Project Canterbury

The Oxford Movement

Clifford Phelps Morehouse
Editor, The Living Church

Milwaukee: Morehouse
Published for the Catholic Congress of the Episcopal Church.

ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO--On July 14, 1833, to be exact--the Rev. John Keble, a Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford University, preached a sermon at the university church on the subject of National Apostasy. It was, as Canon Ollard has said, "a ringing call to Churchmen to realize the immediate danger in which the English Church stood, and to rally to her aid." It aroused echoes that have reached to every part of Christendom, and that have not yet ceased to reverberate. The movement that it set on foot has been characterized by so sober an historian as Bishop Stubbs as the greatest religious change since the sixteenth century, wrought by influences "more intellectual and more spiritual than those which effected the Reformation"; while a distinguished German observer confessed amazement at its restoration of new life into a Church that had seemed to be dying.

What is this great Movement, and why are we, American Churchmen far removed in time and space from the pulpit in which an English priest delivered his strictures on evils of the Church in Georgian England, interested in commemorating that event? Simply because, whether we consider ourselves "High," "Low," or "Broad" Churchmen, indeed whether or not we are Anglican Churchmen at all, we are profoundly indebted to the spiritual renaissance inaugurated a century ago by Keble and his associates for a multitude of the religious privileges that we enjoy today.

The Church in the first third of the nineteenth century had sunk to a sorry state, both in England and in America. In both countries it was heavily encrusted with worldliness, but in the former country especially, largely because of its establishment, it had almost wholly lost its sense of divine commission in the eyes of the bulk of its adherents, and was generally regarded as little more than an ethical department of the State. Baptisms and Communions were neglected; in many churches the font was filled with an accumulation of debris and the altar was a rickety table that served more often as a convenient place for the minister's overcoat, hat, and riding whip than as God's Board. The Bishop of London recorded that in 1800 there were only six communicants in St. Paul's Cathedral on Easter Day. "Confirmation," says a recent historian, "was administered to hordes of candidates, for the most part unprepared. Sparke, Bishop of Chester (1810-12), informed Blomfield that at his last visitation he confirmed eight thousand children at Manchester in one day."

As to the parish clergy, "it would not be difficult to find districts of England and Wales where drunkenness was very common" among them, though "such men were by no means in the majority." For the most part, they were simply rather worldly men, with no high standard of clerical duty and only a commonplace view of the nature of their office. The bishops were wealthy as well as worldly; they held many preferments and often did not even live in their dioceses. "The abuses of plurality and non-residence," wrote Mr. Gladstone half a century later, "were at a height which, if not proved by statistical returns, it would now be scarcely possible to believe."

In short, the words of Thomas Arnold, written in 1832, must have seemed to thinking persons of his day to summarize the entire situation: "The Church as it now stands no human power can save."

Here in America, at the opening of the nineteenth century, conditions were little better. The enthusiasm with which the Church was reorganized following the Revolution had waned. In that struggle the lay members of the Church had been among the foremost patriots. Indeed "the main leadership of the national cause came out of the Colonial Church. Washington himself was a Churchman. So also were Franklin, Hamilton, Madison, Marshall, Jay, Livingston, the Pinckneys, Morris, 'Mad Anthony' Wayne, Patrick Henry, and many others." But there were a good many of the clergy who remained loyal to the Crown, and it was difficult for Americans, who had been accustomed to the alliance of Church and State in England, to conceive of an Episcopal Church free from the bonds of Erastianism.

Moreover it was a worldly age, here as in the parent country, and the Church suffered from the prevailing laxity. "The bishops were all rectors of parishes, and regarded the work of their episcopal office but little, except in the single function of ordination. Bishop Madison, after his first visitation, paid no further attention to his diocese, but occupied himself entirely with his duties as president of William and Mary College. The first Bishop of South Carolina never confirmed at all. After his death no successor was chosen for eleven years. Bishop Provoost resigned in 1801, and busied himself with making a new translation of Tasso, and the study of botany. During this time he entirely neglected the services of the Church and the Holy Communion." Bishop White, who had probably never been confirmed himself, did not judge the rite to be of much importance for his people. With such laxity among its nominal leaders, it is not remarkable that the spiritual life of the Church was at a low ebb. As one observer has put it, "the Church's course for a long period was marked with all the obstinacy of a weak mind and a strong constitution." And Chief Justice Marshall almost echoed the words of Thomas Arnold when he declared there was no future for the Episcopal Church.

In the midst of these dark days in the Church the Oxford Movement was born. It gained its name from a small but scholarly and enthusiastic group of young Oxford graduates, who bravely launched the great adventure that was to reawaken the Anglican Church to the glories of its ancient Catholic heritage. "They were vastly different men in temperament: John Keble, shy and retiring; . . . Hurrell Froude, . . . playful, gay, venturesome; . . . John Henry Newman, . . . sensitive and scholarly; Isaac Williams, a first-rate Harrow cricketer and Latinist, and, like Keble, one of the future poets of the Movement." Later Edward Pusey, one of the most distinguished scholars of his day, gave the Movement a strong and certain leadership.

It was nothing new that these men sought. The doctrines they set out to revive were firmly imbedded in the Bible and the Prayer Book, but they had grown dusty and mouldy with neglect. All of them may be summed up in the conception of the Church as a Divine Society, the living Body of Christ; and the sacraments as vital, personal channels of grace. From these two cardinal concepts stem all of the fruits of the Movement that are apparent today--the beauty and seemliness of our churches, the dignity of our divine worship, the increased appreciation of the sacraments, the application of our religion to our daily lives. We do not mean, of course, that the Oxford Movement was the sole cause of these things, but it was a powerful stimulus that gave a mighty impetus to all of the forces working in that direction, dormant though many of them were at the outset.

After Keble's famous sermon in 1833, the chief feature of the Movement for the next decade was the series of Tracts for the Times, mostly written by Newman. These dealt with many of the neglected treasures of the Church. They were a compelling summons to the Church to awake and cast off the chains of worldliness, and at first they met a response more favorable and more widespread than their writers dared to hope.

But the early success of the Movement met with its first severe check in 1841, following the publication of Newman's famous Tract 90, giving a Catholic interpretation to the Thirty-nine Articles. This alarmed the officials of the Church, as well as many of the rank and file, who feared that the Movement might lead toward Rome and the Papacy instead of the independent Anglican Catholicism that its leaders professed. Tract 90 was condemned by the university, and in 1843 Dr. Pusey was suspended for a year for preaching a sermon on the Real Presence. This beginning of persecution was too much for Newman. He retired to the village of Littlemore, and in 1845 he was received into the Roman Church.

The loss of Newman was a blow to the Oxford Movement, but by no means a fatal blow. Rather it entered into a new phase, in which suffering and unpopularity were to broaden and deepen its scope. We cannot trace that development here--the application of the principles of the Movement to social work, especially in the slums of great cities; the influence of its leaders in applying modern Biblical scholarship to the ancient faith; the enrichment of liturgical worship, and so on. Suffice it to say that there is not a parish in the Anglican communion today, and not many churches among our separated brethren, without witness to the influence of the Oxford Movements. Daily services, weekly or daily celebrations of the Holy Communion, vested choirs, candles on the altar, a reverent and ordered liturgy--these are but the outward signs of the growing recovery of our rightful heritage. More important far are the inner evidences of healthy spiritual vitality--the living of Christian lives, nourished by the Church and fed from her altar--and these things are not the exclusive possession of any one party or sect or group; they are the common inheritance of all English-speaking Christians, but especially of those whose allegiance to the Church of our fathers has continued unbroken.

In this country the seed of the Oxford Movement fell on fertile ground. Not only were there no official ties to hamper and retard its growth, but the zeal of leaders such as Hobart, Griswold, Moore, and Chase had begun to stir the Church into wakefulness even before the influence of the Tractarians began to be felt. Indeed Bishop Hobart seems to have given Newman and his confreres the initial suggestion that resulted in the Tracts for the Times, as Dr. Clarke has recently demonstrated.

As in England, the followers of the Oxford Movement in America met with misunderstandings, opposition, and petty persecution. No one in this country was sent to jail for his convictions, as several priests were over there, but they had their own problems to contend with. Jackson Kemper, the first missionary bishop of the Church, carried the Church idea into the wilderness of the Middle West. Starting with one priest and no church in Indiana, and one church building but no priest in Missouri, he built up his vast jurisdiction by his indefatigable labors, so that when he accepted election as Bishop of Wisconsin and relinquished Indiana, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, and the parts of Kansas and Nebraska that had formed his huge territory, he could see there as the result of his work six dioceses and one hundred seventy-two clergy. William Augustus Muhlenberg, one of the most picturesque and unique characters in our Church history, established the first free church, the first weekly celebration of the Holy Communion, the first schedule of daily services, and the first Sisterhood in the American Church. He it was who, when someone objected to the use of a processional cross, replied: "Very well; then we'll change the processional hymn to

"Onward Christian soldiers,
Marching as to war;
With the Cross of Jesus
Stuck behind the door."

James Lloyd Breck, the itinerant missionary, left a train of monuments to his name in the form of schools and missions from Lake Michigan to the Pacific coast. James DeKoven brought the question of the Catholicity of the Church squarely before her leaders and the public. These and hundreds of others carried into the remotest corners of the American continent the flame of the torch lighted by John Keble at Oxford on that historic day a hundred years ago.

It would be incorrect, of course, to attribute all the progress in our Church life during the past hundred years to the Oxford Movement. The Evangelical and Broad Church Movements have also played an important part in moulding the present day life of the Church, and we owe much of our heritage to the truths that they emphasized. Indeed it is perhaps not too much to say that had it not been for the zeal of those who promoted the Evangelical revival of the eighteenth century, the work of the Oxford reformers could hardly have had such immediate and widespread effect.

But whatever the nature or name of our Churchmanship, be it "High," "Low," or "Broad"; Catholic, Evangelical, or Liberal, we are the heirs and beneficiaries of the Oxford Movement.

Therefore it behooves us, as good Churchmen, to know what this great movement has meant to this beloved Church of ours, and do all in our power to widen and strengthen its influence.

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