Project Canterbury

Isaac Williams

Text from Lead, Kindly Light: Studies of Saints and Heroes of the Oxford Movement, by Desmond Morse-Boycott. (New York: Macmillan, 1933).

ISAAC WILLIAMS like Hugh James Rose and Charles Marriott is one of the overlooked heroes of the Catholic Revival, although his hymns are sung in all the church. To write of him after Newman and Froude, is like entering a quiet bay after tossing on a tumultuous ocean; like coming upon a deep, still pool after crossing crag and torrent. Not that his hymns are suggestive of calm contentedness. "Lord, in this Thy mercy's day," beloved by Protestant and Catholic alike, strikes a note of mournful awe, and "Be Thou my Guardian and my Guide" would indicate a sorely tempted pilgrim on the highway of life rather than a quiet and gentle student.

But his hymns reflect his early character, changed, illumined and tempered by the Catholic life, to which John Keble introduced him, and softened by deep sorrows.

He was born near Aberystwith on December 12, 1802, but his early days were spent in London, where his father practised law. "We lived," he says, "at a corner of Bloomsbury Square in a small street, where, I believe, Newman also must have been living at the same time." He had three brothers and one sister, and lived a happy and uneventful childhood, being keen on everything that normal boys like, especially rabbits and cricket. He showed great talent in Latin, his knowledge being brought to such perfection that when he was at Oxford he could write an English essay only by first thinking it in Latin.

In his Autobiography (a book wellnigh forgotten, but one of the vital documents of the Movement) he frequently hints that he was affected for evil by his early companions. " Almost the first boys I came in contact with, on leaving home, produced on my mind a very startling impression. I remember then feeling, for the first time, that I understood what the Bible and the Catechism meant by speaking of the world as 'wicked.’" Of a gloomy temperament (evidently), he read and enjoyed Sherlock on Death, the sentences of which were to haunt his mind like strains of music.

Later, at Harrow, he was happier, and lived a freer life, his primary passion being cricket. He idled badly, though he loved Latin still. He became companionable and popular, and ran in the slippery paths of youth. He saturated himself with Byron, reading at first with a guilty conscience and then relief at finding no wickedness therein. He says: "The subtle poison of these books did me incalculable injury for many years; the more so as the infidelity was so veiled in beautiful verse and refined sentiment." He received no religious instruction at Harrow, and looked back upon his life there with such horror that he dreaded to send his own children to school, and delayed doing so. He was flattered and tempted on every hand, and was set fair for a life of sin and scepticism when he entered Trinity College, Oxford.

This would seem to have been the most deplorable period of his young life, but Providence was planning trivial accidents. One of them was a friendship with a clergyman who knew Keble, then a tutor at Oriel, and he promised to introduce him. It was 1822. The clergyman, a Mr. Richards, who lived at Aberystwith, arranged the introduction there, when Keble came to see him, and it so happened that Isaac Williams and Keble rode some way with him through the rugged Welsh country-side. On returning to Oxford he saw nothing of Keble, however, for a year. He say : "I . . . thought he had forgotten me..... when I succeeded in getting the Latin verse prize....... He then appeared in my rooms, on the ground-floor opposite the garden at Trinity, and said he had come to ask whether he could assist me in looking over my prize poem before it was printed and recited." Isaac Williams was amazed at Keble's mastery of poetry, and told his tutor so. The tutor said : "John Keble may understand Aristotle, but he knows nothing of poetry. It is not his line."

He was detained at Oxford, again by seeming chance, after the vacation had begun, and Keble called on him. He told Keble that he had made no plans for holiday reading, and Keble, after a few moments' thought, said, to his astonishment: "I am going to leave Oxford now for good. Suppose you come and read with me. The Provost has asked me to take Robert Wilberforce, and I declined, but, if you would come, you might be companions." How little Keble dreamed that his generous offer (for it was to be at his own charges) was to save a sinner, nay more, give a saint to an unborn Movement which should save the Church. Isaac Williams says: "If a merciful God had miraculously interposed to arrest my course, I should not have had a stronger assurance of His Presence, than I have always had in looking back to that day." During this memorable vacation he made friends with Froude, as I have described in the preceding chapter, but it was Keble who converted him by his sheer goodness. "Religion a reality, and a man wholly made up of love, with charms of conversation, thought, and kindness, beyond what one had experienced among boyish companions—this broke in upon me all at once."

The friendship with Froude, begun at Southrop, ripened later at Oxford. Isaac Williams was changing rapidly. Where he had been idle he was now studious; where he had been prominent he became retiring; where he had been merry-hearted he became consumed by shame and sorrow. He fell into a new set of friends. Once he met Newman at breakfast with a Fellow. This meeting impressed itself on his mind, but Newman could never remember it. Newman ignored him, and the conversation turned "on the subject of serving churches, and how much they would allow him for a Sunday." Newman, he observes, seemed less refined then than when he knew him later "in the Movement."

About 1825 Isaac Williams broke down through over-study, and consulted an eminent doctor, who forbade him to read any books. It was singularly unfortunate advice, as cessation from study made him more introspective than ever, but he recovered sufficiently to be ordained to a quiet curacy in 1829. He returned to Oxford as a Fellow in 1831, two years before the Movement began, and through Froude became the friend of Newman, whom he was to serve later as curate at Littlemore.

The Movement engaged his pen very soon, and he wrote poems in the Lyra Apostolica and some of the Tracts for the Times. He dined daily with Newman, and took long walks with him, and watched his Churchmanship ripening, but he seems to have maintained a fine independence of mind which should deter the superficial student of this revolutionary Movement from regarding him as a kind of Boswell to Dr. Johnson. Such an impression might arise in the mind from the fact that he was not a spear-head. He appears in every page of the history, but rather as an armour-beater, or, to be more modern in one's simile, as the holder of coats at a street fight. Such a view would not do him justice. From the outset, though he was deeply fond of Newman, he was quick to observe a subtle difference between him and Froude and Keble. The Keble tradition set score upon character rather than intellect, so prized by the school of Whately. He observed in Newman, who had been a disciple of Whately's before Keble changed him, an intellect as restless as his character was beautiful. He enjoyed his quiet work with him at St. Mary's and Littlemore, but as time went on withdrew as much as he could.

We lived daily very much together, but I had a secret uneasiness, not from anything said or implied, but from a want of repose about his character, that I thought he would start into something different from Keble and Pusey, though I knew not in what direction it would be. Often after walking together, when leaving him, have I heard a deep secret sigh which I could not interpret. It seemed to speak of weariness of the world, and of aspirations for something he wished to do and had not yet done. Of the putting out of Church principles he often spoke as of an experiment which he did not know whether the Church of England would bear, and knew not what would be the issue.

This reflective and sober parson, who shrank from the dramatic in Newman, was, however, to be the cause of a great explosion which almost wrecked the Movement. His Tract 80, On Reserve in Communicating Religious Knowledge (vide my chapter on Newman for a discussion of " Reserve"), appeared in 1839. Bishops denounced it, in some cases without having read it, and churchfolk who had a little sympathy only with the Movement scuttled away like hunted rabbits, and those who distrusted the Movement held up hands in holy horror and said: "We always said so." Its title was admittedly unfortunate, suggesting "a love of secret and crooked ways," although its aim was to prevent a careless use of sacred words and phrases.

In 1842 Isaac Williams, who had withdrawn his candidature for the Poetry Professorship vacated by Keble in consequence of bitter opposition, retired to a country parsonage. Although three terrific years were to tick away before Newman went, he had in part foreseen the debacle, distrustful of the new party that had cut across the Movement, seeking to deflect it from sober Anglican principles; and now made it his own contribution to produce only Devotional Commentaries in the Keble tradition. But his genius for friendship triumphed over tragedy, and he, almost alone among the Tractarians, kept in touch with Newman after '45. A few letters that have been preserved from Newman show how affectionately he regarded him, and how frank their correspondence was.

Of all human things [writes Newman in 1863] perhaps Oxford is nearest my heart,—and some parsonages in the country. I cannot ever realize to myself that I shall never see what I love so much again . . . but why should I wish to see what is no longer what I loved? All things change; the past never returns here. My friends, I confess, have not been kind. . . . I despond about the cause of dogmatic truth in England altogether. Who can tell what is before us? The difficulty is that the arguments of infidelity are deeper than those of Protestantism, and in the same direction. (I am using Protestantism in the sense in which you and Pusey would agree in using it.) . . . Everything I hear makes me fear that latitudinarian opinions are spreading furiously in the Church of England. I grieve deeply at it. The Anglican Church has been a most useful breakwater against scepticism. The time might come when you as well as I might expect that it would be said above, "Why cumbereth it the ground?" but at present it upholds far more truth in England than any other form of religion would, and than the Catholic Roman Church could.

Their last meeting was singularly pathetic. In 1865 Newman stayed with him. Williams was in weak health. He had for years been a martyr to chronic asthma. He insisted on driving his guest to the station, and the exposure provoked the illness to which he succumbed. Newman wrote, on hearing of his death:

My first sad thought is that in a certain sense I have killed him. . . ! He has really been a victim of his old love for me. He has never lost sight of me—ever inquiring about me from others, sending messages, or writing to me. I so much feared he was overdoing himself—but he would not allow it. I wanted him to let me walk down, but he wanted to have more talk; and then, when he set off, he could not say a word. . . . Poor John Keble, how will it be broken to him?

Strange endings to beautiful friendships! Impassable chasms between great men who, as they fared forth upon their quests, harked ever back to early days when hopes ran high, and a fair field was theirs for co-operative valour. Thoughts of what might have been. Unkind reality. a kindly but dimmer light gleaming through the darkness on weeping eyes. A future all unknown. The Catholic Movement is a romance of broken hearts.

Poor Isaac Williams in his parsonage, faithful to his friends to the end. Two poor, ageing men in the Oratory at Edgbaston, one of them lonely, conscious of the distrust of those to join whom he had left all, hungering for those whom he had left. Two cells, each with a bed, a desk and an altar. Mr. St. John. John Henry Newman.

As the latter held the sacred chalice, with its ruby content, at the Mass of Requiem "for his dear soul" (as he spoke of Isaac Williams) he must have known, with the knowledge that tender, priestly hearts have well, that the tears of Christ are commingled with the out-poured Blood, that the altar is a City of Refuge for all who love one another at a distance, whether it be the distance of memory, as the years roll by, or the distance of place, or the distance, the greatest distance of all, of religious difference.

To me the picture of Newman saying Mass for the repose of the soul of Isaac Williams is not only one of exquisite loveliness, but an earnest of what may be in store for the Catholic Church when a million Latin altars are bedewed by penitential tears over separation, as now are hundreds of Anglican altars.

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