A complex, highly gifted man who wrote volumes of works, John Henry Newman is the evangelist of today’s post.
John Henry, born in 1801, at the height of the British Empire, was English by birth. His father was Anglican; his mother, of French Hugenot ancestry, taught John and his siblings a rather strict Calvinist religion. Of the three sons, John became a Catholic cardinal, Francis, another writer, became a Deist and Robert acknowledged himself an atheist. Of his three sisters, Mary died early, but Harriet and Jemima both supported their brother.
Given a typical upper middle class education, John Henry was a dreamer, wishing that the Arabian Nights were true, reading Walter Scott’s romances as soon as they were published. He attended the best private school in England, as was said, Great Ealing School. He met masters of their subjects, including George Huxley (father of Thomas Huxley) the math teacher. These men instilled great knowledge into the boy who was only interested in study and literature, not at all sports. By 14 the young lad was reading David Hume, Thomas Paine and others who influenced the American and French Revolutions.
In his last year at Ealing, two things happened that converted the young man’s view of life: He converted to an evangelistic Christianity, whereby the personality becomes the primal truth in an individual’s philosophy, not matter nor law, nor reason nor experiences of the senses. And he learned about justification by faith alone. John began to read many current works available on evangelism, most of which were anti-Catholic such as Thomas Newton, Thomas Scott and William Law. He learned that the pope was the Anti-Christ.
After graduation, John Henry went to Trinity College at Oxford. Here he studied, probably too diligently. He apparently had a breakdown and just barely passed his studies. Despite his poor showing, he was elected a fellow at Oriel College at Oxford, known as the most intellectual of all the colleges there. In his autobiography, John Henry called this the turning point in his life. At the college he realized that he was to take orders, for he realized his gift of curing souls. After receiving his deaconate, at the age of 24, he began preaching and writing. A year later, after ordination, John became the curate of St. Clements at Oxford. He spent two years doing parish work.
Working in a parish, he came to realize that Calvinism was not the key to the phenomena of human nature as occurs on earth. He indulged in writing about Cicero and the miracles of the Gospels for an encyclopedia in an attempt to explain nature to himself. But he could not yet accept anything outside the Scriptures as Truth.
Shortly, John Henry became vice principal of St. Mary’s Hall. His studies with his friend and mentor Richard Whately, later Anglican Archbishop of Dublin, taught him to view Christianity as a social and sovereign organism separate from the State. He also was introduced to a liberal view of life and superficial study of logic as well as a precision of terms, which were to be very important to him through out his writings. His friend Hawkins taught John Henry the Catholic doctrines on tradition and baptismal regeneration. And another taught him the concept of Apostolic succession.
In another year, John Henry became the vicar of St. Mary’s Church, the university parish. He gradually joined those men who were intellectuals and part of the Oxford Movement. Taking a break from his work, the young prelate took a tour of the Mediterranean in 1832-33. He stopped in Rome to sight see and meet Bishop Nicholas Wiseman and spent time composing poetry.
By 1833, the movement was acknowledged. This movement had as a goal the adaptation of Catholic beliefs and liturgical rituals for a High Anglican church, in much the same way as the Catholic Church was before the English Reformation. John Henry’s writings and talks supported this movement for years. On his own initiative, he began to write Tracts for the Times, a series of arguments asking the Church of England to define its doctrine and discipline.
Within three years the movement was seen as an activist group. John Henry added to his tasks by becoming the editor of the British Critic. He began a series of courses at his church on how Anglicanism should be the halfway point between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.
At the height of his popularity and readership in 1839, John Henry began to have doubts about the Anglican Church being in concert with ecclesiastical authority. He was reading about certain early heresies and conversing with Bishop Wiseman. But he kept writing his tracts and serving as a High Anglican controversialist until 1841. In that year he wrote #90 in his tract series. His subject was The Thirty Seven Articles, the articles the English government published over time explaining why the Church of England was the correct church for the citizens. It was published in 1571. John Henry’s position was that the articles were not referring to the Roman Catholic Church, but only to the popular errors and exaggerations of the Church. his position was not a new one. However, a number of the teachers in the university decried his statements and the Anglican bishop of Oxford put a stop to further publications.
John Henry quit his editorship of British Critic and realized he did not have much time left with the Anglican Church.
The parish of St. Mary’s had some land outside the town, in the suburb of Littleton. In 1835, John Henry had built a small church and house there, installing a series of curates. By 1842, he and a few followers moved out of Oxford and into the small house where they spent several years in a semi- monastic lifestyle.
Slowly, some of the men chose the Catholic Church over the Anglican, including John Henry in 1845. He traveled to Rome again to be ordained a Roman Catholic priest and become an Oratorian. He moved back to England where he was given living quarters for the whole Oratorian community just outside of Birmingham.
Shortly after now-Father Newman was situated in his new home, Pope Pius IX announced that he was re-establishing the Catholic hierarchy in England. Cardinal Wiseman became the new Archbishop of Canterbury in 1851. Prime Minister Russell instigated anti-Catholic rhetoric and subsequently Catholic priests and Catholic churches were attacked.
Newman was keen for lay people to be at the forefront of any public apologetics: “[Catholics should] make the excuse of this persecution for getting up a great organization, going round the towns giving lectures, or making speeches”. He delivered a number of lectures in Birmingham regarding this problem. The next year he published his book, containing these lectures, Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England. Not only did it raise the self-worth of many of the Catholics who read it, but those who did cheered wholeheartedly for the man who told them how to deal with the Anglicans without self-effacement.
Once the bruhaha died down, the Irish prelates asked Newman to come to Dublin and establish the Catholic University of Ireland. For four years, Fr. Newman worked at this but he was deemed too liberal for the bishops. He let the students smoke, go out when they wanted and did not dictate study times. The university did not do well after four years and Fr. Newman retired. However, he wrote a book, The Idea of a University, which influenced many in the years ahead.
In his sixties, Fr. Newman published his autobiography, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, in part to vindicate his career. It was well received and has been republished many times. His Grammar of Assent, a multi-volume work published in 1870, was a series of arguments on religion, not using the typical arguments of Roman Catholics at the time.
In 1878, in honor of his many accomplishments, Pope Leo XIII nominated Fr. Newman cardinal. He accepted on two conditions: he was not to be consecrated a bishop and he could stay in Binghamton. The pope agreed.
From 1833 to 1885, Cardinal Newman produced prodigious amounts of published works, from tracts to multi-volume works. His name is synonymous with Victorian England Catholicism, establishment of dogma and pride in Catholicism among the lay people. Most know his attitudes towards education and his satire. He affected the lives of thousands as they came to understand the Catholic Faith.
“He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work.”–John Henry Cardinal Newman
© Debbie McCoy, 2017