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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


 IN the early days of the movement, among Mr. Newman's greatest friends, and much in his confidence, were two Fellows of Trinity--a college which never forgot that Newman had once belonged to it,--Isaac Williams and William John Copeland. In mind and character very different, they were close friends, with the affection which was characteristic of those days; and for both of them Mr. Newman "had the love which passes that of common relation." Isaac Williams was born among the mountains of Wales, and had the true poetic gift, though his power of expression was often not equal to what he wanted to say. Copeland was a Londoner, bred up in the strict school of Churchmanship represented by Mr. Norris of Hackney, tempered by sympathies with the Non-jurors. At Oxford he lived, along with Isaac Williams, in the very heart of the movement, which was the interest of his life; but he lived, self-forgetting or self-effacing, a wonderful mixture of tender and inexhaustible sympathy, and of quick and keen wit, which yet, somehow or other, in that lime of exasperation and bitterness, made him few enemies. He knew more than most men of the goings on of the movement, and he ought to have been its chronicler. But he was fastidious and hard to satisfy, and he left his task till it was too late.

Isaac Williams was born in Wales in 1802, a year after Newman, ten years after John Keble. His early life was spent in London, but his affection for Wales and its mountain scenery was great and undiminished to the end of his life. At Harrow, where Henry Drury was his tutor, he made his mark by his mastery of Latin composition and his devotion to Latin language and literature. "I was so used to think in Latin that when I had to write an English theme, which was but seldom, I had to translate my ideas, which ran in Latin, into English'; and later in life he complained of the Latin current which disturbed him when he had to write English. He was also a great cricketer; and he describes himself as coming up to Trinity, where he soon got .a scholarship, an ambitious and careless youth, who had never heard a word about Christianity, and to whom religion, its aims and its restraints, were a mere name.

This was changed by what, in the language of devotional schools, would have been called his conversion. It came about, as men speak, as the result of accidents; but the whole course of his thoughts and life was turned into a channel from which it nevermore diverged. An old Welsh clergyman gave the undergraduate an introduction to John Keble, who then held a place in Oxford almost unique. But the Trinity undergraduate and the Oriel don saw little of one another till Isaac Williams won the Latin prize poem, Ars Geologica . Keble then called on Isaac Williams and offered his help in criticising the poem and polishing it for printing. The two men plainly took to one another at first sight; and that service was followed by a most unexpected invitation on Keble's part. He had chanced to come to Williams's room, and on Williams saying that he had no plan of reading for the approaching vacation, Keble said, "I am going to leave Oxford for good. Suppose you come and read with me. The Provost has asked me to take Wilberforce, and I declined; but if you would come, you would be companions." Keble was going down to Southrop, a little curacy near his father's; there Williams joined him, with two more--Robert Wilberforce and R. H. Froude; and there the Long Vacation of 1823 was spent, and Isaac Williams's character and course determined. "It was this very trivial accident, this short walk of a few yards, and a few words spoken, which was the turning-point of my life. If a merciful God had miraculously interposed to arrest my course, I could not have had a stronger assurance of His presence than I always had in looking back to that day." It determined Isaac Williams's character, and it determined for good and all his theological position. He had before him all day long in John Keble a spectacle which was absolutely new to him. Ambitious as a rising and successful scholar at college, he saw a man, looked up to and wondered at by every one, absolutely without pride and without ambition. He saw the most distinguished academic of his day, to whom every prospect was open, retiring from Oxford in the height of his fame to bury himself with a few hundreds of Gloucestershire peasants in a miserable curacy. He saw this man caring for and respecting the ignorant and poor as much as others respected the great and the learned. He saw this man, who had made what the world would call so great a sacrifice, apparently unconscious that he had made any sacrifice at all, gay, unceremonious, bright, full of play as a boy, ready with his pupils for any exercise, mental or muscular--for a hard ride, or a crabbed bit of Aeschylus, or a logic fence with disputatious and paradoxical undergraduates, giving and taking on even ground. These pupils saw one, the depth of whose religion none could doubt, "always endeavouring to do them good as it were unknown to themselves and in secret, and ever avoiding that his kindness should be felt and acknowledged"; showing in the whole course of daily life the purity of Christian love, and taking the utmost pains to make no profession or show of it. This unostentatious and undemonstrative religion--so frank, so generous in all its ways--was to Isaac Williams "quite a new world." It turned his mind in upon itself in the deepest reverence, but also with something of morbid despair of ever reaching such a standard. It drove all dreams of ambition out of his mind. It made humility, self-restraint, self-abasement, objects of unceasing, possibly not always wise and healthy, effort. But the result was certainly a character of great sweetness, tenderness, and lowly unselfishness, pure, free from all worldliness, and deeply resigned to the will of God. He caught from Mr. Keble, like Froude, two characteristic habits of mind--a strong depreciation of mere intellect compared with the less showy excellences of faithfulness to conscience and duty; and a horror and hatred of everything that seemed like display or the desire of applause or of immediate effect. Intellectual depreciators of intellect may deceive themselves, and do not always escape the snare which, they fear; but in Isaac Williams there was a very genuine carrying out of the Psalmist's words: "Surely I have behaved and quieted myself; I refrain my soul and keep it low, as a child that is weaned from his mother." This fear of display in a man of singularly delicate and fastidious taste came to have something forced and morbid in it. It seemed sometimes as if in preaching or talking he aimed at being dull and clumsy. But in all that he did and wrote he aimed at being true at all costs and in the very depths of his heart; and though, in his words, we may wish sometimes for what we should feel to be more natural and healthy in tone, we never can doubt that we are in the presence of one who shrank from all conscious unreality like poison.

From Keble, or, it may be said, from the Kebles, he received his theology. The Kebles were all of them men of the old-fashioned High Church orthodoxy, of the Prayer Book and the Catechism--the orthodoxy which was professed at Oxford, which was represented in London by Norris of Hackney and Joshua Watson; which valued in religion sobriety, reverence, and deference to authority, and in teaching, sound learning and the wisdom of the great English divines; which vehemently disliked the Evangelicals and Methodists for their poor and loose theology, their love of excitement and display, their hunting after popularity. This Church of England divinity was the theology of the old Vicar of Coln St. Aldwyn's, a good scholar and a good parish priest, who had brought up his two sons at home to be scholars; and had impressed his solid and manly theology on them so strongly that amid all changes they remained at bottom true to their paternal training. John Keble added to it great attainments and brilliant gifts of imagination and poetry; but he never lost the plain, downright, almost awkward ways of conversation and manner of his simple home -- ways which might have seemed abrupt and rough but for the singular sweetness and charm of his nature. To those who looked on the outside he was always the homely, rigidly orthodox country clergyman. On Isaac Williams, with his ethical standard, John Keble also impressed his ideas of religious truth; he made him an old-fashioned High Churchman, suspicious of excitement and "effect," suspicious of the loud-talking religious world, suspicious of its novelties and shallowness, and clinging with his whole soul to ancient ways and sound Church of England doctrine reflected in the Prayer Book. And from John Keble's influence he passed under the influence of Thomas Keble, the Vicar of Bisley, a man of sterner type than his brother, with strong and definite opinions on all subjects; curt and keen in speech; intolerant of all that seemed to threaten wholesome teaching and the interests of the Church; and equally straightforward, equally simple, in manners and life. Under him Isaac Williams began his career as a clergyman; he spent two years of solitary and monotonous life in a small cure, seeking comfort from solitude in poetical composition ("It was very calm and subduing," he writes); and then he was recalled to Oxford as Fellow and Tutor of his college, to meet a new and stronger influence, which it was part of the work and trial of the rest of his life both to assimilate and to resist.

For, with Newman, with whom he now came into contact, he did both. There opened to him from intercourse with Newman a new world of thought; and yet while feeling and answering to its charm, he never was quite at ease with him. But Williams and Froude had always been great friends since the reading party of 1823, in spite of Froude's audacities. Froude was now residing in Oxford, and had become Newman's most intimate friend, and he brought Newman and Williams together. "Living at that time," he says, "so much with Froude, I was now in consequence for the first time brought into intercourse with Newman. We almost daily walked and often dined together." Newman and Froude had ceased to be tutors; their thoughts were turned to theology and the condition of the Church. Newman had definitely broken with the Evangelicals, to whom he had been supposed to belong, and Whately's influence over him was waning, and with Froude he looked up to Keble as the pattern of religious wisdom. He had accepted the position of a Churchman as it was understood by Keble and Froude; and thus there was nothing to hinder Williams's full sympathy with him. But from the first there seems to have been an almost impalpable bar between them, which is the more remarkable because Williams appears to have seen with equanimity Froude's apparently more violent and dangerous outbreaks of paradox and antipathy. Possibly, after the catastrophe, he may, in looking back, have exaggerated his early alarms. But from the first he says he saw in Newman what he had learned to look upon as the gravest of dangers--the preponderance of intellect among the elements of character and as the guide of life. "I was greatly delighted and charmed with Newman, who was extremely kind to me, but did not altogether trust his opinions; and though Froude was in the habit of stating things in an extreme and paradoxical manner, yet. one always felt conscious of a ground of entire confidence and agreement; but it was not so with Newman, even though one appeared more in unison with his more moderate views."

But, in spite of all this, Newman offered and Isaac Williams accepted the curacy of St. Mary's. "Things at Oxford [1830-32] at that time were very dull." "Froude and I seemed entirely alone, with Newman only secretly, as it were, beginning to sympathise. I became at once very much attached to Newman, won by his kindness and delighted by his good and wonderful qualities; and he proposed that I should be his curate at St. Mary's. . . . I can remember a strong feeling of difference I first felt on acting together with him from what I had been accustomed to: that he was in the habit of looking for effect, and for what was sensibly effective, which from the Bisley and Fairford School I had been long habituated to avoid; but to do one's duty in faith and leave it to God, and that all the more earnestly, because there were no sympathies from without to answer. There was a felt but unexpressed difference of this kind; but perhaps it became afterwards harmonised as we acted together."

Thus early, among those most closely united, there appeared the beginnings of those different currents which became so divergent as time went on. Isaac Williams, dear as he was to Newman, and returning to the full Newman's affection, yet represented from the first the views of what Williams spoke of as the "Bisley and Fairford School," which, though sympathising and co-operating with the movement, was never quite easy about it, and was not sparing of its criticism on the stir and agitation of the Tracts.

Isaac Williams threw himself heartily into the early stages of the movement; in his poetry into its imaginative and poetical side, and also into its practical and self-denying side. But he would have been quite content with its silent working, and its apparent want of visible success. He would have been quite content with preaching simple homely sermons on the obvious but hard duties of daily life, and not seeing much come of them; with finding a slow abatement of the self-indulgent habits of university life, with keeping Fridays, with less wine in common room. The Bisley maxims bade men to be very stiff and uncompromising in their witness and in their duties, but to make no show and expect no recognition or immediate fruit, and to be silent under misconstruction. But his was not a mind which realised great possibilities of change in the inherited ways of the English Church. The spirit of change, so keenly discerned by Newman, as being both certain and capable of being turned to good account as well as bad, to him was unintelligible or bad. More reality, more severity and consistency, deeper habits of self-discipline on the accepted lines of English Church orthodoxy, would have, satisfied him as the aim of the movement, as it undoubtedly was a large part of its aim; though with Froude and Newman it also aimed at a widening of ideas, of interests and sympathies, beyond what had been common in the English Church.

In the history of the movement Isaac Williams took a forward part in two of its events, with one of which his connexion was most natural, with the other grotesquely and ludicrously incongruous. The one was the plan and starting of the series of Plain Sermons in 1839, to which not only the Kebles, Williams, and Copeland contributed their volumes, but also Newman and Dr. Pusey. Isaac Williams has left the following account of his share in the work.

"It seemed at this time (about 1838-39) as if Oxford, from the strength of principle shown there (and an almost unanimous and concentrated energy), was becoming a rallying point for the whole kingdom: but I watched from the beginning and saw greater dangers among ourselves than those from without; which I endeavoured to obviate by publishing the Plain Sermons. [ Plain Sermons, by contributors to the Tracts for the Times, 1st Series, January 1839.] I attempted in vain to get the Kebles to publish, in order to keep pace with Newman, and so maintain a more practical turn in the movement. I remember C. Cornish (C. L. Cornish, Fellow and Tutor of Exeter) coming to me and saying as we walked in Trinity Gardens, 'People are a little afraid of being carried. away by Newman's brilliancy; they want more of the steady sobriety of the Kebles infused into the movement to keep us safe; we have so much sail and want ballast.'  And the effect of the publication of the Plain Sermons was at the time very quieting. In first undertaking the Plain Sermons, I had no encouragement from any one, not even from John Keble; acquiescence was all that I could gain. But I have heard J. K. mention a saying of Judge Coleridge, long before the Tracts were thought of: 'If you want to propagate your opinions you should lend your sermons; the clergy would then preach them, and adopt your opinions.' Now this has been the effect of the publication of the Plain Sermons ."

Isaac Williams, if any man, represented in the movement the moderate and unobtrusive way of religious teaching. But it was his curious fate to be dragged into the front ranks of the fray, and to be singled out as almost the most wicked and dangerous of  the Tractarians. He had the strange fortune to produce the first of the Tracts, which was by itself held up to popular indignation as embodying all the mischief of the series and the secret aims of the movement. The Tract had another effect. It made Williams the object of the first great Tractarian battle in the University, the contest for the Poetry Professorship: the first decisive and open trial of strength, and the first Tractarian defeat. The contest, even more than the result, distressed him greatly; and the course of things in the movement itself aggravated his distress. His general distrust of intellectual restlessness had now passed into the special and too well grounded fear that the movement, in some of its most prominent representatives, was going definitely in the direction of Rome. A new generation was rising into influence, to whom the old Church watchwords and maxims, the old Church habits of mind, the old Church convictions had completely lost their force, and were become almost objects of dislike and scorn; and for this change Newman's approval and countenance was freely and not very scrupulously quoted. Williams's relation to him had long been a curious mixture of the most affectionate attachment and intimacy with growing distrust and sense of divergence. Newman was now giving more and more distinct warning that he was likely to go where Williams could not follow him, and the pain on both sides was growing. But things moved fast, and at length the strain broke.

The estrangement was inevitable; but both cherished the warmest feelings of affection, even though such a friendship had been broken. But Oxford became distasteful to Williams, and he soon afterwards left it for Bisley and Stinchcombe, the living of his brother-in-law, Sir G. Prevost. There he married (22nd June 1842), and spent the remainder of his life devoting himself to the preparation of those devotional commentaries, which are still so well known. He suffered for the greatest part of his life from a distressing and disabling chronic asthma--from the time that he came back to Oxford as Fellow and Tutor-- and he died in 1865. The old friends met once more shortly before Isaac Williams's death; Newman came to see him, and at his departure Williams accompanied him to the station.

Isaac Williams wrote a great deal of poetry, first during his solitary curacy at Windrush, and afterwards at Oxford. It was in a lower and sadder key than the Christian Year, which no doubt first inspired it; it wanted the elasticity and freshness and variety of Keble's verse, and it was often careless in structure and wanting in concentration. But it was the outpouring of a very beautiful mind, deeply impressed with the realities of failure in the Church and religion, as well as in human life, full of tenderness and pathetic sweetness, and seeking a vent for its feelings, and relief for its trouble, in calling up before itself the images of God's goodness and kingdom of which nature and the world are full. His poetry is a witness to the depth and earnestness and genuine delicacy of what seemed hard and narrow in the Bisley School; there are passages in it which are not easily forgotten; but it was not strong enough to arrest the excitement which soon set in, and with its continual obscurity and its want of finish it never had the recognition really due to its excellence. Newman thought it too soft. It certainly wanted the fire and boldness and directness which he threw into his own verse when he wrote; but serious earnestness and severity of tone it certainly did not want.

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