The Magazine

Bound for Rome

Newman's long goodbye from the Church of England.

Nov 6, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 08 • By EDWARD SHORT
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The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman

Volume IX: Littlemore and

the Parting of Friends

May 1842-October 1843

Edited by Francis J. McGrath

Oxford, 880 pp., $165

In a letter to Mary Holmes, the governess with whom he would correspond throughout his life, John Henry Newman remarked that "religious truth is reached not by reasoning but by an inward perception." Readers of Volume IX of Newman's Letters and Diaries, covering May 1842-October 1843, when Newman resigned his living at St. Mary's church in Oxford and delivered his last Anglican sermon, will marvel at how he managed to receive this "inward perception" at a time when, as he said himself, the Oxford Movement was "going so fast that some of the wheels [were] catching fire." But manage he did, though the cost was considerable.

"All my then hopes," he wrote in Apologia pro Vita Sua (1864), "all my satisfaction at the apparent fulfillment of those hopes, was at an end in 1843."

About Newman's career at Oxford, Gladstone said that there was "no parallel in the academical history of Europe, unless you go back to the 12th century or the University of Paris." Now that it was ending, Newman felt a kind of death. To his sister Jemima he wrote, "My life is done, before it seems well begun." These are not the typical thoughts of a man in the prime of life, even a religious man. Yet for Newman, unsure about his future but well enough aware that his old Anglican life was winding down, death became an understandable preoccupation.

Newman was born in London in 1801. His mother was of French Huguenot stock and his father was a banker in the city. He had three sisters and two brothers. In 1822, he was elected a fellow of Oriel College. In 1828, he became vicar of the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. There he gave the sermons that would stay with those who heard them for the rest of their lives. He helped to launch the Oxford Movement in 1833 to reinvigorate the Church of England. Advanced by a series of tracts, the Movement also became known as Tractarianism.

In seeking to defend Anglicanism, Newman gradually came to the conclusion that Roman Catholicism was the true church. He converted in 1845. After being ordained in Rome, he returned to England and founded the Birmingham Oratory. In 1853 he founded the Catholic University of Ireland in Dublin, and in 1859 the Oratory School, where Hilaire Belloc spent his schooldays and Gerard Manley Hopkins was a master. Newman was made a cardinal in 1879 and died in 1890.

Brilliantly edited by Francis McGrath, an Australian Marist brother and the author of John Henry Newman: Universal Revelation (1997), this volume opens with the Tractarians reeling from the outcry against Tract 90. To keep Anglo-Catholics from leaving the Anglican Church for Rome, Newman argued that the Thirty-Nine Articles, to which all Anglicans were required to subscribe, "do not oppose catholic teaching; they but partially oppose Roman dogma." He was, in effect, arguing for the original Elizabethan inclusiveness of the Articles. Yet this was not how the Anglican bishops saw matters. For them, as for most of the English, the Articles were unambiguously Protestant and Newman was trying to subvert them. Indeed, some were convinced that it was Newman's plan to Romanize the English Church, and when that failed, to abscond with as many converts as he could. Newman was only telling the truth when he told Maria Giberne, a lifelong friend, "I am aiming at no idea at all."

Although increasingly convinced that the Church of Rome was the "true" church, he was still vicar of St. Mary's and sworn to uphold the Articles. As he wrote to his fellow Tractarian Henry Wilberforce in 1843, "I wish to be out of hot water [but] something or other is always sousing me again in it. It is so very difficult to steer between being hypocritical and revolutionary."

This book amply documents not only the rancor but the lunacy that gripped England after the publication of Tract 90. McGrath is particularly good at showing the paranoia that Newman inspired in some Protestant compatriots. He quotes a public letter from inhabitants of Blackburn to their bishop, in which they wrote:

Adhering as we hope we ever shall do, to the principles [of the English Reformation], we can feel neither sympathy nor respect for any of those pioneers of Popery who are industriously labouring to undermine the walls which they have been appointed to defend, and who seem resolved to reduce our country again to that yoke of bondage which our forefathers were unable to endure. We rejoice therefore . . . that we have amongst us a faithful watchman on one of the chief towers of our citadel, vigilant to detect, fearless to denounce, and equally zealous to counteract the insidious devices of traitors within our gates, or the open and more honest assaults of the enemy without.

In Victorian England, Catholics were always fair game. Yet Newman got his own back, in his Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England (1851), in which he rollickingly mocked the anti-Catholic prejudices of many English Protestants. As for the lunacy swirling around him, one example will suffice. There was the case of Bernard Smith, vicar of Leadenhall, who converted to Catholicism in 1842. Shortly afterwards a letter appeared in the Morning Herald, signed by Smith, denying reports of his conversion and claiming that "some miscreant" had invented them. Then the real Smith wrote explaining that "the letter is a hoax and the statements it contains wholly unfounded." Thereafter, on nearly a weekly basis, letters went back and forth in various newspapers, elaborately disputing the status of Smith's religious affiliation. Had he really converted? Or was his conversion merely a ploy of Newman and the Tractarians?

While many around him were succumbing to the general hysteria, Newman remained calm. After first becoming aware, in 1839, that he might convert, he resolved to wait before making any decisive move. He could counsel others against precipitancy because he had given himself the same counsel. As it happened, he waited for six years. Of this period he wrote in the Apologia, "A death-bed has scarcely a history; it is a tedious decline, with seasons of rallying and seasons of falling back; and since the end is foreseen, or what is called a matter of time, it has little interest for the reader, especially if he has a kind heart." But the letters here reveal another more complicated history: his gradual acceptance of a new, if quite uncertain, Catholic future. His deathbed was also a cradle.

To understand how revolutionary converting to Roman Catholicism was in 19th-century England, we have to recognize that, for the English, it was not only spiritually misguided (Roman Catholicism being synonymous with corruption and superstition), but also profoundly un-English. When it became clear that Newman would soon commit the unthinkable and convert, the ranks of the Anglo-Catholic faithful were aggrieved. As one woman wrote Jemima, "A sound from Littlemore and St. Mary's seems to reach us even here . . . but, when the voice ceases . . . we shall have sad thoughts . . . Such was our guide, but he has left us to seek his own path--our champion has deserted us--our watchman whose cry used to cheer us is heard no more."

Still, Newman was adamant about dissuading impetuous would-be converts from taking a step they might regret. "Converts to Rome," he insisted, must "not go out from St. Mary's parsonage." The career of Richard Waldo Sibthorp became the great cautionary tale. A fellow of Magdalen College, Sibthorp converted in 1841 and was ordained a priest in 1842. Shortly thereafter, while holidaying on the Isle of Wight, he began to have second thoughts. In 1843, he converted back to Anglicanism, claiming that it was the sea air that convinced him that Rome was, after all, the "great whore."

Denounced by the Anglican episcopate, cut by friends, vilified by news papers, Newman retreated to the lay community he had set up at nearby Littlemore, only venturing out to give sermons at St. Mary's or meet friends in Oxford. One memorable meeting was with Miss Holmes, the governess, who would later go on to correspond with William Makepeace Thackeray and give music lessons to his daughters. Newman arranged for them to lunch in his rooms at Oriel, but the meeting was a flop. Miss Holmes was unprepared for Newman's youth; having immersed herself in his writings, she assumed that he was much older. No one so young, she thought, could be as wise as he seemed in his writings. Nevertheless, she would become one of Newman's favorite correspondents.

The book sheds interesting light on Newman's contacts with Americans. Newman was particularly taken with Jacob Abbott (1803-79), whose The Corner Stone he had attacked in Tract 73. When Abbott unexpectedly showed up in Oxford in the summer of 1843, Newman apologized for the attack and offered to excise the offending passage, but Abbott graciously declined. Later, Newman wrote, "We talked on various matters for an hour or so, and when he rose to go I offered him my Church of the Fathers--in which he made me put my name . . . I showed him on his way, accompanying him in the twilight through the village . . . and we parted with a good deal of warm feeling. He is a Congregationalist Minister--not much above 30, I should think--with somewhat of the New England twang, but very quiet in manner and unaffected. How dreadful it is that the sheep of Christ are scattered to and fro. . . . "

Newman's letters reveal much about Newman himself. He had a good sense of humor. To his Aunt Elizabeth, about Littlemore, he wrote: "Our garden improves--we have no snowdrops but crocuses in plenty. We have gained a squire lately, of the name of Crawley, a very excellent man and his wife too. They are friends of Copeland's and will be a great 'acquisition,' as it is called, to the place. . . . So we are progressing, and in a few years, when we have found a spa, we shall be a fashionable watering place."

He was self-deprecatory, even dismissive about his writings. Of his brilliant sermon on religious development, which he would later expand into An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845), he wrote "If any one values his luncheon on Thursday, he must not go to hear me at St. Mary's, for my sermon is of portentous length--and my only satisfaction is that, if any persons go out of curiosity, they will be punished." About his Fifteen Sermons Preached Before the University of Oxford between 1826 and 1843, he was even more impatient: "I am publishing my University Sermons, which will be thought sad dull affairs--but having got through a subject I wish to get rid of it."

The letters reveal the humility of the man. For all the immense influence he had on his contemporaries, Newman was uncomfortable with the very notion of influence. "I assure you," he wrote one correspondent, "nothing has haunted me more continually for years than the idea that undergraduates are trusting me more than they should--and I have done many things by way of preventing it." In another letter to John Keble, his confidant and fellow Tractarian, he wrote: "I am commonly very sluggish and think it a simple bore or nuisance to have to move or to witness movements . . . as to influencing people, making points, advancing and so on, I do not think these are matters which engross or engage me or even interest me."

"Of all persons," he confessed to another correspondent, "I need guidance and comfort most."

In light of this distaste for influence, the sway he held over others was all the more extraordinary. Matthew Arnold spoke for many of his agnostic contemporaries when he wrote Newman in 1871: "We are all of us carried in ways not of our own making or choosing but nothing can ever do away the effects you have produced on me, for it consists in a general disposition of mind rather than in a particular set of ideas. In all the conflicts I have with modern Liberalism and Dissent, and with their pretensions and shortcomings, I recognize your work." In the poetry of Arthur Hugh Clough, which delves unsparingly into the misgivings of unbelief, the appeal of Newman was ubiquitous. Clough might have tried to resist, but it was always there. Clough's friend J.C. Shairp, who heard Newman's sermons at St. Mary's and later became professor of poetry at Oxford, spoke for many of his contemporaries when he said that Newman was "a man in many ways the most remarkable that England has seen during this century, perhaps the most remarkable whom the English Church has produced in any century."

What was it about him? Sir Frederick Rogers, a close friend, who later became a cabinet minister, gave a good account of his personal appeal.

Newman seemed to have an intuitive perception of all that you thought and felt, so that he caught at once all that you meant or were driving at in a sentiment, a philosophical reflection, or a joke. . . . And so there was in talking with him that combination of liveliness and repose which constitutes ease; you seemed to be talking with a better kind of self, which was drawing you upwards. Newman's general characteristics--his genius, his depth of purpose; his hatred of pomp and affectation; his piercing insight into the workings of the human mind . . . are all matters of history.

Mark Pattison had been a thoroughgoing Tractarian from 1840 to 1842, but when Newman converted, he repudiated the Movement, charging that "the 'Tracts' desolated Oxford life, and suspended, for an indefinite period, all science, humane letters, and the first strivings of intellectual freedom." Yet not even Pattison could deny the power of Newman's influence: "Thin, pale, and with large lustrous eyes piercing through this veil of men and things," he wrote, "he hardly seemed made for this world. But his influence had in it something of magic. It was never possible to be a quarter-of-an-hour in his company without a warm feeling of being invited to take an onward step. . . . Newman always tried to reach the heart and understanding of those with whom he had to do."

William Lockhart, who spent some time at Littlemore, and converted in 1843, put it best when he spoke of Newman's "simplicity, meekness and humility; God, not self, was the centre of all his thoughts." He was "a seer who saw God, and spoke that which he had seen."

The letters in this volume, like those throughout this 33-volume series, are a fascinating record of a fascinating man. Francis McGrath has done a splendid job of including contemporary documents that illumine different aspects of the period, and not only excerpts from newspapers and letters but choice passages from the voluminous primary and secondary literature.

On Christmas Eve 1842, H.A. Woodgate, rector of Holy Trinity Church, Birmingham, wrote Newman asking him if he could suggest a motto for a new house that his brother had recently built. Newman wrote back suggesting a tag from Virgil: Uno avuloso non deficit alter--"When one thing is torn away, another succeeds." As it happened, Woodgate's brother chose another motto, but it would have worked for Newman himself. However leery he might have been of success--in one letter he says that "I do not think I have ever been sanguine of success in my day or at all"--he did hope that in tearing himself away from the Church of England he was preparing himself for success of another kind, even if it looked to the world like the most dismal failure.

In any case, he was convinced, as he wrote Jemima, after resigning his living at St. Mary's, that "Every thing that one does honestly, sincerely, with prayer, with advice, must turn to good."

Edward Short is working on a book about John Henry Newman and his contemporaries.