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 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.