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The author of a dream

11 August 2017

Adrian Leak on John Henry Newman, commemorated by Anglicans on 11 August

Lost leader of the Oxford Movement: John Henry Newman in 1844

Lost leader of the Oxford Movement: John Henry Newman in 1844

JOHN HENRY NEWMAN (1801-90) was elected a Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, in 1822, and from 1828 to 1843 was Vicar of St Mary’s, the University Church. His posi­tion in the university and his outstanding intellect made him the natural leader of the Oxford Movement, a group of Anglican clergy whose aim was to restore to the Church of England the ideals of Jewel, Hooker, and the Caroline divines. In 1845, he seceded to the Roman Catholic Church and later founded the Birming­ham Oratory, a com­munity of secular priests. His preaching and writings, both as an Anglican and as a Roman Catholic, were highly influ­ential, and contained some of the finest English prose of the 19th century. He was made a cardinal in 1878, and was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010.


AT THE age of 15, Newman underwent a religious conversion. In his own words, he believed that “God had elected him to eternal glory” and to a life of sacrificial service. His mentor was one of his schoolmasters, himself a convert of pronounced Protestant views, in whose eyes the Pope was the Anti-Christ. Later, Newman’s study of the Early Fathers, and the influence of colleagues in the senior common room of Oriel College, led him to discard his earlier Calvinist views.

He was only 27 when he became Vicar of the University Church in Oxford, but he preached with a depth and sincerity that com­­mand­ed attention. His afternoon sermons drew large congregations of under­graduates, among them many of the next generation of church leaders. Contemporaries described how he spoke in a mono­tonous but musical voice, reading his sermon from a tall lectern, and delivering his words without tricks of rhetoric or gesture. Some thought his style too severe. He eschewed flamboyant language, and called ritualists “gingerbread men”.

Matthew Arnold was one of those undergraduates who never forgot “the charm of that spiritual appari­tion gliding in the dim afternoon light through the aisles of St Mary’s, rising into the pulpit, and then, in the most entrancing of voices, break­ing the silence with words and thoughts which were a religious music — subtle, sweet, mournful”.

Newman revealed to his listeners a nobler vision of the Church and of themselves than they had known hitherto. He moved them not merely by his words — elegant as they certainly were — but by the strength of his ideas. He presented his congregation with an inspiring call to holiness, besides which the latitudinarian approach of the Church of England looked worldly, second-rate, and shabby.


NEWMAN’s Parochial and Plain Sermons were first published when he was still Vicar of St Mary’s. They were bestsellers. He had them reprinted, with little alteration, 30 years later in 1868, by which time he had been for many years a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. These six volumes formed, in Owen Chadwick’s words, “one of the great English works of moral divinity . . . a corpus of writing which stands com­parison with a classic of the 17th century like Jeremy Taylor”.

With John Keble, Hurrell Froude, Isaac Williams, and later Edward Bouverie Pusey, he published a series of tracts recalling the Anglican Church to its true nature as the successor in this land of the Catholic and apostolic Church ordained by Christ himself; not merely a 16th-­century construct of Tudor legisla­tion. These tracts began as brief pamphlets of only a few pages, but as their popularity grew they dev­eloped into extended treatises on a wide range of topics, including the nature of Holy Orders, church history, the Early Fathers, the Caro­line divines, fasting, the sacraments, daily prayers, and liturgy.


OPPONENTS in the 1830s called Newman a “Romaniser”, a charge he refuted in his Lectures on the Prophetical Office of the Church (1837), in which he defended the Anglican via media between what he called the errors of “Romanism and popular Protestantism”.

Later, however, he began to doubt his own defence of the Anglican position, and gradually came to the conclusion that the Church of England was not a legitimate de­­scen­dant of the apostolic Church, and that the Church of Rome, for all her faults, was. In 1845, his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine showed how his mind was moving, and later that year he was received into the Roman Catholic Church.

The shock to his friends was immense. Many felt betrayed. How, they asked, could this saintly man, who had taught them to cherish the divine nature of their Church and its sacred ordinances, now, by his ac­­tions, repudiate its nature, its Orders, and its sacraments? Most were bewildered. Many never forgave. It was indeed — as he entitled his final sermon from an Anglican pulpit — “a parting of friends”.


DURING the next 45 years, Newman’s contribution, not only to the RC Church but to Western Christianity as a whole, was con­sider­able. There is no space, however, in this brief sketch to give an adequate account of it, apart from mentioning two of his most influential works.

In his Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1870), he argued for the place of faith as a source of know­ledge, supplementing the bleak empiricism of John Locke and David Hume. This was seen as a challenge to the received orthodoxy of the Age of Reason.

In his Idea of a University (1873), he defended the classical idea of a liberal education whose primary purpose was to train minds rather than merely prepare young people for a career. This volume originated as a series of lectures, delivered dur­ing his time as Rector of the Catho­lic University of Dublin (1854-58), and had a great influence on the development of higher education throughout the English-speaking world.

Most Anglicans now remember Newman for three hymns: “Lead, kindly Light”, “Firmly I believe and truly”, and “Praise to the holiest in the height”. The words of “Lead, kindly Light” appeared in Lyra Apostolica (1836), a collection of sacred poems by Newman, Isaac Williams, Keble, and other members of the Oxford Movement. The poem was first set to music by J. B. Dykes, and became one of the best-loved hymns of the 19th century, being read to Queen Victoria as she lay dying at Osborne House. More than a century later, it still retained its popularity, being voted as one of the BBC’s Songs of Praise Top 100 Hymns in 2013.

“Praise to the holiest in the height” and “Firmly I believe and truly” appeared in Newman’s long poem The Dream of Gerontius (1865), on which Elgar based his oratorio, first performed in 1900.


NEWMAN shuddered at the pros­pect of fame. “I like going on my own way,” he said, “living without pomp or state, or pressing engage­ments. Put me into official garb and I am worth nothing; leave me to myself, and every now and then I shall do something.” Left to himself, however, he could give the wrong impression, as happened when a verger turned him out of St Paul’s, mistaking him for a tramp.

Of course, for all his humility he must have known he possessed one of the finest minds of his generation. When the occasion called, he could draw on devastating dialectical skills. His response in his Apologia pro Sua Vita to a shameful slur upon his integrity published in Macmillan’s Magazine left its author, Charles Kingsley, sprawling in the dust. The Apologia is now regarded as one of the finest spiritual autobiographies in the English language.

Geoffrey Faber, in his Oxford Apostles, wrote these words about Newman’s preaching, but they are equally true of his writing: “Other men have known better how to stir up a storm of emotions; others have argued as skilfully; but few, if any, have equalled him in the art of using reason as a lever for the prising of hearts.”


The Revd Adrian Leak is an Hon. Assistant Priest at Holy Trinity, Bramley, in Surrey.

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