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


John Henry Newman

JOHN HENRY NEWMAN is by common consent one of the greatest figures of the nineteenth century. "Two writers," says the historian Froude, "have affected powerfully the present generation of Englishmen: Newman is one, Thomas Carlyle is the other."

The bracketing may have been correct when Froude was writing, and there is much to engage our interest in Carlyle—his heroism when the manuscript of his French Revolution, lent to a friend, was accidentally destroyed; his marriage with the woman whom Edward Irving loved; and his taciturn reaction to life and religion; yet he is not now one who matters, and Newman is. His literary works can have affected but a tithe of the persons whom Newman’s have converted to a new conception of life. Wherever prayer is offered the sorrowful loveliness of "Lead, kindly Light" is breathed to Heaven. The Dream of Gerontius, from which is taken the splendid hymn "Praise to the Holiest in the height," is, whether considered as simple poetry, or as a musical epic when set to Elgar, or as a precious theological treatise (and it is really the best extant exposition of what the Christian believes to happen after death), sublime. Newman’s self-depreciation was never more evident than in the circumstances of the publication of the Dream. He had thrown the manuscript into a waste-paper basket, deeming it worthless, and a friend retrieved it by chance. As for his Apologia, which I shall presently describe, has it not a place in the archives of imperishable things as the record written in peerless prose of a unique personality and a unique religious movement?

John Henry Newman, the son of a London banker, was born in 1801. He was French on his mother’s side, and the early religious influences which formed him were Calvinistic. He says of his childhood:

"I thought life might be a dream, or I an angel, and all the world a deception, my fellow-angels by a playful device concealing themselves from me and deceiving me with the semblance of a material world."

When he went up to Trinity College, Oxford, in 1817, he was deeply religious. It is unnecessary to dwell upon his collegiate life, which was marred by ill-health, for the story really begins in 1826 when, having won in open competition a Fellowship at Oriel, he came in touch with Richard Hurrell Froude, the "Byron" of the Oxford Movement, and through him with the other early Tractarians. When Froude’s ill-health necessitated a cruise abroad, Newman went with him. The cruise was singularly eventful. Not only did Newman come in contact with Roman Catholicism (from which he reacted), but he began to see the need of the Anglican Church for an enthusiastic movement which should awaken it to vanished glories. Although optimistic, and full of youthful fire, and eagerly anxious to return to cause a stir, he was subject, also, to moods of poignant sadness. In one of these, accentuated by loneliness, while the orange-boat in which he journeyed lay in the Strait of Bonifacio, he composed what has been called the marching song of the Movement, "Lead, kindly Light."

At this point in my short review, I must leap over many years, and I think justifiably, to record an episode which has been given no place, as far as I am aware, in any of the many books on Newman, certainly not in Wilfrid Ward’s; an episode upon which I lighted by chance. If it should seem of little importance it has the merit of being new, and will interest all lovers of "Lead, kindly Light."

After Newman had become a Roman Catholic, the Rev. Edward Henry Bickersteth, some time vicar of Christchurch, Hampstead, and Bishop of Exeter, who composed "Peace, perfect peace," ventured, as Editor of the "Hymnal Companion," to improve on Newman’s hymn by adding a fourth verse. It ran:

Meantime along the narrow rugged path,
Thyself hast trod,
Lead, Saviour, lead me home in childlike faith,
Home to my God.
In the calm light of everlasting life,
To rest for ever after earthly strife.

This verse, to be found in early copies of the "Hymnal Companion," was ultimately expunged, no doubt as a result of the publishers receiving the following letter by Newman, the original of which I found some years ago in an album of literary treasure trove.


I doubt not I gave leave for my lines "Lead, kindly Light" to be inserted into your collection of hymns—and did so readily—but a stranger has been kind enough to inform me that your compiler has added a verse to it not mine. It is not that the verse is not both in sentiment and language graceful and good, but I think you will at once see how unwilling an author must be to subject himself to the inconvenience of that being ascribed to him which is not his own.

I have not seen it myself in the "Hymnal Companion," but the stanza has been quoted to me. It begins "Meanwhile, along the narrow, etc."

I beg you to pardon me, if this letter is grounded in any mistake.

I am, Gentlemen,

Your faithful servant,


If the pirate verse is beautiful, so is the remonstrance.

In 1828 Newman was appointed vicar of the University Church of St. Mary’s, and there, week by week, preached those sermons, in short musical sentences spaced by long pauses, without which, according to Dean Church, "the Movement might never have gone on, certainly would never have been what it was."

Who [wrote Matthew Arnold, a vigorous opponent of the Movement] 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.

But the printed word as well as the spoken was part of the campaign, a far more important part, as events proved. To Newman we owe the inauguration of the Tracts for the Times which gained the name "Tractarian" for the Movement. He wrote the first, a four-page leaflet, published at a penny. The medium of the Tract seemed, then, a poor thing to use, as it had been made ridiculous by "the Converted Washerwoman" pabulum for sinners. But the tracts that no doubt fell into Mrs. Jellyby’s soup en route for Borrioboolagha were the ridiculous, and Newman’s the sublime. Newman’s were for clergy ignorant of the divine principles upon which their faith was grounded, and "the Converted Washer-woman" stories were for sinners, or mere natives, with this difference, that his converted minds and hearts, while those made their recipients feel ridiculous and their distributors exalted. Within a year forty-seven tracts had been published, most of them written by Newman, and they had taken the Church by storm.

Newman would ride from village to village during the vacation, leaving parcels of them at country parsonages. Dean Church says:

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. They ceased with the publication and condemnation of Newman’s Tract XC.

An interesting pamphlet on Newman, recently published, provides me with a useful paragraph which I beg leave to quote. It says:

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.

That secession served as a date for many a long day, and seemed to be the end of the Movement. "He went out with Newman in ’45," one would say of another. If many had feared that the day of woe would come, none was ready for it. No plans were made to meet it. It simply broke hearts, none more tender than the gentle Marriott’s. Newman had for some time withdrawn himself somewhat from life in Oxford by founding a sort of monastic establishment at Littlemore. His belief in the security of his controversial status was great, and he was not behindhand in trying to check and control a Rome-ward movement which, to use his own words, "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."

The dark night of his soul as an Anglican can best be told only in his own words, from the Apologia. He says:

The Long Vacation of 1839 began early. There had been a great many visitors to Oxford . . . and Dr. Pusey and myself had attracted attention, more, I think, than any former year. I had put away from me the controversy with Rome for more than two years. In my Parochial Sermons the subject had never been introduced: there had been nothing for two years, either in my Tracts, or in the British Critic, of a polemical character. . . . About the middle of June I began to study and master the history of the Monophysites. I was absorbed in the doctrinal question. This was from about June 13th to August 30th. It was during this course of reading that, for the first time, a doubt came upon me of the tenableness of Anglicanism. I recollect, on the 30th of July, mentioning to a friend, whom I had accidentally met, how remarkable the history was; but by the end of August I was seriously alarmed. . . . My stronghold was Antiquity; now here, in the middle of the fifth century, I found, as it seemed to me, Christendom of the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries reflected. The Church of the Via Media was in the position of the Oriental communion; Rome was, where she now is; and the Protestants were the Eutychians.

He then quotes words of his own, written elsewhere, of exquisite beauty.

. . . The drama of religion, and the combat of truth and error, were ever one and the same. The principles and proceedings of the Church now were those of the Church then; the principles and proceedings of heretics then were those of Protestants now. I found it so—almost fearfully; there was an awful similitude, more awful, because so silent and unimpassioned, between the dead records of the past and the feverish chronicle of the present. The shadow of the fifth century was on the sixteenth. It was like a spirit rising from the troubled waters of the old world with the shape and lineaments of the new. The Church then, as now, might be called peremptory and stern, resolute, overbearing, and relentless; and heretics were shifting, changeable, reserved, and deceitful, ever courting civil power, and never agreeing together, except by its aid; and the civil power was ever aiming at comprehensions, trying to put the invisible out of view, and substituting expediency for faith. What was the use of continuing the controversy, or defending my position if, after all, I was forging arguments for Arius or Eutyches, and turning devil’s advocate against the much enduring Athanasius and the majestic Leo? Be my soul with the Saints! and shall I lift up my hand against them? Sooner may my right hand forget her cunning, and wither outright, as his who once stretched it out against a prophet of God! anathema to a whole crowd of Cranmers, Ridleys, Latimers, and Jewels! Perish the names of Bramhall, Ussher, Taylor, Stillingfleet, and Barrow from the face of the earth, ere I should do aught but fall at their feet in love and worship, whose image was continually before my eyes, and whose musical words were ever in my ears and on my tongue!

Misgiving deepened. No kindly light cast even a retreating ray to illumine the encircling gloom of the eventide of his Anglicanism. To make matters worse for him the words of St. Augustine, "Securus judicat orbis terrarum," struck him with a power that he had never felt before. He says that they rang in his ears like "Turn again Whittington" or the "Tolle lege" of the child who converted St. Augustine himself. He was on his death-bed as an Anglican, and his passing was an agony, to himself and those who trusted and loved him, lasting many days, even unto the calamitous ’45. Then the curtain fell, and the tired child tore himself away from the Church on whose bosom he had been suckled, as if she were dry and barren in dotage, to be folded in the embrace of another who never loved the child of her adopting, and wasted his talents, and disregarded his prescience of events whose shadows he alone discerned, and tricked him at length in the purple baubles of dignity; whose real reward is the love of those who come after him in the mighty army which, before his anguished eyes, had been dry bones.

How Newman wrote the Apologia is a story that I have written elsewhere, and, if I quote my own words, it is because no writer can easily cast the same tale into different modes of expression. Newman’s secession from the Church of England had made him profoundly unpopular. He had retreated into unenviable obscurity. There seemed no "second spring" before him. If he was doing a fine work in England for the Latin Church it was in spite of frustration. Manning distrusted him. The old Roman Catholics distrusted him. His sensitive soul often writhed under Protestant gibes.

But in the beginning of 1864 he found himself put upon the defensive. He had long been aware of a vague impression to his disadvantage in the minds of the English people. It was not, perhaps, defined, but tended to portray him as one whose word could not quite be trusted. So long as this impression was vague, he accepted the slur in silence, as part of the cost which must needs be paid by one who, having held a dazzling and dominant position in a great movement, found himself bound to attack that which he had largely created. Charles Kingsley gave him the opportunity of winning the hearts of the people of England, and of meeting them once more upon their hearths. In a magazine article published in January, 1864, upon the theme of Queen Elizabeth, Kingsley formally and explicitly accused Newman by name of thinking lightly of truthfulness. He wrote:

Truth, for its own sake, had never been a virtue with the Roman clergy. Father Newman informs us that it need not, and on the whole, ought not to be; that cunning is the weapon which Heaven has given to the Saints wherewith to withstand the brute male force of the wicked world. . . . Whether his notion be doctrinally correct or not, it is at least historically so.

I have little sympathy with Kingsley, in spite of the fact that he wrote The Water Babies and played cricket with the village folk on Sundays, but I must confess, here, that I think his was a reasonable inference from the theory of "Reserve in imparting religious knowledge" favoured by Newman and other early Tractarians. There was much to be said for Reserve. They could not suddenly, in a barren and dry land, "spring" Catholic doctrines upon bigoted Protestants, even though they verily believed those doctrines to be implicit, and often explicit, in Anglican formularies. The Economical mode of teaching and arguing was necessary if they were to do their work at all. It is necessary a century later. But perhaps the definition of Economy was injudicious. Newman wrote contrasting the Disciplina Arcani with Economy that "the one may be considered as withholding the truth, and the other as setting it out to advantage," and would seem to have favoured the advice of St. Clement of Alexandria which I, personally, abhor.

The Alexandrian Father [he affirms] . . . accurately describes the rules which should guide the Christian in speaking and writing economically. "Being fully persuaded of the omnipresence of God," says Clement, "and ashamed to come short of the truth, he is satisfied with the approval of God, and of his own conscience. Whatever is in his mind is also on his tongue; towards those who are fit recipients, both in speaking and living, he harmonizes his profession with his thoughts. He both thinks and speaks the truth; except when careful treatment is necessary, and then as a physician for the good of his patients, he will lie, or rather utter a lie, as the Sophists say. . . . Nothing, however, but his neighbour’s good will lead him to do this. He gives himself up for the Church."

Such a passage as this could not but breed suspicion, and Protestants must not be blamed for assuming that to be done which was only spoken of theoretically. Kingsley should certainly be acquitted of malice, therefore, for his attack upon Newman, who seized it as a Heaven-sent opportunity of vindicating himself in the eyes of his countrymen. He answered the charge completely. He answered it unanswerably. Men might differ, thereafter, upon the rights and wrongs of the ecclesiastical disputes out of which this charge was born; but none in his senses could doubt the integrity of John Henry Newman. A point that was readily appreciated was the fact that he had maintained unbroken silence for twenty years.

If Kingsley could not see straight when fighting Rome, because of his historical squint, he was an honest fighter, and Newman entertained the kindliest feelings towards him throughout the controversy. Kingsley keenly felt a subtlety in whatever Newman said or wrote which made his words look right, in any circumstances. Father Stanton distrusted him for a like reason. Let us forgive him for seeking behind Newman’s words an intention, which was not there, and a reservation which Newman was not mentally making. Let us forgive him for losing trust in Newman, if only because he was the anvil on which the Apologia was hammered out.

Wilfrid Ward, in his Life of Cardinal Newman, says that at the close of the controversy one, and only one, adverse criticism remained permanently in the public mind—that Newman had been unduly sensitive and personally bitter towards Kingsley. But this was not so. When he heard of Kingsley’s death he was deeply shocked and promptly said a Mass for the repose of his soul.

Newman’s struggle to produce the Apologia is an epic story. He girded himself immediately to battle. Hour after hour, day after day, from dawn until midnight, for six short, but for him eternal, weeks, he sat at the desk in his untidy chamber at the Edgbaston Oratory, and penned, with aching hands, a larger work than that which the Apologia now is, ceasing only to pray and eat. Every other task was set on one side. His publisher, in the manner of publishers as touching relentlessness, but different, I am glad to say, in method, waited upon him for weekly instalments, accepting excuses as unreadily as Pharaoh accepted those of the Israelites when their tale of bricks was diminished and their tale of woe more bitter. Everything depended upon the immediate publication of Newman’s own version of events, and he was work-weary and over-strung. He wept copiously throughout the time, and his manuscript was often blotted by tears.

At length it was published. Everyone read it. Everyone changed mind. Kingsley made no reply, though he must have read with heart-searching the weekly portions as they fell from the aching hand of the Cardinal, through the press, into the hands of the public.

I have seen the little room in which the Apologia was written. It is not a tidy room. It is as Newman left it. Odds and ends hang upon the walls—broken rosaries and little pictures, which give one an impression of muddle and scrappiness. In his Life one reads that he could not find time, after a holiday, to unpack his bags for several weeks. I can imagine from this little room, containing a bed and a desk and an altar, that there was often a litter, amid the coming and the going. There was no litter in his mind. He had a wonderfully tidy mind, wherein he kept his knowledge well-docketted and cross-indexed. His prose is perfect. Dr. George Copeland wrote in 1870 to his brother William, who had been Newman’s curate:

The writing of Newman, like that of Shakespeare, will admit of neither paraphrase nor translation; and those who cannot read it in the true original had better not read it at all. I mean by the true original, not only the English language, established in these realms, but that pure and reformed branch of it, to which Newman, and nobody else, belongs.

Consider this passage for example:

Such were the thoughts concerning the "Blessed Vision of Peace," of one whose long-continued petition had been that the Most Merciful would not despise the work of His own Hands, nor leave him to himself; while yet his eyes were dim, and his breast laden, and he could but employ Reason in the things of Faith. And now, dear Reader, time is short, eternity is long. Put not from you what you have here found; regard it not as a mere matter of present controversy; set not out resolved to refute it, and looking about for the best way of doing so; seduce not yourself with the imagination that it comes of disappointment, or disgust, or restlessness, or wounded feeling, or undue sensibility, or other weakness. Wrap not yourself round in the associations of years past, nor determine that to be truth which you wish to be so, nor make an idol of cherished anticipations. Time is short, eternity is long. Nunc dimittis servum tuum Domine. . . .

In character he was as near perfection as frail mortality can be. Mr. Shane Leslie has said of him that he was one of the sweetest English gentlemen who ever walked the earth, for whose sake many have tried to love our unlovely race. He was a prophet and more than a prophet, touching the secular world, foreseeing and farseeing, for his mind "measured the whole length and breadth and depth of human doubt without fascination and without dread," even though his conviction that the dry bones of Anglicanism could never be infused with life has been shown to be groundless.

He is both the glory and the tragedy of the Anglo-Catholic Movement, and, if I may be permitted to say so, a judgment upon nineteenth-century Romanism in this country. Had he stayed in the Anglican Church he would not, assuredly, have been offered a mitre, things being what they were (and are), but he could not conceivably have been humiliated, as he was humiliated in the Latin Church, by such definite hints of elevation to episcopacy that he kept a crozier in pathetic anticipation; and though he was made a Cardinal, I suspect that it was in spite of Cardinal Manning.

The most glorious son of Ecclesia Anglicana, he wept by the waters of Babylon to the end of his long exile from Heaven, with faithful courage that looked not back upon a step irrevocably taken. But may not we, who carry the torch that dropped from his numbed fingers, find a hint of his inner longings in the fact that sometimes, as it rang to Evensong, and evening shadows fell softly over weald and wold and throng²d city, he would make his way unnoticed into St. Paul’s Cathedral to hear the singing boys, and was once discovered weeping piteously at the Littlemore of his long ago? He died on August 11, 1890. May your rest be peaceful, O Father, whom we venerate, and Angel faces you loved long since smile oft upon you, and sometimes upon us, your sons.

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