Year, which he published anonymously, and would refer to in conversation without naming it as 'that book.'
Though shy and awkward with strangers, he was happy and at ease among his friends, and their love and sympathy drew out all his droll playfulness of wit and manner. 'Keble is certainly great fun,' wrote J. B. Mozley to a friend. His keen sensitiveness made him quick of temper, so that he could speak of himself in later days, in intimate correspondence, as 'a certain testy old clerk whom you know of.' It led, too, to moods of melancholy, which he struggled against by deeds of active kindness, and by falling back upon the deepest religious motives. 'The best cure for melancholy,' he once said, 'is to go out and do something kind to someone.'
There was a note of unearthliness about him which was immediately recognized by those who came into intimate contact with him, and made an abiding impression on them. He had the air and mien of one who was living very close to God, and this gave him a separateness and dignity with which it was impossible to trifle or take liberties. Yet he was so conscious of his own sinfulness that he really esteemed others better than himself, and poured out his penitence in language which to those who have not his sense of the holiness of God might well seem extravagant and unreal. By the younger Tractarians he was regarded with reverential awe. 'The slightest word he dropped,' says Mozley in his Reminiscences, 'was all the more remembered from there being so little of it, and from it seeming to come from a different and holier sphere. His manner of talking favoured this, for there was not much continuity in it, only every word was a brilliant or a pearl.'
Throughout his ministry his advice was constantly sought, not only by friends and parishioners, but by strangers needing direction for their own spiritual life, or guidance in ecclesiastical questions. His Letters of Spiritual Counsel, published four years after his death, show how wise he was in direction, and yet how humble. Their tone is always this: 'I am a very bad person for you to have come to; I have had little experience and little knowledge. I need your prayers and forgiveness much more than you need mine, and whatever I say, you must see if it is right, and then act upon it.' 'You write so humbly, it would perplex me at times; only I construe it my own way,' wrote Pusey to him. Liddon called him the wisest man he had ever known.
In personal appearance he was about middle height, with rather square and sloping shoulders, which made him look short until he pulled himself up, as he often did with 'sprightly dignity.' His head, says Mozley, 'was one of the most beautifully formed heads in the world,' the face rather plain-featured, with a large unshapely mouth, but the whole redeemed by a bright smile which played naturally over the lips; and under a broad and smooth forehead he had 'clear, brilliant, penetrating eyes which lighted up quickly with merriment kindled into fire in a moment of indignation. Liddon tells us that in his later years his face was like an illuminated clock, all lit up with the spiritual fire that burned within.
Keble died on March 29, 1866, at the age of seventy-four, and was buried at Hursley on April 6. One who witnessed the funeral says: 'the stream of clergy who followed seemed as if it would never end.' His abiding memorial is the great College at Oxford which bears his name, and which was opened in 1870 as a monument of loving homage to his venerated personality. 'The days will come, I suppose,' said Liddon, 'if indeed they have not yet come, when young men looking at those buildings will ask the question, "Who was Keble?" To have made it inevitable that that question should be asked by successive generations of Oxford students, is to have added to the moral wealth of the world. For the answer to that question cannot but do good to the man who asks it. It is not high station, or commanding wealth, or great public exploits, or wide popularity of opinions, which will explain the foundation of the College--raised as it is to the memory of a quiet country clergyman, with a very moderate income, who sedulously avoided public distinctions, and held tenaciously to an unpopular School all his life. Keble College is a witness to the homage which goodness, carried into the world of thought, or, indeed, into any activity, extorts from all of us, When we are fairly placed face to face with it; it is a proof that neither station, nor wealth, nor conspicuousness, nor popularity, is the truest and ultimate test of greatness. True greatness is to be recognized in character; and in a place like this character is largely, if not chiefly, shaped by the degree in which moral qualities are brought to bear upon the activities of the mind. The more men really know of him, who, being dead, has, in virtue of the rich gifts and grace with which God had endowed him, summoned this College into being, the less will they marvel at such a tribute to his profound and enduring influence.'