John Henry Newman (1801-1890) ranked among the central personalities in the religious life of England throughout most of the 19th century. He had been converted to serious Christianity at the age of 15, in an incident of which he later wrote that it was “more certain than that I have hands or feet.”
Ordained an Anglican priest in 1825, Newman was already a national figure by the mid-1830s as a leader of the “Oxford Movement,” a group of Anglican intellectuals fascinated by the writings of the ancient “church fathers” and by pre-Reformation Christianity. (“Anglican” means “of or pertaining to the Church of England”; the equivalent of that denomination in the United States is known as the Episcopal Church.)
As they studied earlier Christian writers, members of the Oxford Movement argued that their own church should return to more ancient rituals and forms of worship. They believed that an organized church was essential to valid Christianity and to the adequate custodianship of Christian doctrine; unsupported and unguided by an authoritative church, individual reading of scripture would lead to subjectivism, division and chaos.
Thus, it was a major event when, in 1845, Newman altogether left the Church of England for Catholicism. That same year, he published his important book “An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.” (“To be deep in history,” he explained, “is to cease to be Protestant.”) He was ordained a Roman Catholic priest two years later in Rome, and, ultimately, in 1879, he was made a cardinal by Pope Leo XIII.
His reception into the Roman Catholic Church was a radically unfashionable step for an Englishman of his time. As one scholar has put it, anti-Catholicism was “an integral part of what it meant to be a Victorian.” Indeed, since the English Reformation in the 16th century, allegiance to Rome on the part of an English subject had often been seen as, and sometimes treated as, essentially treasonous.
At the time of Newman’s conversion in particular, Catholic churches were being attacked, and priests were sometimes pelted with stones. One popular activity involved public meetings in which apostate Catholics, sometimes including ex-priests, denounced their former beliefs and offered their audiences sensational accounts of the supposed immoralities and horrors of Catholic clergy, monasteries and convents. Prominent politicians and government leaders publicly supported such inflammatory events.
Newman soon proved himself a brilliant stylist with an acute sense of humor, and he penned very effective satirical responses to the claims of English anti-Catholicism (for example, in his 1851 collection of materials on “The Present Position of Catholics in England”). Subsequently, when the Anglican minister, historian, professor and novelist Charles Kingsley claimed that Catholics in general, and Newman in particular, didn’t value truth, and declared that they were commonly willing to defend their beliefs with deliberate, conscious lies, Newman’s reply was devastating. (Among other things, he described Kingsley as having “poisoned the well of discourse,” which is where the logical fallacy of “poisoning the well” received its name.) But his significance as a Victorian author far transcends such controversies.
A prolific writer (of novels as well as of non-fiction), Newman’s autobiographical 1865 “Apologia Pro Vita Sua” (“A Defense of His Life”) set forth the reasons for his religious evolution from anti-Catholic Evangelical to “high church” Anglican to Roman Catholic priest. In “An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent” (1870), he makes a quite original case for religious belief. And, of course, while still a young Anglican priest, he had written the famous hymn “Lead, Kindly Light” during an illness in Italy.
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