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John Henry Newman: Guiding Light of the Victorian Church


The 18th century was a time of great and rapid change, in government, empire, industry, and religion. The effects of the Reformation were beginning to wear off as the church was no longer plagued by the internal strife caused by the Puritans, and it was settling down into a comfortable organization, secure in its place and not particularly troubled by the minorities of Roman Catholics and non-conformist Protestants. Certainly such minorities existed, but legislation prevented them from causing the Church of England much stress. However, new Acts of Parliament were about to force the Church to wake up from its growing stupor.

In 1829, Parliament passed the Catholic Emancipation Act, which took away the civic restrictions on being Catholic; Roman Catholics could now go to university, serve as civil servants, and be elected as Members of Parliament. The Act was passed not because of a deeply-felt need to free the Catholics on the part of Parliament, but rather as an expedient to keep down revolution in Catholic Ireland. This Act meant that Catholics were no longer officially discouraged from society, but they were still viewed with suspicion by the populace at large. Also, it meant that Parliament was no longer safe from Catholics, and although it was unlikely that enough Catholics would be elected MPs to make a real impact, it could not be assumed that such a situation would not occur. Around the same time, Parliament passed Acts reforming the Irish Anglican bishoprics, removing some and reducing others to even out the distribution of wealth and see that each bishop was there for his congregation. While all this seems a good thing, and fixed problems with the Church in Ireland, a small but vocal group in the English Anglican Church protested against the interference of the state in church affairs.

The Church in the early Victorian Era was trying to remove itself from the authority of the state, seeking authority in a variety of places: Evangelicalism, notably Methodism, looked to the Bible itself for authority, the Broad Church branch of the Anglican Church looked to personal experience, and the Oxford Movement, an essentially intellectual appeal to the authority of the church through apostolic succession [Parsons 9]. I will be looking more closely at the Oxford Movement, and its most important leader, John Henry Newman, in this paper. The Oxford Movement and the Broad Church worked within the Anglican Church, while the Methodists began in the Church of England (Methodist founder John Wesley never left the Church of England) but ended up splitting off from it. Of the three, the Oxford Movement has had the most profound impact on the Anglican Church itself, and Newman impacted both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church throughout his life.

John Henry Newman was born to an Evangelical family in London in 1801. He kept a meticulous journal from his youth, giving us a wonderful look at his personal life and inner thoughts. He joined the Church of England at age 15, beginning a move from liberal to conservative religion which would culminate in his converting to Roman Catholicism. However, before this conversion, he became a highly regarded proponent of the Anglican High Church. The High Church tended to be very liturgical, placing a lot of importance on the sacraments, rather than on preaching. It was actually quite close to the Roman Catholic church in style, as opposed to the Low Church, which was closer to the old Puritan style of worship. Newman read Biblical studies at Trinity College, Oxford as an undergraduate, then became a Trinity scholar. He applied for a fellowship at Oriel College, Oxford, without much hope of getting it, considering his youth. However, the men who interviewed him for the position were impressed by his intellect and he became a fellow of Oriel, eventually also becoming vicar of St. Mary’s, the chapel of Oxford University [Martin 26-27].

It was at Oriel that he met a group of men who were as concerned about the state of the Church of England as he was himself. Among them were John Keble and Edward Pusey; together they started the Oxford Movement, an intellectual and critical examination of the Church of England, dominated by John Henry Newman. Eventually, despite his connexions to the Oxford Movement and the High Anglican Church, Newman came to believe that the Roman Catholic Church was the ‘one fold of Christ,’ and was accepted into the Roman church in 1845. He disappeared from public life for a time, writing and teaching in the country. A doomed attempt was made to found a Catholic University. He was made a cardinal of the Roman Catholic church in 1889, one year before his death, at least partly because of his standing in the eyes of the English people. He was a Catholic who could impress Protestants, and who was considered to be a great Englishman despite his Catholicism, therefore having more influence than most cardinal candidates would have had [Chadwick 420-422].

Newman most influenced England through his work in the Oxford Movement. I have said that the movement was an intellectual reaction from Oxford fellows, but I would like to go a little more into what the Movement was all about, and why it, and Newman’s contribution to it, was important. According to Newman, the movement began with a sermon preached by John Keble titled ‘National Apostasy,’ in which Keble questioned the right of the state to interfere in the government of the church, specifically relating to the addition of English bishoprics in Roman Catholic Ireland. Keble believed that the church should be reformed from within rather than being interfered with by the state [Mooreman 338]. This is fascinating in many ways, since the Anglican Church was originally created by and for the state, to solve Henry VIII’s succession problem in 1533. Why did these men, at this time, protest against state intervention in a church which had always been state-run? For the answer, we can perhaps look more closely at what the leaders of the Oxford Movement saw as the ideal church.

These men were all experts in different facets and time periods of the pre-Reformation church. Newman in particular was an authority on early church history. He desired a return to a simpler time, when there was just one church, deriving its authority visibly from the twelve apostles. Some of the early members of the Movement felt that the Medieval Church should be the model. And the Medieval Church was in an almost constant power struggle with the king of England, most famously expressing itself in the conflict between Henry II and Thomas Becket. With this history in view, it was not a big step for these men to recreate the tensions of the Middle Ages and claim the Church’s freedom from state interference. Newman was not so extreme, but did feel that the Church was granted its authority not from Parliament, the king, or any governmental agency, but through apostolic succession, straight back to Peter in Rome [Edwards. Concise 119]. For the Roman Church had gone apostate, forcing the true church, the church which would become the Church of England, to carry on apostolic succession after the 16th century. Again, I am not really sure how he reconciled this idea with the history of Henry VIII, but if I had to guess, he might have claimed that God works through the sinful motives of man to keep the true church alive.

All of the members of the Oxford Movement denounced Luther’s Reformation, and the extreme sects in England that followed it closely, claiming that the Church of England was essentially catholic; it was the true successor to the early church of Paul, Peter, and Augustine, after the Roman church apostatized. This view would create understandable tension with the Evangelicals, as well as the Low and Broad Church branches, which had a high view of the Reformation. Newman said in Tract 1 of the Tracts for the Times, a series of pamphlets written by Newman, Keble, and Pusey, that the church’s authority does not come from the state, or from the consent of the people, but through the apostolic succession. That is, the Anglican Church is the rightful descendent of the early church, uncorrupted by Romanism or Protestantism. This view became known as the via media, the ‘middle way’ between Rome and Reformation. The Tracts for the Times, though published generally, were addressed specifically to the Anglican clergy, asking them to examine their ministries, the Church, and their role in it [Mooreman 340]. There would be 90 Tracts published between 1833 and 1841, mostly written by Newman. Their opponents, the Evangelicals and others, derisively dubbed the Oxford Movement leaders “Tractarians” because of these often divisive Tracts.

The tracts themselves caused quite a furor. Some welcomed them, glad to see that someone was waking up the Anglican Church. Some were horrified by their content, finding their own values challenged. The Evangelicals saw the Tractarians as pushing a Romanist view of the church, devaluing the Reformation. While the Evangelicals looked directly to the Bible for authority, the Tractarians were looking to the priesthood as the continuation of the apostolic succession, much as the Roman Catholics look to the pope [Mooreman 342]. Newman knew his views were divisive, and expected the church to turn partisan in the wake of his tracts. In fact, Tract 1 is a call to choose sides, recognizing that no serious person could stay neutral on these issues.

Newman himself, however, soon began drifting from his chosen side. His investigations into the beliefs of the early church led him to consider Roman Catholicism more and more. Two heresies of the early church shook Newman’s faith in the Church of England as the via media: the Monophysites of the fifth century and the Donatists of the fourth. Each split from the Roman Catholic Church; the Monophysites over the dual nature of Christ, taking a “middle way” doctrine between the Roman Catholic view and the Eastern Orthodox view, the Donatists because they believed that a priest had to be regenerate for his congregation to receive true grace through him. Newman was forced to reconsider his position on the Catholic Church through studying these heresies, and through studying them and a doctrine called “development”, eventually came to believe that the Roman Catholic Church was correct [Martin 66]. The doctrine of development says that truth is revealed to the church slowly and gradually; therefore, the early church that Newman was longing to revive did not have the advantage over the current Roman Catholic church, for not as much had been revealed to it. Newman came to believe that the Roman Catholic Church, though not perfect, was the true descendent of the early church, and that to be outside of it was spiritually dangerous [Mooreman 344]. However, he did not convert immediately. He held a place of high standing in the Anglican Church and at Oxford University, both of which he stood to lose by becoming a Roman Catholic, for Catholics were still feared and hated, despite the Catholic Emancipation Act ten years earlier.

Instead, he wrote Tract 90, a new interpretation of the Church of England’s 39 Articles, the statement of dogma to which every Anglican priest must subscribe. Newman specifically pointed out fourteen of them, showing that they were not anti-Catholic, but merely against Roman extravagances. He even went so far as to say that the original framers of the 39 Articles intended for them to be left open to a Roman Catholic interpretation [Moore 10]. Needless to say, this tract set off a storm of controversy, and Newman was asked not to write any more tracts. He acquiesced, and retired from public life in 1843, converting to Catholicism in 1845, having lost faith in the Church of England. Some four hundred other Anglican priests and bishops followed him to Rome.

The Oxford Movement continued for a time, under the leadership of Edward Pusey (hence, they became known as the Puseyites), but its influence was waning without Newman’s intellect and reputation to drive it on. The High Church became more Catholic in appearance, but the examination and evaluation of the church ceased, the life went out of it, and many more people in England today can be found worshipping in the Evangelical churches than in the Church of England. The Oxford Movement, and the Anglican Church, lost in Newman the one man who might have been able to spark a true revival in the Church of England, and therefore lost its congregations to the Reformation Evangelicals.

However, Newman’s work in England was not finished. His status in Oxford, both as campus minister at St. Mary’s and as Oriel Fellow, along with his leadership in the Oxford Movement, had won him the respect of the English. Even after he became a Catholic, he was still influential in England due to his earlier achievements and his sheer brilliance as a thinker. John Henry Newman was a name known and revered by many academics and theologians in the Victorian Era, and his conversion no doubt aided the Catholics in gaining acceptability in England. It was this perceived influence over the English that caused him to be chosen to join the College of Cardinals in 1889. Granted, this was only one year before his death, but it was a great honour, given to a great man, and a great Englishman.

Newman continued to question the tenants of his church, never completely accepting the most conservative Roman Catholic beliefs, such as papal infallibility [Edwards. Concise 121]. Despite his desire to serve the apostolic church, he was intelligent enough to realize that though the church was instituted by God, it was administered by men, who were all subject to sin, and not to be granted complete trust and authority in and of themselves. The tenacity with which Newman clung to his beliefs as well as his willingness to change them when confronted with unexpected evidence is a guide for all who would truly seek the truth.

The view of the Anglican Church as the via media has impacted the way that the Church is thought of now, as a body willing to compromise rather than go to extremes on either side [Paxman 101]. The original Tractarians would have denounced such an interpretation of their idea; one of them, Richard Hurrell Froude saw the danger of the via media approach, and split from the Movement in 1838 because of it. Newman himself practiced a policy of ‘reserve,’ reticence to say divisive things when he did not feel they were necessary—such as his Romanist tendencies throughout the 1830s. In fact, he publicly accepted papal infallibility as a Catholic, in deference to his superiors, but did not wish to pursue the issue [Edwards. Christian 187]. This is a very pragmatic and English way of dealing with pressing issues: ignore them, and maybe they will go away. It was perhaps a failing in Newman to suppress his integrity in this way, but it also shows a respect for his superiors in refusing to contradict them in public. He spoke his own views very plainly in his autobiography, the Apologia pro vita sua.

The whole movement went further than its originators intended, as movements are prone to do. Newman and Keble did not change the outward appearance of the church, did not revert to vestments or refocus attention on the altar. They were interested in the church from a dogmatic, academic standpoint. Later, their followers would take their ideas to the logical physical conclusion, created Anglo-Catholicism and the modern High Anglican Church [Mooreman 351]. This is perhaps the most long-lasting and noticeable effect of the Oxford Movement. Today, one who attends an Anglican service will find it not much different from a Roman Catholic service. Both give great importance to the sacraments, especially that of communion, or mass, rather than to the preaching of the Word. Both have the same essential church layout—the cross shape, with the altar at the east end, a choir, and a nave. This is a change from the Anglican Churches of the 17th and 18th centuries, which were very simple, many not even having an altar, their service centered around preaching and singing. There are other reasons for this current similarity, such as the general revival of Medieval custom, art, and architecture in the 19th century and the lowering of the Roman Catholic liturgy, but it must be granted that the Oxford Movement added an intellectual element to it all that must have helped these changes seem ‘okay’ to the learned.

Although Newman himself did not move the liturgy of the Anglican Church toward Roman Catholic ceremony, this return to the pageantry of the past was the logical conclusion of the Oxford Movement’s ideas, in tandem with the general Victorian trend to imitate and idealise the Middle Ages. Therefore, much of what we see in actual practice in mainline Anglican churches is an indirect effect of Newman’s work in the Oxford Movement [Encyclopedia 552]. And though the Tractarians wanted the Anglican Church to retain its central place in England to the exclusion of all non-conformist groups, Newman, through his conversion to Catholicism, paradoxically helped pave the way for the acceptance of non-conformists into society. Therefore, one man leading a localised religious movement has had a great impact not only on the Church of England, but on English society to the present day.



Chadwick, Owen. The Victorian Church Part II. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1970.

Edwards, David L. Christian England. London: Collins, 1989.

---. A Concise History of English Christianity from Roman Britain to the Present Day. London: Fount Paperbacks, 1998

Martin, Brian. John Henry Newman: His Life and Work. London: Continuum, 2000.

Moore, James R., ed. Religion in Victorian Britain III: Sources. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988

Mooreman, J.R.H. History of the Church in England. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1976

Parsons, Gerald, ed. Religion in Victorian Britain IV: Interpretations. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988.

Paxman, Jeremy. The English. London: Penguin, 1998.

British Encyclopedia. London, 1930.


This paper originated as a term paper for British Studies, Harlaxton College, Spring, 2002.

©2002 by Jandy Stone