The Magazine

Bound for Rome

Newman's long goodbye from the Church of England.

Nov 6, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 08 • By EDWARD SHORT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.