”What St. Augustine was for the ancient world, that St. Thomas Aquinas was for the Middle Ages, and that Newman must be held to be in relation to the world today.” Louis Bouyer
English theologian, key figure in the Oxford Movement, and one of the most celebrated churchmen of the 20th century.
- 1801 Born in London
- 1816-20 Attended Oxford
- 1820 Took his degree at Oxford
- 1822 Elected fellow of Oriel College
- 1827 Appointed vicar of St. Mary's, Oxford
- 1841 Wrote famous Tract XC
- 1845 Converted to Roman Catholicism
- 1847 Ordained as a priest
- 1854 Tried, unsuccessfully, to establish a Catholic university in Dublin
- 1864 Wrote Apologia
- 1870 Wrote Grammar of Assent
- 1878 Elected honorary fellow of Oxford
- 1879 Made a cardinal by Pope Leo XIII
- 1890 Died at age 89
Born in London on February 21, 1801, John Henry Newman was a European in the classical sense, both by heritage and inclination. His father's people were Londoners; his mother was a descended from French Huguenots (Protestants) who had fled France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Newman took on aspects of both parents: his father's love of music and literature, and his mother's sober disposition, handed down from her Puritan forebears, that disdained worldly pleasures which took time away from devotion to God. With a home life patterned after his mother's strict evangelical Anglicanism, it was Newman's own love of music and reading that led him to appreciate the wider world.
At seven, he was sent away to a boys' school at Ealing where he earned the name "the flyer" for his speedy ascent through the school's curriculum. Newman was only 11 when he cofounded the school magazine The Spy, a juvenile imitation of Richard Addison's popular 18th-century magazine The Spectator. Uncomfortable with the one-sided opinions his schoolmates were getting through his paper, he secretly brought out another magazine, The Anti-Spy, to generate controversy.
At Ealing for eight years (1808-16), Newman had read many famous books and articles on religious thought by age 14. Nearly half a century later, in his great work Apologia Pro Vita Sua, he recalled:
When I was fourteen I read Paine's Tract's against the Old Testament and found pleasure in thinking of the objections that were contained in them. Also, I read some of Hume's Essays; and perhaps that on Miracles.... Also I recollect copying out some French verses, perhaps Voltaire's in denial of the immortality of the should, and saying to myself something like, "How dreadful, but how plausible!"
Newman's search for a deeper understanding of religion had begun at an early age, and in 1816, the 16-year-old underwent a significant conversion experience, believing that he had been saved by Jesus Christ. For Newman, the Bible was a perfect vehicle for gaining spiritual knowledge because it presented human history--the Patriarchs, the Prophets, Kings and the Apostles, Saints and Sinners--as a panoramic sequence of lives and events intimately connected with a powerful and omnipresent God. As a result of this conversion, Newman believed that some great sacrifice was required of him if he were to live a spiritual life; he pictured himself as a missionary, living celibate and apart from the rest of the world.
In the latter part of 1816, he went up to Oxford at Trinity College where he was to remain for the next 30 years. The university's quiet existence within the sheltered walls, away from the roar of the Napoleonic Wars, the Hundred Days, and Waterloo, was marked by the excitement of internal struggles and philosophical battles. Newman's friends at Oxford were fond of saying that he "grew old early and remained old a long time." Evidently, his "old nature" caused his parents some concern. As Gaius Glenn Atkins writes in his Life of Cardinal Newman:
[His] letters were too melancholy for a youth of twenty-one...they fear that he does not allow himself a proper quantity of wine, does not take enough exercise, does not get into company enough.
Ever conscious of his failings, or what he regarded as his imperfections, Newman worked hard, studying long into the night, to overcome this fear of not doing enough. He slept a mere four hours or so, in order that he might read all that interested him. Winning a fellowship to Oriel College in 1822, he was accepted as a teaching professor. He decided to seek religious orders as well and, in 1824, was ordained a deacon.
Appointed curate to St. Clement's Church, Newman wrote to tell his father of his intention to begin door-to-door visitations so that he could get to know his parishioners better. "An Englishman's house," replied his father, is "his castle which, though it might be open to the elements, should be defended from uninvited clergymen." His father's advice failed to dissuade him.
The Oriel fellowship proved an important intellectual association for Newman, where he found men of every age and social position with whom he could carry on debates about the merits of one Christian affiliation (Anglicanism or Methodism) over another. From 1822 to 1825, he gradually replaced his Evangelical, Low Church habit of thought with a High Church tradition that was closely linked to the rituals and ceremonies of the Catholic Church.
Ordained an Anglican Priest
In 1825, Newman was ordained a priest of the Anglican Church. Not entirely content with his intellectual and spiritual development, he stated in his Apologia:
The truth is, I was beginning to prefer intellectual excellence to moral: I was drifting in the direction of the Liberalism of the day, I was rudely awakened from my dream at the end of 1827 by two great blows--illness and bereavement.
Preparing for examinations, Newman suffered a serious breakdown and the death of his youngest sister Mary. His internal conversion during 1827 and 1828 was barely perceptible to the outside world. He depended increasingly on the works of the early Church fathers for spiritual guidance and intellectual satisfaction. The spirit of genuine Christian humanism as revealed through such diverse writers and poets as Aeschylus, Pindar, Horace, Virgil, Aristotle, and Cicero--as well as the Church fathers, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Athanasius, and St. Gregory the Great--moved Newman to new understandings. With a growing concern for truth, Newman's ability to analyze and discover the nature of revelation eventually led him to abandon Anglicanism altogether and enter into the Catholic community. This conversion, Newman's second, caused much concern among the members of his family. Some speculate that had it not been for the death of his father in 1824, Newman would have been unable to break with the legacy of the family's Anglicanism. This seems an unlikely assertion, however, because Newman's own philosophical position became increasingly sympathetic to the Catholic Church's ideal of an individual commitment within an established framework of ritual and doctrine.
Many philosophers and theologians have traced Newman's spiritual maturation by closely examining the intellectual growth cultivated by experience. The pressure from a historical perspective faced by both the Anglican and Catholic Churches in the mid-1800s is, however, rarely taken into account, and the possibility that Newman's conversion was a byproduct of his attempts to preserve the integrity, or even the existence, of the Church must also be taken into account.
The early part of the 19th century saw an increase in the number of people who were not supporters of any church, but belonged, rather, to an all-encompassing, somewhat vague, deism which provided for the acknowledgement of God in a manner unintrusive in their daily lives and unobservable to the general public. Consequently, established churches suffered a reduction in numbers, battling as well a liberal humanism which placed emphasis on constitutional and social reform (Reform Bill of 1832). The Anglican Church was, in many ways, justly viewed with the same distrust as the ruling aristocracy by such English reformers and the society at large.
The Oxford Movement Begins
Reacting to these innovations in a characteristic manner, Newman, along with fellow churchmen R.H. Froude and E.B. Pusey, began a movement for his own brand of church reform, one seeking a prestigious role for the Church based upon the traditional truths as revealed in the Bible and Church history. Their movement became known both as the Oxford Movement, because it was led by Oxford professors, and the Tractarian Movement, because they distributed letters (or tracts) to explain their point of view among the Anglican parishes. Well received by the clergy, these tracts generated much discussion, debate, and enthusiasm. One of the central themes Newman's group promoted was that respect be shown for the clergy as the true successors of the Apostles. In the early days of the Oxford Movement, a genuine notion of Christian Humanism produced a clergy more dedicated and a society more aware of Christian ideals leading many to acknowledge that the movement breathed new life into the declining Christian churches.
Through the Oxford group, Newman initially tried to steer the Anglican Church along the Via Media, or middle way, between Methodism and Catholicism. It became increasingly clear, however, that he found the truths of Roman Catholicism more suited to his temperament. As vicar of St. Mary's the official church of the Oxford community, Newman was able to attract much attention to the movement through his sermons; these were later published (around 1870 under Newman's own direction) and provide excellent insight into Newman's concerns over various questions of faith. In an 1822 sermon on the theme "Out Of Weakness were made Strong," Newman states:
Whereas in him who is faithful to his own divinely implanted nature, the faint light of Truth dawns continually brighter; the shadows which at first troubled it, the unreal shapes created by its own twilight-state, vanish; what was as uncertain as mere feeling, and could not be distinguished from a fancy except by the commanding urgency of it voice, becomes fixed and definite, and strengthening into principle, it at the same time develops into habit.
The conversion he experienced internally in 1828 found interim relief in the 90 letters written between 1832 and 1842 for the Tractarian movement and full expression in 1845 with his outward acceptance of Roman Catholicism.
Newman Converts to Catholicism
Newman's so-called "journey to Rome" began as an intellectual discovery of the early Church fathers, which in turn led to an emotional recognition of the rational doctrine which supported the religious traditions of the Church, and ended with a spiritual acceptance of a new faith. Written during this period, his Essay of Development reflected his views on a rational religion. His conversion shocked Oxford, although his close friends were aware of his beliefs and many shared similar views. For his family, however, Newman's conversion had tragic implications. Having spiritually moved into the Low Church community and become a missionary, his brother Francis never forgave him for converting, and his sister Harriet never spoke to him again.
But with his embracement of Catholicism came a peace and contentment that Newman had never before experienced. Bouyer's Newman: His Life and Spirituality describes the conversion:
The Church of England had lost forever the man who had done more than any other to inspire her with new life, while the Catholic Church at last welcomed to her bosom one who had long venerated as a Mother, yet had taken so long to discern her true features beneath her unfamiliar veil.
On the material side, however, Newman did not reap great rewards. If the diminished state of England's Anglican Church in the last century may be attributed to rising secularism, the condition of the Catholic Church was much worse. From the 1640s, the Catholics in England had been looked upon as a conquered people. Up until the latter part of the 19th century, even elementary civil rights were denied to Catholics, whose clergy--debarred from entering universities--were subsequently poorly educated. Aware of the social disadvantages he faces, Newman was determined to provide some practical solutions to the problems faced by the Church.
He traveled to Rome, hoping to put his experience and learning under the pope's authority, that he might help improve the predicament of Catholics in England. But Newman and Pope Pius IX could not communicate well, with Newman speaking little Italian or French, and many of the higher-placed clergy at the Vatican were distrustful of Newman's recent conversion. Despite the difficulties, the pope approved of Newman's and his Oxford companions' decision to join the Roman Oratory, a religious community later transplanted, with Newman at its head, into England. For the Vatican, the Catholic Church in Protestant England was a missionary outpost, and the Oratory in Birmingham, England, became an additional center from which religious work could be undertaken.
Newman's work was marred by disappointment after disappointment. In 1851, he undertook a challenging, and ultimately thwarted, task: the creation of a Catholic university in Dublin. Despite the obvious need for such an institution, there were too many in powerful positions who opposed it. In a similar vein, his proposition for a new English version of the Bible was canceled when it became clear that Newman's interpretations were too unorthodox. Despite such failures, Newman continued to carry on his priestly duties in England.
Finally, in 1864, he undertook the writing which would ensure his reputation as a scholar and great religious thinker, the Apologia. This work was the result of a series of public debates with Charles Kingsley, an energetic, popular man who distrusted Newman and attacked him in the press for deserting the Anglican Church. Newman answered Kingsley eloquently, explaining his thoughts regarding faith and religious expression in the Apologia. Through this work, as well as his poetry, letters, diaries, and sermons (many of which were published before his death), religious and secular scholars alike have been able to trace the consequences of his conversion.
Although Newman was largely ignored by Pope Pius IX, one of the first acts of the new pope Leo XIII was to reward him in 1879 for his contributions to the Church by making Newman a cardinal. His reflective nature, education, and sensitivity made him a popular counsellor, and it is not surprising that his worldwide correspondence was enormous. Dynamic and vocal in matters of faith throughout his career, in the last years of his life Newman devoted more time to silence and meditation. He died on August 11, 1890, at 89 years of age, having chosen his own epitaph, "ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem," or "out of shadows and dreams into the truth."
Name variations: Cardinal Newman. Born in February 21, 1801, in London, England; died on August 11, 1890; son of a London banker who suffered financial losses; eldest of six children.