Project Canterbury

Lead, Kindly Light:
Studies of Saints and Heroes of the Oxford Movement

by Desmond Morse-Boycott

transcribed by Mr Robert Stevens
AD 2000


Frederick William Faber

THE church at Elton, Huntingdonshire; the evening of Sunday, November 16, 1845. Contrary to custom, there has been no early celebration, and the parishioners wonder why. Perhaps their parish priest will tell them. They do not grumble, for they worship the ground he treads on. In their simple way they regard him as the final authority in all things spiritual.

When he agreed to become their pastor, in the autumn of 1842, many of them were living in sin. Their village was notorious. He himself wrote soon after taking up residence: "I have tumbled into a sad parish; eight hundred people, and nearly four hundred rabid Dissenters, who have found out that I am, to use the expression of a hostile churchwarden, tainted, to say the least, with Puseyism." And again: "I have nearly one thousand people here, and everything wants doing. But I have no right to complain: the Dissenters are very violent: they worship the Sabbath, and really, though they seem to cheat and live impurely on week-days, none of their neighbours seems to doubt that they are the elect. . . ."

In a short while Faber has fulfilled many days. The chapel bells call a scanty few, for he has emptied the chapels. The "Sabbath Day" is no longer a weekly occasion for sin, for he has thrown open his grounds, and cleaned up the place by cricket and football. The altar is thronged, and so, more surprisingly, is the confessional. He has overcome prejudice by definiteness tempered by engaging presentation. And he practises more than he preaches. Beneath his clothes he wears a knotted horse-hair cord as a perpetual penance. He is known to eat barely anything—a herring and a few potatoes only for dinner. He has fainted at prayers through hunger.

His rectory is a sort of monastery, because he has influenced the youths of the village so strongly that a number of them meet regularly at midnight for the recitation of psalms; practise auricular confession; make their Communions frequently; and on Fridays and other days, and every night in Lent, flagellate one another.

These "goings on at the rectory," which normally would, were they practised, have scandalized villagers and led to riots (there are riots in these days, alas! over matters trivial compared with such Popery), have helped to convert them, and the powers of darkness are indignant. Mysterious noises resound through the rectory, often just outside the door where the little community is engaged in prayer; and diligent and immediate search with lights reveals nothing.

On the evening I am describing, the people of Elton have made their way to church along dark lanes and through the quiet village. The church is a home they love to visit; and the musical voice of the burly priest, whose face to look upon is beautiful by reason of his sanctity, is one they could listen to for hours. Sunday at Elton now brings many Pilgrims of the Night towards the Heavenly Jerusalem, where the voice of Jesus sounds like bells far off at even pealing.

To-night a light shall be quenched in their midst; a light whose clear shining has given them courage to turn their feet to God. How overwrought Mr. Faber seems! thinks a churchwarden anxiously. What can be amiss? He puts on his surplice and ascends the pulpit He speaks haltingly a few preliminary words and then . . .

Not a sound comes from the congregation. They sit as if struck dead. What is their pastor saying? They cannot believe their ears. He tells them that all he has taught them is true, but that it is not the teaching of their Mother Church; that the Church has disavowed them, and that he must go where truth is to be found. He ends abruptly, stumbles down the stairs, throws his surplice on the ground and leaves the church. No one moves for a while. Then a few go to the rectory, to tell him that he may preach whatever he chooses if only he will stay.

What a night of horror for Elton! A plague or a pestilence or a famine could be more easily borne; they could have understood had their shepherd been removed by promotion or death. To lose him thus! It is incomprehensible.

Many of them sit up all night, crouching over dying embers that symbolized, as it were, the dying of their interests, perhaps of their spiritual life. But their love for Mr. Faber cannot die. And so at dawn, hearing that he may depart at that hour, they assemble at their windows, and as with a few servants and young men bent on accompanying him into an unknown future, he passes for the last time by the old weather-worn houses, they wave handkerchiefs from the lattice windows under the crinkled roofs, or stand upon the uneven doorsteps to salute him. "God bless you, Mr. Faber," they cry, "wherever you go, God bless you."

Thus closed for ever a remarkable effort, in an age of religious deadness, to conduct an Anglican parish in the spirit of St. Philip and St. Alphonso. Faber would have said that it was pouring old wine into a new bottle (if I may invert the scriptural simile), but my comment is this. The startling success of his work shows clearly that there is Catholic soil in the Anglican Church for such flowers to take root and fructify, even for a season.

Frederick William Faber was the seventh child in a family of Huguenot origin. He was born on June 28, 1814, at the Vicarage of Calverley, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, where his grandfather was incumbent. His father soon afterwards became the Bishop of Durham’s secretary. As a child he showed much nascent talent. "Ardent and impulsive," says a biographer, "he entered upon everything, whether work or play, with eagerness and determination; and whatever he took up was invested in his eyes with an importance which led him to speak of it in somewhat exaggerated language." He was educated at the Grammar School of Bishop Auckland, and then privately in Westmorland. The impression of its beauties was never effaced from his mind, as we can see from his lines:—

Each hazel copse, each greenly tangled bower,
Is sacred to some well-remembered hour;
Some quiet hour when nature did her part,
And worked her spell upon my childish heart.


At the age of eleven he proceeded to Shrewsbury School, and thence, shortly afterwards, to Harrow, where his headmaster was Dr. Longley, afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury, whose friendship he always treasured. Here he devoted himself to English literature to the detriment of classical studies. In the Lent Term of the year that saw the birth of the Oxford Movement (1833) he went up to Balliol. A contemporary wrote:

Our first recollection of F. Faber is of a graceful and intelligent boy just launched into a great public school; and next, as a young man who had lately won for himself a high place in honours at Oxford. No one could have known him in those days without being attracted by a grace of person and mind rarely to be met with.

His religious ideas at this period were strongly Calvinistic, yet tempered by a trustful love of God one is not wont to associate with the shocking doctrine of Geneva. In one of his hymns, "The God of my childhood," he writes:

They bade me call Thee Father, Lord!
Sweet was the freedom deemed;
And yet more like a mother’s ways
Thy quiet mercies seemed.

He fell under the sway of Newman in St. Mary’s and became a Tractarian, eagerly looking forward to the time when he could be ordained, although he was not without intellectual misgivings some years later as to the tenability of the Tractarian position. He offered his services in 1837 to the compilers of the "Library of the Fathers," and was assigned the translation of the Books of St. Optatus, and thus came to know Newman personally. In that year, too, he formed a friendship with Wordsworth, during a vacation at Ambleside. They often composed poems as they wandered together over the mountains of the Lake country. When he was ordained deacon (August 6, 1837) Wordsworth said: "I do not say you are wrong, but England loses a poet." For two years he worked at Ambleside and at Oxford, being made a priest on May 26, 1839 (by strange coincidence the Roman Feast of St. Philip Neri).

That summer he went on the Continent and returned with a contempt for Roman Catholic clergy. But the Continent cast a spell over him, and he made extensive journeys, saturating himself in Roman Catholicism. Prior to taking up work at Elton he went abroad again. "The last four years," writes a biographer, "had brought about a great change in his feelings towards the Catholic Church; and it was now more as a learner than as a critic that he intended to study her operations. He had a new source of interest in the inquiry; for the office which he was about to assume made him anxious to gather hints for the work which it would impose." During his travels he was several times on the point of being received into the Latin Church.

He was received by the Pope.

The Pope was perfectly alone, without a courtier or prelate, standing in the middle of the library, in a plain, white cassock, and a white silk skull-cap . he held out his hand, but I kissed his foot; there seemed to be a mean puerility in refusing the customary homage. With Dr. Baggs for interpreter, we had a long conversation; he spoke of Dr. Pusey’s suspension, for defending the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist, with amazement and disgust; he said to me, "You must not mislead yourself in wishing for unity, yet waiting for your Church to move. Think of the salvation of your own soul." I said I feared self-will and individual judging. He said, "You are all individuals in the English Church. You must think for yourself and for your soul."

He gave him, then, a blessing, and Faber left in tears. Pusey’s condemnation at Oxford (described in Chapter VII) would seem to have been the determining factor, really, in Faber’s secession. He writes of it thus:

As to Pusey’s business I feel an excessive indignation in what a state of corruption our Church must be, when one of her four universities can suffer a board of doctors, without instant excommunication, to pass such a sentence . . Where can the truth be authoritatively asserted? How can the Church show it is not her sentence? . . . As to myself, nothing retains me but the fear of self-will; I grow more Roman every day, but I hope not wilfully.

Soon afterwards he was praying at the shrine of St. Aloysius on the feast of that Saint, and left the church speechless, not knowing where he was going. But he returned to take up pastoral duty at Elton, an account of which I have given in my tale of a surplice. I must add this. He had incurred heavy debts at Elton, and knew that, if he seceded, he could not meet them. Justice seemed to require him to stay until he could pay his debtors. On the day he decided to secede a friend who was hostile to Roman Catholicism sent him a cheque to pay his debts, saying that he was distressed to think that such a barrier should come between him and what he conceived to be his duty.

So he went out, accompanied by a few of his young men, whom he formed into a lay community. He was shown much consideration in the Roman Catholic Church and founded the Oratory at Brompton, whose intensely Mediterranean character is due to his passion for Italy. His desire to Italianize England was not shared by Newman, and lack of sympathy tended in time to separate the London Oratory from the older establishment at Birmingham. Of this work I shall not write in detail. Faber was a great administrator, a winning preacher, a real saint. His health was shocking, but he worked prodigiously, and he wrote his books between Mass and breakfast.

If England lost a poet when Faber became an Anglican priest the Church gained a poet. Hymnody is the common heritage of Christendom, and many of his hymns are to be found in the books of all denominations. Sometimes they are the shadow of their original selves, hymns being peculiarly liable to mutilation, but no other Roman Catholic poet makes so universal an appeal. In the English Hymnal there are ten of his hymns, the most popular being: "O, come and mourn with me awhile"; "Sweet Saviour, bless us ere we go"; "Jesu, gentlest Saviour" (abridged); "Hark! hark, my soul! " and "There’s a wideness in God’s mercy."

He was a prolific writer of devotional books, with a charm all their own, the spirit of the poet enraptured by the beauties of nature breathing in every page. Who but a poet could have written thus?

The sun sets on the twenty-fourth of December on the low roofs of Bethlehem, and gleams with wan gold on the steep of its stony ridge. The stars come out one by one. Time itself, as if sentient, seems to get eager, as though the hand of its angel shook as it draws on towards midnight. Bethlehem is at that moment the veritable centre of God’s creation. How silently the stars drift down the steep of the midnight sky! Yet a few moments, and the Eternal Word will come.

Many do not care for Faber’s style. As Mr. Chesterton is a master of paradox, so Faber was a master of exuberant description, often wandering into mazes of similes and contrasts, and heaping up adjectives until the reader feels shut in a superfluous hot-house in a tropical country. Yet a subtle loveliness makes much of it unforgettable.

Faber was not one of the causes of the Oxford Movement. He was a result. He was one of those who tried to deflect its course from the sober one laid down by the Tractarians. But his loss to the Anglican Church was grievous. Certainly he loved and served her faithfully, for, in spite of the Pope’s exhortation, he waited two years before taking the irrevocable step, seeking to test her catholicity by his work at Elton.

He died on June 26, 1863.

With eyes full of a bright and joyous expression, as the glory of God which was to fade away no more for ever began to dawn upon them, and the songs of heaven to break on his ears," he calmly passed away. The pilgrim of the night had been welcomed home at last by the angels of light.

St. Philip Neri had no more faithful son than he. He acquired his first devotion to him in 1843 when he visited the room in which the saint used to say Mass, in the Chiesa Nuova.

How little did I [he said in retrospect], a Protestant stranger in that room years ago, dream I should ever be of the Saint’s family, or that the Oratorian father who showed it me should in a few years be appointed by the Pope the novice-master of the English Oratorians! I remember how, when he kissed the glass of the case in which St. Philip’s little bed is kept as a relic, he apologized to me as a Protestant, lest I should be scandalized, and told me with a smile how tenderly St. Philip’s children loved their father. . . . If anyone had told me that in seven short years I should wear the same white collar in the streets of London . . . I should have wondered how anyone could dream so wild a dream.

When the Oratory was consecrated (an Oratorian told me) a Protestant went to the service and was afterwards shown over the building. "Who is that old man?" he asked, pointing to a picture of St. Philip. "I saw him during the service, looking down from a balcony."

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