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From our archives: the ‘spiritual warmth and vigour’ of John Henry Newman

09 July 2019

John Henry Newman, the former leader of the Tractarian movement in the Church of England who became a Roman Catholic and was appointed a cardinal, is to be canonised. On his death in 1890, the Church Times published this leading article assessing his life (15 August 1890)

church times

Cardinal Newman, from a photo by Father Anthony Pollen (1889)

Cardinal Newman, from a photo by Father Anthony Pollen (1889)

THE death of Cardinal Newman, at the age of ninety, removes from us the last survivor of the great Tractarians, one of the few remaining links with a former generation, one of the most striking personalities of this great century. Although of late years he has spoken but seldom to the public ear, yet about his life of retirement and devotion at Edgbaston there gathered a unique interest and an almost affectionate regard. Catholics and Protestants, Christians and Agnostics, alike looked with genuine reverence upon the venerable age of the great spiritual guide and teacher. Even those who stood more or less outside the sphere of Newman’s religious influence, felt the glamour of his romantic career, or came under the spell of his intellectual subtlety and strength. It is given only to very few men, even among the foremost minds of their age, thus to reach all sorts and conditions of persons, and to be an abiding power in their thoughts and lives.

In an age when noisy materialists are fond of proclaiming the divorce of intellect from faith, we have looked with a sense of consolation and hope to the fact that this great mind gave unreserved allegiance to the Person and Creed of Jesus Christ; an allegiance not less passionate in its devotion because justified by calmest reason, and sustained by the resources of wide and lofty culture. There can be little question that the influence of Cardinal Newman has been a very powerful factor among the forces of our time which make for faith.

It is, therefore, all the more noteworthy that the same influence has been so much less effective as a force on the side of Romanism. It has often been asserted, and it is true, that although Newman submitted to Rome and offered her his sword, she did not know how to use him. So far from manifesting that capacity which has been claimed for her, of employing to the best advantage men of exceptional gifts and character, the Roman Church, in this significant instance, conspicuously failed. For many a long year John Henry Newman was notoriously looked upon as a “suspect”, treated with distinct and barren respect, “damned with faint praise” by the authorities of the Church he had adopted. It is said, with what truth we do not know, that he was at one time anxious to return to Oxford at the head of a community; but that scheme and its author were alike snubbed with such severity as to render any renewal of the proposal impossible.

At any rate, it is certain that the great Oratorian’s plans for the advancement of the Roman Church in England were not favoured in high quarters, were but partially carried out, while he himself lay in the chill shadow of neglect, until the present Pope made tardy amends by pressing upon him the Cardinal’s hat, and overruling his characteristic entreaty to be spared that dignity. Ever since then the Cardinal has been a far less potent force on the side of the Roman communion than was in former days the Vicar of St Mary’s on behalf of the Church of his baptism. Cardinal Manning, not Cardinal Newman, was rightly felt to embody and express the modern type of Anglo-Romanism. And indeed, it was Newman’s strange fate to be more warmly regarded among those he had parted from, than among those to whom he went: to remain a teacher of Anglicans more truly than to become a teacher of Roman Catholics. The books he wrote before his “conversion” are, with the exception of the “Apologia,” far more widely read than those he has written since. The “Plain and Parochial Sermons” are known and loved by thousands who are but little interested in the “Sermons on Various Occasions” or impressed by the reply to Dr Pusey; and though of no higher literary quality, we may safely venture to predict that they will live when the latter have been forgotten. The greatest of Roman converts will be mainly remembered by the work he did, and the teaching he uttered, as an Anglican.

Nor can it be said that the arguments which led him to submit to Rome, and which he has since restated in various forms, have had an effect even approximately proportionate to the weight of his genius and character. It is astonishing that the arguments of so great a man and so formidable a controversialist have accomplished so little. The men who “went over” after him were attracted far more by the magic of his personality than by the force of his reasoning. The “Apologia” is a classic of literature, a masterpiece of autobiography, and a matchless controversial tour de force. But as a polemic on behalf of the Roman against the Anglican Church, we take leave to doubt that it has convinced a single reader. The famous argument founded on St Augustine’s words “Securus judicat orbis terrarum” is now seen to be incapable of bearing the weight Newman laid upon it, and it scarcely needed the recent and final demolition it has received at the hands of Dr Salmon.* ln fact Newman belonged, in mind as in age, to a former generation. He had but little sympathy with the newer methods of spiritual effort of which Cardinal Manning avails himself so adroitly. He had no sort of touch with the common life of the people; indeed, it is scarcely too much to say that to thousands of English Christians he is only, or chiefly, known as the author of “Lead, kindly Light” and “Praise to the holiest”. The arguments which reach men’s minds to-day are of another type, and the methods of their employment of a different order, from those which the master hand, now still, once wielded with such skill. As an intellectual guide, as an ecclesiastical controversialist, Newman’s influence has already waned, and will not, we think, much outlive this generation. To those indeed of the present time, who were at Oxford when the afterglow of the Tractarian movement lingered around the venerable figure of Dr Pusey, the name of Newman must always recall memories the most pathetic, the most solemn, the most inspiring. Among outsiders, and those who come after us, Newman will live as a master of the English tongue, as one of the very first prose writers of the Victorian age of letters. Nor will the extraordinary fascination of his character and life-history be soon forgotten.

But that which will live the longest is the spiritual warmth and vigour which radiates like beams from such a life and character as his. A man must be “more than a prophet” when he can but merely attract the multitude into the wilderness in his life-time, but when his influence remains, and even increases, in extent and force when he is dead, that is only possible when the prophet is also a saint.

*The Infallibility of the Church.

The Church Times digital archive is available free to all subscribers.

CHURCH TIMES“Dr Newman has had pleasure in reading the article which has been inserted into the Church Times on the subject of his late Pamphlet. He is much gratified to have the support of a publication, which expresses the opinion of an important section of the theological and literary world”: a letter from Newman to the Church Times in 1864, from a printed copy in our archives

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