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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



"DEPEND upon it," an earnest High Churchman of the Joshua Watson type had said to one of Mr. Newman's friends, who was a link between the old Churchmanship and the new--" depend upon it, the day will come when those great doctrines" connected with the Church, "now buried, will be brought out to the light of the day, and then the effect will be quite fearful." With the publication of the Tracts for the Times, and the excitement caused by them, the day had come.

Their unflinching and severe proclamation of Church principles and Church doctrines coincided with a state of feeling and opinion in the country, in which two very different tendencies might be observed. They fell on the public mind just when one of these tendencies would help them, and the other be fiercely hostile. On the one hand, the issue of the political controversy with the Roman Catholics, their triumph all along the line, and the now scarcely disguised contempt shown by their political representatives for the pledges and explanations on which their relief was supposed to have been conceded, had left the public mind sore, angry, and suspicious. Orthodox and Evangelicals were alike alarmed and indignant; and the, Evangelicals, always doctrinally jealous of Popery, and of anything "unsound" in that direction, had been roused to increased irritation by the proceedings of the Reformation Society, which had made it its business to hold meetings and discussions all over the country, where fervid and sometimes eloquent and able Irishmen, like Mr. E. Tottenham, afterwards of Laura Chapel, Bath, had argued and declaimed, with Roman text-books in hand, on such questions as the Right of Private Judgment, the Rule of Faith, and the articles of the Tridentine Creed--not always with the effect which they intended on those who heard them, with whom their arguments, and those which they elicited from their opponents, sometimes left behind uncomfortable misgivings, and questions even more serious than the controversy itself. On the other hand, in quarters quite unconnected with the recognised religious schools, interest had been independently and strongly awakened in the minds of theologians and philosophical thinkers, in regard to the idea, history, and relations to society of the Christian Church. In Ireland, a recluse, who was the centre of a small knot of earnest friends, a man of deep piety and great freedom and originality of mind, Mr. Alexander Knox, had been led, partly, it may be, by his intimacy with John Wesley, to think out for himself the character and true constitution of the Church, and the nature of the doctrines which it was commissioned to teach. In England, another recluse, of splendid genius and wayward humour, had dealt in his own way, with far-reaching insight, with vast reading, and often with impressive eloquence, with the same subject; and his profound sympathy and faith had been shared and reflected by a great poet. What Coleridge and Wordsworth had put in the forefront of their speculations and poetry, as the object of their profoundest interest, and of their highest hopes for mankind, might, of course, fail to appear in the same light to others; but it could not fail, in those days at least, to attract attention, as a matter of grave and well-founded importance. Coleridge's theories of the Church were his own, and were very wide of theories recognised by any of those who had to deal practically with the question, and who were influenced, in one way or another, by the traditional doctrines of theologians. But Coleridge had lifted the subject to a very high level. He had taken the simple but all-important step of viewing the Church in its spiritual character as first and foremost and above all things essentially a religious society of divine institution, not dependent on the creation or will of man, or on the privileges and honours which man might think fit to assign to it; and he had undoubtedly familiarised the minds of many with this way of regarding it, however imperfect, or cloudy, or unpractical they might find the development of his ideas, and his deductions from them. And in Oxford the questions which had stirred the friends at Hadleigh had stirred others also, and had waked up various responses. Whately's acute mind had not missed these questions, and had given original if insufficient answers to them. Blanco White knew only too well their bearing and importance, and had laboured, not without success, to leave behind him his own impress on the way in which they should be dealt with. Dr. Hampden, the man in Oxford best acquainted with Aristotle's works and with the scholastic philosophy, had thrown Christian doctrines into a philosophical calculus which seemed to leave them little better than the inventions of men. On the other hand, a brilliant scholar, whose after-career was strangely full of great successes and deplorable disasters, William Sewell of Exeter College, had opened, in a way new to Oxford, the wealth and magnificence of Plato; and his thoughts had been dazzled by seeming -to find in the truths and facts of the Christian Church the counterpart and realisation of the grandest of Plato's imaginations. The subjects treated with such dogmatic severity and such impetuous earnestness in the Tracts were, in one shape or another, in all men s minds, when these Tracts broke on the University and English society with their peremptory call to men "to take their side."

There was just a moment of surprise and uncertainty--uncertainty as to what the Tracts meant; whether they were to be a new weapon against the enemies of the Church, or were simply extravagant and preposterous novelties--just a certain perplexity and hesitation at their conflicting aspects; on the one hand, the known and high character of the writers, their evident determination and confidence in their cause, the attraction of their religious warmth and unselfishness and nobleness, the dim consciousness that much that they said was undeniable; and on the other hand, the apparent wildness and recklessness of their words: and then public opinion began steadily to take its "ply," and to be agreed in condemning them. It soon went farther, and became vehement in reprobating them as scandalous and dangerous publications. They incensed the Evangelicals by their alleged Romanism, and their unsound views about justification, good works, and the sacraments; they angered the "two-bottle orthodox" by their asceticism--the steady men, by their audacity and strong words--the liberals, by their dogmatic severity; their seriously practical bearing was early disclosed in a tract on "Fasting." But while they repelled strongly, they attracted strongly; they touched many consciences, they won many hearts, they opened new thoughts and hopes to many minds. One of the mischiefs of the Tracts, and of those sermons at St. Mary's which were the commentaries on them, was that so many people seemed to like them and to be struck by them. The gathering storm muttered and growled for some time at a distance, and men seemed to be taking time to make up their minds; but it began to lour from early days, till after various threatenings it broke in a furious article in the Edinburgh, by Dr. Arnold, on the "Oxford Malignants"; and the Tract-Writers and their friends became, what they long continued to be, the most unpopular and suspected body of men in the Church, whom everybody was at liberty to insult, both as dishonest and absurd, of whom nothing was too cruel to say, nothing too ridiculous to believe. It is only equitable to take into account the unprepared state of the public mind, the surprise and novelty of even the commonest things when put in a new light, the prejudices which the Tract-writers were thought wantonly to offend and defy, their militant and uncompromising attitude, where principles were at stake. But considering what these men were known to be in character and life, what was the emergency and what were the pressing motives which called for action, and what, is thought of them now that their course is run, it is strange indeed to remember who they were, to whom the courtesies of controversy were denied, not only by the vulgar herd of pamphleteers, but by men of ability and position, some of whom had been their familiar friends. Of course a nickname was soon found for them: the word "Tractarian" was invented, and Archbishop Whately thought it worth while, but not successfully, to improve it into "Tractites." Archbishop Whately, always ingenious, appears to have suspected that the real but concealed object of the movement was to propagate a secret infidelity; they were "Children of the Mist," or "Veiled Prophets" and he seriously suggested to a friend who was writing against it,-- "this rapidly spreading pestilence,"--to parallel it, in its characteristics and modes of working, with Indian Thuggee.

But these things were of gradual growth. Towards the end of 1834 a question appeared in Oxford interesting to numbers besides Mr. Newman and his friends, which was to lead to momentous consequences. The old, crude ideas of change in the Church had come to appear, even to their advocates, for the present impracticable, and there was no more talk for a long time of schemes which had been in favour two years before. The ground was changed, and a point was now brought forward on the Liberal side, for which a good deal might be plausibly said. This was the requirement of subscription to the Thirty-nine Articles from young men at matriculation; and a strong pamphlet advocating its abolition, with the express purpose of admitting Dissenters, was published by Dr. Hampden, the Bampton Lecturer of two years before.

Oxford had always been one of the great schools of the Church. Its traditions, its tone, its customs, its rules, all expressed or presumed the closest attachment to that way of religion which was specially identified with the Church, in its doctrinal and historical aspect. Oxford was emphatically definite, dogmatic, orthodox, compared even with Cambridge, which had largely favoured the Evangelical school, and had leanings to Liberalism. Oxford, unlike Cambridge, gave notice of its attitude by requiring every one who matriculated to subscribe the Thirty-nine Articles: the theory of its Tutorial system, of its lectures and examinations, implied what of late years in the better colleges, though certainly not everywhere, had been realised in fact--a considerable amount of religious and theological teaching. And whatever might have been said originally of the lay character of the University, the colleges, which had become coextensive with the University, were for the most part, in the intention of their founders, meant to educate and support theological students on their foundations for the service of the Church. It became in time the fashion to call them lay institutions: legally they may have been so, but judged by their statutes, they were nearly all of them as ecclesiastical as the Chapter of a Cathedral. And Oxford was the fulcrum from which the theological revival hoped to move the Church. It was therefore a shock and a challenge of no light kind, when not merely the proposal was made to abolish the matriculation subscription with the express object of attracting Dissenters, and to get Parliament to force the change on the University if the University resisted, but the proposal itself was vindicated and enforced in a pamphlet by Dr. Hampden by a definite and precise theory which stopped not short of the position that all creeds and formularies--everything which represented the authority of the teaching Church--however incidentally and temporarily useful, were in their own nature the inventions of a mistaken and corrupt philosophy, and invasions of Christian liberty. This was cutting deep with a vengeance, though the author of the theory seemed alone unable to see it. It went to the root of the whole matter; and if Dr. Hampden was right, there was neither Church nor doctrine worth contending for, except as men contend about the Newtonian or the undulatory theory of light.

No one ought now to affect, as some people used to affect at the time, that the question was of secondary importance, and turned mainly on the special fitness of the Thirty-nine Articles to be offered for the proof of a young man's belief. It was a much more critical question. It was really, however disguised, the question, asked then for the first time, and since finally decided, whether Oxford was to continue to be a school of the Church of England; and it also involved the wider question, what part belief in definite religion should have in higher education. It is speciously said that you have no right to forestall a young man's inquiries and convictions by imposing on him in his early years opinions which to him become prejudices. And if the world consisted simply of individuals, entirely insulated and self-sufficing; if men could be taught anything whatever, without presuming what is believed by those who teach them; and if the attempt to exclude religious prejudice did not necessarily, by the mere force of the attempt, involve the creation of anti-religious prejudice, these reasoners, who try in vain to get out of the conditions which hem them in, might have, more to say for themselves. To the men who had made such an effort to restore a living confidence in. the Church, the demand implied giving up all that they had done and all that they hoped for. It was not the time for yielding even a clumsy proof of the religious character of the University. And the beginning of a long and doubtful war was inevitable.

A war of pamphlets ensued. By the one side the distinction was strongly insisted on between mere instruction and education, the distinctly religious character of the University education was not perhaps overstated in its theory, but portrayed in stronger colours than was everywhere the fact; and assertions were made, which sound strange in their boldness now, of the independent and constitutional right to self-government in the great University corporations. By the other side, the ordinary arguments were used, about the injustice and mischief of exclusion, and the hurtfulness of tests, especially such tests as the Articles applied to young and ignorant men. Two pamphlets had more than a passing interest: one, by a then unknown writer who signed himself Rusticus, and whose name was Mr. F. D. Maurice, defended subscription on the ground that the Articles were signed, not as tests and confessions of faith, but as "conditions of thought," the expressly stated conditions, such as there must be in all teaching, under which the learners are willing to learn and the teacher to teach: and he developed his view at great length, with great wealth of original thought and illustration and much eloquence, but with that fatal want of clearness which, as so often afterwards, came from his struggles to embrace in one large view what appeared opposite aspects of a difficult subject. The other was the pamphlet, already referred to, by Dr. Hampden: and of which the importance arose, not from its conclusions, but from its reasons. Its ground was the distinction which he had argued out at great length in his Bampton Lectures--the distinction between the "Divine facts" of revelation, and all human interpretations of them and inferences from them. "Divine facts," he maintained, were of course binding on all Christians, and in matter of fact were accepted by all who called themselves Christians, including Unitarians. Human interpretations and inferences--and all Church formularies were such--were binding on no one but those who had reason to think them true; and therefore least of all on undergraduates who could not have examined them. The distinction, when first put forward, seemed to mean much; at a later time it was explained to mean very little. But at present its value as a ground of argument against the old system of the University was thought much of by its author and his friends. A warning note was at once given that its significance was perceived and appreciated. Mr. Newman, in acknowledging a presentation copy, added words which foreshadowed much that was to follow.

"While I respect," he wrote, "the tone of piety which the pamphlet displays, I dare not trust myself to put on paper my feelings about the principles contained in it; tending, as they do, in my opinion, to make shipwreck of Christian faith. I also lament that, by its appearance, the first step has been taken towards interrupting that peace and mutual good understanding which has prevailed so long in this place, and which, if once seriously disturbed, will be succeeded by discussions the more intractable, because justified in the minds of those who resist innovation by a feeling of imperative duty." "Since that time," he goes on in the Apologia, where he quotes this letter, "Phaeton has got into the chariot of the sun." But they were early days then; and when the Heads of Houses, who the year before had joined with the great body of the University in a declaration against the threatened legislation, were persuaded to propose to the Oxford Convocation the abolition of subscription at matriculation in May 1835, this proposal was rejected by a majority of five to one.

This large majority was a genuine expression of the sense of the University. It was not specially a "Tractarian" success, though most of the arguments which contributed to it came from men who more or less sympathised with the effort to make a vigorous fight for the Church and its teaching ; and it showed that they who had made the effort had touched springs of thought and feeling, and awakened new hopes and interest in those around them, in Oxford, and in the country. But graver events were at hand. Towards the end of the year (1835), Dr. Burton, the Regius Professor of Divinity. suddenly died, still a young man.

And Lord Melbourne was induced to appoint as his successor, and as the head of the theological teaching of the University, the writer who had just a second time seemed to lay the axe to the root of all theology; who had just reasserted that he looked upon creeds, and all the documents which embodied the traditional doctrine and collective thought of the Church, as invested by ignorance and prejudice with an authority which was without foundation, and which was misleading and mischievous.

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