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The Oxford Movement
Twelve Years 1833-1845

by R. W. Church, M.A., D.C.L.,
Sometime Dean of St Paul's, and Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford

London: Macmillan & Co. 1894

Transcribed by The Revd R D Hacking
AD 2003


WHAT is called the Oxford or Tractarian movement began, without doubt, in a vigorous effort for the immediate defence of the Church against serious dangers, arising from the violent and threatening temper of the days of the Reform Bill. It was one of several and widely differing efforts. Viewed superficially it had its origin in the accident of an urgent necessity. The Church was really at the moment imperilled amid the crude revolutionary projects of the Reform epoch and something bolder and more effective than the ordinary apologies for the Church was the call of the hour. The official leaders of the Church were almost stunned and bewildered by the fierce outbreak of popular hostility. The answers put forth on its behalf to the clamour for extensive and even destructive change were the work of men surprised in a moment of security. They scarcely recognised the difference between what was indefensible and what must be fought for to the death; they mistook subordinate or unimportant points for the key of their position: in their compromises or in their resistance they wanted the guidance of clear and adequate principles, and they were vacillating and ineffective. But stronger and far-seeing minds perceived the need of a broad and intelligible basis on which to maintain the cause of the Church. For the air was full of new ideas; the temper of the time was bold and enterprising. It was felt by men who looked forward, that to hold their own they must have something more to show than custom or alleged expediency--they must sound the depths of their own convictions, and not be afraid to assert the claims of these convictions on men's reason and imagination as well as on their associations and feelings. The same dangers and necessities acted differently on different minds; but among those who were awakened by them to the presence of a great crisis were the first movers in what came to be known as the Tractarian movement. The stir around them, the perils which seemed to threaten, were a call to them to examine afresh the meaning of their familiar words and professions.

For the Church, as it had been in the quiet days of the eighteenth century, was scarcely adapted to the needs of more stirring times. The idea of clerical life had certainly sunk, both in fact and in the popular estimate of it. The disproportion between the pur-poses for which the Church with its ministry was founded and the actual tone of feeling among those responsible for its service had become too great. Men were afraid of principles; the one thing they most shrank from was the suspicion of enthusiasm. Bishop Lavington wrote a book to hold up to scorn the enthusiasm of Methodists and Papists; and what would have seemed reasonable and natural in matters of religion and worship in the age of Cranmer, in the age of Hooker, in the age of Andrewes, or in the age of Ken, seemed extravagant in the age which reflected the spirit of Tillotson and Secker, and even Porteus. The typical clergyman in English pictures of the manners of the day, in the Vicar of Wakefield, in Miss Austen's novels, in Crabbe's Parish Register, is represented, often quite unsuspiciously, as a kindly and respectable person, but certainly not alive to the greatness of his calling. He was often much, very much, to the society round him. When communica-tion was so difficult and infrequent, he filled a place in the country life of England which no one else could fill. He was often the patriarch of his parish, its ruler, its doctor, its lawyer, its magistrate, as well as its teacher, before whom vice trembled and rebellion dared not show itself. The idea of the priest was not quite forgotten; but there was much--much even of what was good and useful--to obscure it. The beauty of the English Church in this time was its family life of purity and simplicity ; its blot was quiet worldliness. It has sometimes been the fashion in later days of strife and disquiet to regret that un-pretending estimate of clerical duty and those easy-going days; as it has sometimes been the fashion to regret the pomp and dignity with which well-born or scholarly bishops, furnished with ample leisure and splendid revenues, presided in unapproachable state over their clergy and held their own among the great county families. Most things have a side for which something can be said; and we may truth-fully and thankfully recall that among the clergy of those days there were not a few but many instances, not only of gentle manners, and warm benevolence, and cultivated intelligence, but of simple piety and holy life. But the fortunes of the Church are not safe in the hands of a clergy, of which a great part take their obligations easily. It was slumbering and sleeping when the visitation of days of change and trouble came upon it.

Against this state of things the Oxford movement was a determined revolt; but, as has been said, it not the only one, nor the first. A profound discontent at the state of religion in England had taken possession of many powerful and serious minds in the generation which was rising into manhood at the close of the first quarter of the century; and others beside the leaders of the movement were feeling their way to firmer ground. Other writers of very different principles, and with different objects, had become alive, among other things, to the importance of true ideas about the Church, impatient at the ignorance and shallowness of the current views of it, and alarmed at the dangers which menaced it. Two Oxford teachers who commanded much attention by their force and boldness--Dr. Whately and Dr. Arnold-had developed their theories about the nature, constitution, and functions of the Church. They were dissatisfied with the general stagnation of religious opinion, on this as on other subjects. They agreed in resenting the unintelligent shortsightedness which relegated such matters to a third or fourth rank in the scale of religious teaching. They agreed also in seizing the spiritual aspect of the Church, and in raising the ideas of it above the level of the poor and worldly conceptions on the assumption of which questions relating to it were popularly discussed. But in their funda-mental principles they were far apart. I assume, on the authority of Cardinal Newman, what was widely believed in Oxford, and never apparently denied, that the volume entitled Letters of an Episcopalian, 1826, was, in some sense at least, the work of Dr. Whately. In it is sketched forth the conception of an organised body, introduced into the world by Christ Himself, endowed with definite spiritual powers and with no other, and, whether connected with the State or not, having an independent existence and inalienable claims, with its own objects and laws, with its own moral standard and spirit and character. From this book Cardinal Newman tells us that he learnt his theory of the Church, though it was, after all, but the theory received from the first appearance of Christian history; and he records also the deep impression which it made on others. Dr. Arnold's view was a much simpler one. He divided the world into Christians and non-Christians: Christians were all who professed to believe in Christ as a Divine Person and to worship Him, and the brotherhood, the "Societas" of Christians, was all that was meant by "the Church" in the New Testament. It mat-tered, of course, to the conscience of each Christian what he had made up his mind to believe, but to no one else. Church organisation was, according to circumstances, partly inevitable or expedient, partly mischievous, but in no case of divine authority. Teaching, ministering the word, was a thing of divine appointment, but not so the mode of exercising it, either as to persons, forms, or methods. Sacraments there were, signs and pledges of divine love and help, in every action of life, in every sight of nature, and eminently two most touching ones, recommended to Christians by the Redeemer Himself; but except as a matter of mere order, one man might deal with these as lawfully as another. Church history there was, fruitful in interest, instruction, and warning; for it was the record of the long struggle of the true idea of the Church against the false, and of the fatal disappearance of the true before the forces of blindness and wickedness. Dr. Arnold's was a passionate attempt to place the true idea in the light. Of the difficulties of his theory he made light account. There was the vivid central truth which glowed through his soul and quickened all his thoughts. He became its champion and militant apostle. These doctrines, combined with his strong political liberalism, made the Midlands not for Dr. Arnold. But he liked the fighting, as he thought, against the narrow and frightened orthodoxy round him. And he was in the thick of this fight-ing when another set of ideas about the Church-the ideas on which alone it seemed to a number of earnest and anxious minds that the cause of the Church could be maintained-the ideas which were the beginning of the Oxford movement, crossed his path. It was the old orthodox tradition of the Church, with fresh life put into it, which he flattered himself that he had so triumphantly demolished. This intrusion of a despised rival to his own teaching about the Church-teaching in which he believed with deep and fervent conviction-profoundly irritated him; all the more that it came from men who had been among his friends, and who, he thought, should have known better.

But neither Dr. Whately's nor Dr. Arnold's attempts to put the old subject of the Church in a new light gained much hold on the public mind. One was too abstract; the other too unhistorical and revolutionary. Both in Oxford and in the country were men whose hearts burned within them for something less speculative and vague, something more reverent and less individual, more in sympathy with the inherited spirit of the Church. It did not need much searching to find in the facts and history of the Church ample evidence of principles distinct and inspiring, which however long latent, or overlaid by superficial accretions, were as well fitted as they ever were to animate its defenders in the struggle with the unfriendly opinion of the day. They could not open their Prayer Books, and think of what they read there, without seeing that on the face of it the Church claimed to be something very different from what it was assumed to be in the current controversies of the time, very different from a mere institution of the State, from a vague collection of Christian professions, from one form or denomination of religion among many, distinguished by larger privileges and larger revenues. They could not help seeing that it claimed an origin not short of the Apostles of Christ, and took for granted that it was to speak and teach with their authority and that of their Master. These were theological commonplaces; but now, the pressure of events and of competing ideas made them to be felt as real and momentous truths. Amid the confusions and inconsistencies of the semi-political controversy on Church reform, and on the defects and rights of the Church, which was going on in Parliament, in the press, and in pamphlets, the deeper thoughts of those who were interested in its fortunes were turned to what was intrinsic and characteristic in its constitution: and while these thoughts in some instances only issued in theory and argument, in others they led to practical resolves to act upon them and enforce them.

At the end of the first quarter of the century, say about 1825-30, two characteristic forms of Church of England Christianity were popularly recognised. One inherited the traditions of a learned and sober Anglicanism, claiming as the authorities for its theology the great line of English divines from Hooker to Waterland, finding its patterns of devotion in Bishop Wilson, Bishop Horne, and the "Whole Duty of Man," but not forgetful of Andrewes, Jeremy Taylor, and Ken,--preaching, without passion or excitement, scholarlike, careful, wise, often vigorously reasoned discourses on the capital points of faith and morals, and exhibiting in its adherents, who were many and important, all the varieties of a great and far-descended school, which claimed for itself rightful possession of the ground which it held. There was nothing effeminate about it, as there was nothing fanatical; there was nothing extreme or foolish about it; it was a manly school, distrustful of high-wrought feelings and professions, cultivating self-command and shy of display, and set-ting up as its mark, in contrast to what seemed to it sentimental weakness, a reasonable and serious idea of duty. The divinity which it propounded, though it rested on learning, was rather that of strong common sense than of the schools of erudition. Its better members were highly cultivated, benevolent men, intolerant of irregularities both of doctrine and life, whose lives were governed by an unostentatious but solid and unfaltering piety, ready to burst forth on occasion into fervid devotion. Its worse members were jobbers and hunters after preferment, pluralists who built fortunes and endowed families out of the church, or country gentlemen in orders, who rode to hounds and shot and danced and farmed, and often did worse things. Its average was what naturally in England would be the average, in a state of things in which great religious institutions have been for a long settled and unmolested-kindly, helpful, respectable, sociable persons of good sense and character, workers rather in a fashion of routine which no one thought of breaking, sometimes keeping up their University learning, and apt to employ it in odd and not very profitable inquiries; apt, too, to value themselves on their cheerfulness and quick wit; but often dull and dogmatic and quarrelsome, often insufferably pompous. The custom of daily service and even of fasting was kept up more widely than is commonly supposed. The Eucharist, though sparingly administered, and though it had been profaned by the operation of the Test Acts, was approached by religious people with deep reverence. But besides the better, and the worse, and the average members of this, which called itself the Church party, there stood out a number of men of active and original minds, who, starting from the traditions of the party, were in advance of it in thought and knowledge, or in the desire to carry principles into action. At the Universities learning was still represented by distinguished names. At Oxford, Dr. Routh was still living and at work, and Van Mildert was not forgotten. Bishop Lloyd, if he had lived, would have played a considerable part; and a young man of vast industry and great Oriental learning, Mr. Pusey, was coming on the scene. Davison, in an age which had gone mad about the study of prophecy, had taught a more intelligent and sober way of regarding it; and Mr. John Miller's Bampton Lectures, now probably only remembered by a striking sentence, quoted in a note to the Christian Year, had impressed his readers with a deeper sense of the uses of Scripture. Cambridge, besides scholars like Bishop Kaye, and accomplished writers like Mr. Le Bas and Mr. Lyall, could boast of Mr. Hugh James Rose, the most eminent person of his genera-tion as a divine. But the influence of this learned theology was at the time not equal to its value. Sound requires atmosphere; and there was as yet no atmosphere in the public mind in which the voice of this theology could be heard. The person who first gave body and force to Church theology, not to be mistaken or ignored, was Dr. Hook. His massive and thorough Churchmanship was the independent growth of his own thoughts and reading. Resolute, through good report and evil report, rough but very generous, stern both against Popery and Puritanism, he had  become a power in the Midlands and the North, and first Coventry, then Leeds, were the centres of a new influence. He was the apostle of the Church to the great middle class.

These were the orthodox Churchmen, whom their rivals, and not their rivals only, denounced as dry, un-spiritual, formal, unevangelical, self-righteous; teachers of mere morality at their best, allies and servants of the world at their worst. In the party which at this time had come to be looked upon popularly as best entitled to be the religious party, whether they were admired as Evangelicals, or abused as Calvinists, or laughed at as the Saints, were inheritors not of Angli-can traditions, but of those which had grown up among the zealous clergymen and laymen who had sympathised with the great Methodist revival, and whose theology and life had been profoundly affected by it. It was the second or third generation of those whose religious ideas had been formed and governed by the influence of teachers like Hervey, Romaine, Cecil, Venn, Fletcher, Newton, and Thomas Scott. The fathers of the Evangelical school were men of naturally strong and vigorous understandings, robust and rugged, and sometimes eccentric, but quite able to cope with the controversialists, like Bishop Tomline, who attacked them. These High Church controversialists were too half-hearted and too shallow, and understood their own principles too imperfectly, to be a match for antagonists who were in deadly earnest, and put them to shame by their zeal and courage. But Newton and Romaine and the Milners were too limited and narrow in their compass of ideas to found a powerful theology. They undoubtedly often quickened conscience. But their system was a one-sided and unnatural one, indeed in the hands of some of its expounders threatening morality and soundness of character. It had none of the sweep which carried the justification doctrines of Luther, or the systematic predestinarianism of Calvin, or the "platform of discipline" of John Knox and the Puritans. It had to deal with a society which laid stress on what was "reasonable," or "polite," or "ingenious" or "genteel," and unconsciously it had come to have respect to these requirements. The one thing by which its preachers carried disciples with them was their undoubted and serious piety, and their brave, though often fantastic and inconsistent, protest against the world. They won consideration and belief by the mild persecution which this protest brought on them--by being proscribed as enthusiasts by comfortable dignitaries, and mocked as "Methodists" and "Saints" by wits and worldlings. But the austere spirit of Newton and Thomas Scott had, between 1820 and 1830, given way a good deal to the influence of increasing popularity. The profession of Evangelical religion had been made more than respectable by the adhesion of men of position and weight. Preached in the pulpits of fashionable chapels, this religion proved to be no more exacting than its "High and Dry" rival. It gave a gentle stimulus to tempers which required to be excited by novelty. It recommended itself by gifts of flowing words or high-pitched rhetoric to those who expected some demands to be made on them, so that these demands were not too strict. Yet Evangelical religion had not been unfruitful, especially in public results. It had led Howard and Elizabeth Fry to assail the brutalities of the prisons. It had led Clarkson and Wilberforce to overthrow the slave trade, and ultimately slavery itself. It had created great Mission-ary Societies. It had given motive and impetus to countless philanthropic schemes. What it failed in was the education and development of character; and

this was the result of the increasing meagreness of its writing and preaching. There were still Evangelical preachers of force and eloquence--Robert Hall, Edward Irving, Chalmers, Jay of Bath-but they were not churchmen. The circle of themes dwelt on by this school in the Church was a contracted one, and no one had found the way of enlarging it. It shrank, in its fear of mere moralising, in its horror of  the idea of merit or of the value of good works, from coming into contact with the manifold realities of the spirit of man: it never seemed to get beyond the "first beginnings" of Christian teaching, the call to repent, the assurance of forgiveness: it had nothing to say to the long and varied process of building up the new life of truth and goodness: it was nervously afraid of departing from the consecrated phrases of its school, and in the perpetual iteration of them it lost hold of the meaning they may once have had. It too often found its guarantee for faithfulness in jealous suspicions, and in fierce bigotries, and at length it presented all the characteristics of an exhausted teaching and a spent enthusiasm. Claiming to be exclu-sively spiritual, fervent, unworldly, the sole announcer of the free grace of God amid self-righteousness and sin, it had come, in fact, to be on very easy terms with the world. Yet it kept its hold on numbers of spirit-ually minded persons, for in truth there seemed to be nothing better for those who saw in the affections the main field of religion. But even of these good men, the monotonous language sounded to all but themselves inconceivably hollow and wearisome; and in the hands of the average teachers of the school, the idea of religion was becoming poor and thin and unreal.

But besides these two great parties, each of them claiming to represent the authentic and unchanging mind of the Church, there were independent thinkers who took their place with neither and criticised both. Paley had still his disciples at Cambridge, or if not disciples, yet representatives .of his masculine but not very profound and reverent way of thinking; and a critical school, represented by names afterwards famous, Connop Thirlwall and Julius Hare, strongly influenced by German speculation, both in theology and history, began to attract attention. And at Cambridge was growing, slowly and out of sight, a mind and an influence which were to be at once the counterpart and the rival of the Oxford movement, its ally for a short moment, and then its earnest and often bitter enemy. In spite of the dominant teaching identified with the name of Mr. Simeon, Frederic Maurice, with John Sterling and other members of the Apostles' Club, was feeling for something truer and nobler than the conventionalities of the religious world. In Oxford, mostly in a different way, more dry, more dialectical, and, perhaps it may be said, more sober, definite, and ambitious of clearness, the same spirit was at work. There was a certain drift towards Dissent among the warmer spirits. Under the leading of Whately, questions were asked about what was supposed to be beyond dispute with both Churchmen and Evangelicals. Current phrases, the keynotes of many a sermon, were fearlessly taken to pieces. Men were challenged to examine the meaning of their words. They were cautioned or ridiculed as the case might be, on the score of "confusion of thought" and "inaccuracy of mind"; they were convicted of great logical sins, ignoratio elenchi, or undistribuled middle terms; and bold theories began to make their appearance about religious principles and teaching, which did not easily accommodate themselves to popular conceptions. In very different ways and degrees, Davison, Copleston, Whately, Hawkins, Milman, and not least, a brilliant naturalised Spaniard who sowed the seeds of doubt around him, Blanco White, had broken through a number of accepted opinions, and had presented some  startling ideas to men who had thought that all religious questions lay between the orthodoxy of Lambeth and the orthodoxy of Clapham and Islington. And thus the foundation was laid, at least, at Oxford of what was then called the Liberal School of Theology. Its theories and paradoxes, then commonly associated with the "Noetic" character of one college, Oriel, were thought startling and venturesome when discuissed in steady-going common-rooms and country parsonages; but they were still cautious and old fashioned compared with what was to come after them. The distance is indeed great between those early disturbers of lecture-rooms and University pulpits, and their successors.

While this was going-on within the Church, there was a great movement of thought going on in the country. It was the time when Bentham's utilitarianism had at length made its way into prominence and importance. It had gained a hold on a number of powerful minds in society and political life.  It was threatening to become the dominant and popular philosophy. It began, in some ways beneficially, to affect and even control legislation. It made desperate attempts to take possession of the whole province of morals. It forced those who saw through its mischief, who hated and feared it, to seek a reason, and a solid and strong one, for the faith which was in them as to the reality of conscience and the mysterious distinction between right and wrong. And it entered into a close alliance with science, which was beginning to assert its claims, since then risen so high, to a new and undefined supremacy, not only in the general concerns of the world, but specially in education. It was the day of Holland House. It was the time when a Society of which Lord Brougham was the soul, and which comprised a great number of important political and important scientific names, was definitely formed for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. Their labours are hardly remembered now in the great changes for which they paved the way; but the Society was the means of getting written and of publishing at a cheap rate a number of original and excellent books on science, biography, and history. It was the time of the Library of Useful Knowledge, and its companion, the Library of Entertaining Knowledge; of the Penny Magazine, and its Church rival, the Saturday Magazine, of the Penny Cyclopaedia, and Lardner's Cabinet Cyclopaedia, and Murray's Family Library: popular series, which contained much of the work of the ablest men of the day, and which, though for the most part superseded now, were full of interest then. Another creation of this epoch, and an unmistakable indication of its tendencies, was the British association for the Advancement of Science, which met for the first time at Oxford in June 1832, not without a good deal of jealousy and misgiving, partly unreasonable, partly not unfounded, among men in whose hearts the cause and fortunes of religion were supreme.

Thus the time was ripe for great collisions of principles and aims; for the decomposition of elements which had been hitherto united; for sifting them out of their old combinations, and regrouping them according to their more natural affinities. It was a time for the formation and development of unexpected novelties in teaching and practical effort. There was a great historic Church party, imperfectly conscious of its position and responsibilities; there was an active but declining pietistic school, resting on a feeble intellectual basis and narrow and meagre interpretations of Scripture, and strong only in its circle of philanthropic work; there was, confronting both; a rising body of inquisitive and, in some ways, menacing thought. To men deeply interested in religion, the ground seemed confused and treacherous. There was room, and there was a call, for new effort; but to find the resources for it, it seemed necessary to cut down deep below the level of what even good men accepted as the adequate expression of Christianity, and its fit application to the conditions of the nineteenth century. It came to pass that there were men who had the heart to make this attempt. As was said at starting, the actual movement began in the conviction that a great and sudden danger to the church was at hand, and that an unusual effort must be made to meet it. But if the occasion was in a measure accidental, there was nothing haphazard or tentative in the line chosen to encounter the danger. From the first it was deliberately and distinctly taken. The choice of it was the result of convictions which had been forming before the occasion came which called on them. The religious ideas which governed the minds of those who led the movement had been traced, in outline at least, firmly and without faltering.

The movement had its spring in the consciences and character of its leaders. To these men religion really meant the most awful and most seriously personal thing on earth. It had not only a theological basis; it had still more deeply a moral one. What that basis was is shown in a variety of indications of ethical temper and habits, before the movement, in those who afterwards directed it. The Christian Year was published in 1827, and tells us distinctly by what kind of standard Mr. Keble moulded his judgment and aims. What Mr. Keble's influence and teaching did, in training an apt pupil to deep and severe views of truth and duty, is to be seen in the records of purpose and self-discipline, often so painful, but always so lofty and sincere, of Mr. Hurrell Froude's journal. But these indications are most forcibly given in Mr. Newman's earliest preaching. As tutor at Oriel, Mr. Newman had made what efforts he could, sometimes disturbing to the authorities, to raise the standard of conduct and feeling among his pupils. When he be-came a parish priest, his preaching took a singularly practical and plain-spoken character. The first sermon of the series, a typical sermon, "Holiness necessary for future Blessedness," a sermon which has made many readers grave when they laid it down, was written in 1826, before he came to St. Mary's; and as he began he continued. No sermons, except those which his great opposite, Dr. Arnold, was preaching at Rugby, had appealed to conscience with such directness and force. A passionate and sustained earnestness after a high moral rule, seriously realised in conduct, is the dominant character of these sermons. They showed the strong reaction against slackness of fibre in the religious life; against the poverty, softness, restlessness, worldliness, the blunted and impaired, sense of truth, which reigned with little check in the recognised fashions of professing Christianity; the want of depth both of thought and feeling; the strange blindness to the real sternness, nay the austerity, of the New Testament. Out of this ground the movement grew. Even more than a theological reform, it was a protest against the loose unreality of ordinary religious morality. In the first stage of the movement, moral earnestness and enthusiasm gave its impulse to theological interest and zeal.

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