Project Canterbury

John Keble

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

ON the Feast of St. Mark, in the year of grace 1792, a son was born to the parson of Fairford, Gloucestershire, who was to transform the Anglican Communion, and shine as the brightest star in her firmament.

Bright stars were needed, for the night was dark. A deep torpor had fallen upon the Church, which seemed like to die of senile decay. There were such dense clouds of ignorance that the loveliness of Keble's life was realized by few of his contemporaries. Fearful storms blotted out other stars, as brilliant, as pure, as purposeful. But as they "went out," he remained to turn many to righteousness, and "shine as the stars for ever."

As a boy John Keble showed remarkable promise. Unlike Newman and Faber, but like Pusey, he was grounded in High Anglicanism. His father, who had a leaning towards the Non-jurors, and loathed the Methodism of Wesley, taught him up to the age of sixteen, when he was elected a student of Corpus Christi College, Oxford. At the age of eighteen he brilliantly carried off double first-class honours, hitherto the proud record of Sir Robert Peel. At nineteen be was made a Fellow of Oriel. Oriel College was the nursery of the Oxford Movement.

There he met Newman, whom he converted to Anglo-Catholicism. Newman had looked upon Keble as "something one would put under a glass and put on one's chimney piece to admire, but as too unworldly for business," a superficial judgment that changed to ardent worship, as contact revealed new facets of his rock-like character, and communion the riches of his mind and soul.

Keble was, indeed, the meekest of men, but, like a famous forerunner in the Old Testament, was capable of fiery action, and possessed of an inflexible will. When a sacred cause or principle was at stake, it was safe in his hands. But he desired, and in part achieved, a measure of obscurity and quietness, for, though a brilliant scholar, he loved the quiet round of the country-side among simple folk more than all the dwellings of Oxford. And this has enhanced his fame, for he is regarded as the ideal country parish priest.

He inaugurated the Oxford Movement on July 14, 1833, with his Assize Sermon on National Apostasy a sermon which, seemingly temperate, and awakening no storm at the moment, forms a chapter of Anglican history which can never be forgotten, although its occasion gave no promise of its permanence, as it was an outspoken topical criticism of Earl Grey's decision to suppress ten Irish bishoprics.

Hereafter there issued forth a cataract of Tracts, which earned for their writers the name of Tractarians. Of these Keble wrote only four, but his mind was behind them in an advisory capacity. His own literary contribution was of another sort. He was the poet of the Movement.

The Christian Year

is still a living volume, and some of its hymns, such as "Sun of my soul" and "New every morning is the love," are sung wherever the sun sets and rises. He composed many of the poems while walking along the country lanes, and it was his wish to have them published only after his death. His father, however, pleaded for immediate publication, and he yielded. Thus The Christian Year appeared in 1827, anonymously, and became the Herald of the Movement. Where the Tracts angered the intellect, The Christian Year won the heart, and churchfolk began to imbibe Catholic principles with criticism disarmed by the gentle music of its poetry.

There were exceptions, of course. A sister of Dean Stanley had seceded to Rome, after heroic service in the Crimea, where Anglican and Roman Catholic Sisters combined in a work of mercy. He wrote:

My sister, whose exertions at the naval hospital at Tgerapia, have, I sincerely believe, been as free from any sectarian bias, as truly national and Christian, and as universally good in their efforts as it was possible for those of any human being to be, was stopped the other day by the Chaplain. He begged to have five minutes' conversation with her. He felt responsible for the publications circulated in the hospital, and he had found one of a very improper character: parts of it he highly disapproved; parts of it he did not understand. She asked to see it. It was a Christian Year left by one of the ladies with a sick midshipman. In consequence of this he preached against them next Sunday in their presence, as creeping in unawares, etc."

Bishop Westcott once wrote:

Keble, Wordsworth, Goethe. Is not the first the true poet; the second, a poet who felt that he had a mission to perform, but commenced from nature instead of revelation; the third, a sad example of those who, "though they might half heaven reveal, by idol hymns profane the sacred soul-enthralling strain"?

But this was exaggerated praise. Keble was a genuine poet, and reached a measure of perfection within his sphere, but his inspiration was occasional. He was primarily a great priest who in his days pleased the Lord, whose many talents were consecrated to the high and holy task of recalling English Churchmen to the Faith which saints believed of old.

Like all the Tractarians, be was sober and disciplined. His parishioners would meet him reading his Bible on his daily round of visitation, and were so profoundly influenced that it seemed to observers as if all in Hursley, where he settled soon after his marriage in the autumn of 1835 (a marriage which vastly annoyed Newman), went about singing "Holy, Holy, Holy" all day long. He rebuilt Hursley church out of royalties from The Christian Year, of which over one hundred thousand copies were sold in twenty-six years. He loved children, and his catechizings in church were unforgettable. Like Charles Kingsley he organized Sunday cricket. "The youthful villagers," writes an old parishioner, " played, and the elder ones with the mothers and babies sat and looked on. The two village inns . . . were kept by most respectable men, both of them communicants and in the choir."

It must not be imagined, however, that his even round was undisturbed by opposition. His bishop for many years refused to ordain his deacon a priest, and he was drawn into all the storms and turmoils of the ecclesiastical times.

In 1863 he went to Bournemouth, where he died on March 29, 1866, from paralysis. He was buried at Hursley, whither went a mighty company of Churchmen to pay such homage as revealed the immensity of his influence.

For several generations that influence continued to be felt not only in the drawing-rooms of the upper classes but in their nurseries, through the consecrated art of Charlotte Mary Yonge, his close friend, whom lie had prepared for confirmation and encouraged to embark upon a literary career which, in the Daisy Chain and many old, fragrant tales, taught children how intimately creed and character are intertwined." For forty years she edited the Monthly Packet, a magazine which exercised a profound influence in Church circles. With the proceeds of the Daisy Chain she built the first Southern Cross for the Melanesian Mission, whose magnificent and (literally) palatial successor was a short while ago consecrated and launched.

Although the Anglican Communion chooses now, officially, to recognize his centenary, he, in whose memory Keble College stands, was unhonoured while he lived. He was never offered any preferment save a colonial Archdeaconry, and was regarded with disdain and dislike by many pompous bishops and clergy whose names are well forgotten. If the Anglican Communion had not shelved her power to Canonize it is safe to say that John Keble would be the first of the latter-day saints to adorn the Kalendar. He never despaired when days were darkest, and his calm continuance in well-doing is a lasting rebuke to those who faint and fall in the stress of persecution.

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