1801-16, ‘Myself and My Creator’
John Henry Newman was born on February 21st, 1801, in London. He was the eldest of six and was the son of John and Jemima Newman. His father was a banker in the city, and was able to give John Henry Newman a middle class upbringing on Southampton Street in Bloomsbury. His family were practising members of the Church of England, so Newman was exposed to Holy Scripture at an early age, becoming an avid reader of it. At the age of seven, Newman went to study at Great Ealing School.
When he was only fifteen, he would have a religious experience so strong that it would change his life forever. Writing about it later in life, he describes what happened as follows:
When I was fifteen a great change of thought took place in me. I fell under the influences of a definite Creed … I believed that the inward conversion of which I was conscious … would last into the next life, and that I was elected to eternal glory. … I believe that it had some influence on my opinions … in isolating me from the objects which surrounded me, in confirming me in my mistrust of the reality of material phenomena, and making me rest in the thought of two and two only absolute and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my creator. Apologia pro Vita Sua
He would go on to refer to this as his first conversion.
Around the time of this conversion experience (1816), Newman came into contact with Evangelicalism, which was gaining momentum with the teaching of figures such as John Wesley, bringing about what is now referred to as the Wesleyan revival, even though Wesley had been rejected by the established Church. In his final year of school, Newman converted to what can fairly be described as evangelical Christianity with a strong anti-Catholic bias.
1817-32, ‘I have the responsibility of souls on me.’
At the age of sixteen, Newman became an undergraduate at Trinity College, Oxford. After his undergraduate studies he was elected to a fellowship at Oriel College, at the time the leading college of the university, in 1822.
The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge were at the time part of the Anglican ‘Establishment’, and provided formation for Anglican clergy. Desiring to be a ‘minister of Christ’, and even taking a private vow of celibacy that was not common at the time, Newman pursued Anglican orders as a way of dedicating his whole life to God. He would write the day after his ordination as a deacon in 1824, ‘I have the responsibility of souls on me to the day of my death.’ Autobiographical Writings
On May 29th, 1825, he was ordained a priest in Christ Church Cathedral by the Bishop of Oxford and became curate of St. Clement’s Church, Oxford. In his time as curate there, Newman became known for visiting all his parishioners, especially the sick and the poor.
In 1826, Newman became a tutor at Oriel college, where he began to lecture and tutor students. He took this role extremely seriously, feeling he had a religious duty to guide the young students he had been given responsibility for, to bring them to the zeal for the faith that he had discovered. However, this led the leadership of the college to accuse him of having favourites, and so they refused to give Newman students from 1830 onwards.
This gave him additional time for study, and here he discovered the Church Fathers, the teachers of early Christianity. Through studying them, the Catholic – meaning universal – nature of the faith, and the line of apostolic succession which had preserved and transmitted it through history, became clear to him. He described his reading of the Church Fathers in this way: ‘Some portions of their teaching, magnificent in themselves, came like music to my inward ear, as if the response to ideas, which, with little external to encourage them, I had cherished so long.’
It was around this time that Newman was preaching at the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin in the heart of Oxford, where he was made vicar in 1828. Newman’s method of preaching and his messages captivated congregations. A primary source recounts, ‘He laid his finger gently, yet how powerfully, on some inner place in the hearer’s heart, and told him things about himself he had never known till then.’ He preached with a great understanding of the human condition, whilst also commanding a great knowledge of scripture. People began to travel from far away to hear him, and he quickly became the most influential preacher in the country. From these beginnings, a movement would be born.
1833-41, ‘I have a work to do in England.’
In 1833, Newman went on a tour of the Mediterranean with his friend Hurrell Froude, who was in poor health. While in Sicily, Newman himself became seriously ill, likely of typhoid fever, and was close to death for ten days. In his delirium, he repeated phrases to those aiding him, one of which was ‘I have a work to do in England.’ When he recovered, he was convinced that God had spared him for this special purpose. He would consider this his second great conversion, as it lead him to an even greater surrender to his Creator. It awoke even more deeply his desire to bring renewal to the Church that he loved.
On his return, Newman banded together with friends who also wanted to bring about this renewal: John Keble and Edward Pusey, among others. Together they aspired to combat the three evils they believed threatened the Church of England: spiritual stagnation, interference from the state and doctrinal unorthodoxy. It seemed as if the established church cared more for maintaining a good relationship with the Establishment than for being true to its origins, and that it had been warped by its political history. Newman wrote of it, ‘This remarkable Church has always been utterly dependent on the civil power and has always gloried in that dependence. It would be in fact a second Reformation:– a better Reformation.’
To bring about this ‘better Reformation’, Newman and associates embarked on what would be known as the ‘Oxford Movement’, disseminating their views through a common medium: pamphlets. Titled ‘Tracts for the Times’, they challenged the status quo of the Christian establishment in England. The very first tract published begins with this startling question: ‘Should the Government and the Country so far forget their God as to cast off the Church, to deprive it of its temporal honours and substance, on what will you rest the claim of respect and attention which you make upon your flocks?’ Designed to provoke and educate, the tracts were published as the work of a nameless ‘Presbyter’, although Newman authored about a third of them. Between 1833–41, ninety tracts were published, and their frequency gained the movement a second name: the Tractarian Movement.
Newman’s best method of reaching the people, however, was still his sermons and public lectures. The movement began to excite Christians around the country, and some students at the university took up the mantra ‘Credo in Newmanum’ – ‘I believe in Newman.’
As he continued to study and teach Christian history, especially the apostolic succession, Newman began to reconsider his hostility towards Catholicism. Catholics had been reviled and persecuted in England for centuries after the Reformation, but times were changing, especially with the passing of the Roman Catholic Relief Act in 1829, which quelled a potential Irish revolution. Nonetheless, Newman strongly believed the Catholic Church to be lacking in holiness, writing, ‘Rome must change first of all her spirit … if they (Catholics) want to convert England, let them go barefooted into our manufacturing towns, let them preach to the people, like St. Francis Xavier, let them be trampled on – and I will own that they can do what we cannot; I will confess that they are our betters.’
In Tract 90, published in 1841, Newman argued that the fundamental doctrines of the Church of England were in essence more Catholic than Protestant. Many at the university felt that Newman had now gone too far; senior tutors and heads of houses expressed outrage, arguing that the message was ‘suggesting and opening a way by which men might violate their solemn engagements to the university.’ This caused the then-Bishop of Oxford to call for the Tracts to come to an end. As a result, Newman left Oxford to continue his search for the truest form of the Christian faith, and to begin the next chapter of his journey.
1842-45, ‘To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.’
When studying the history of the early Church Fathers, Newman was perturbed to discover that the doctrinal position of the Anglican Church in his own day bore a close resemblance to some of the heretical currents that had emerged in the theological controversies of the early centuries. The denunciation of his work by a number of Anglican bishops and scholars added to his unease, and he began to question his membership of the Church of England and his leadership of its Oxford Movement.
Increasingly struggling with the issue of the apostolic succession and his changing attitudes towards Catholicism, Newman moved with a few companions to modest lodgings in the village of Littlemore, a village three miles outside Oxford. For three years he lived a quasi-monastic life there, praying for guidance. Here, he continued to devote himself to ever deeper study, fasting and prayers. By 1843, he had resigned his living at St. Mary’s. While at Littlemore, he grew convinced that the Church of Rome, the Catholic Church, was the church nearest in spirit to early Christianity:
On the whole, all parties will agree that, of all existing systems, the present communion with Rome is the nearest approximation in fact to the Church of the Fathers … And, further, it is the nearest approach, to say the least, to the religious sentiment … of the early Church, nay, to that of the Apostles and Prophets; for all will agree so far as this, that Elijah, Jeremiah, the Baptist and St. Paul … these saintly and heroic men … are more like a Dominican preacher, or a Jesuit missionary, or a Carmelite friar … than to any individuals, or to any classes of men, that can be found in other communions. Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine
Newman still had a significant difficulty with the Catholic Church, however, namely that it had seemingly added much to the Christian faith that could not be found in early Christian history or in Holy Scripture, things like purgatory and papal supremacy. Anglicans thought that these additions were a corruption of Christian belief, but Newman wanted to probe further to examine whether they were legitimate. This led him to undertake an extensive historical study, the fruit of which would break new theological ground.
By the end of his investigation in 1845, he would publish one of his greatest contributions to Christian thought, the Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. Here, Newman explores the paradoxical idea that, for an idea to remain truly itself, it must be able to change, to develop. Fundamentally, he came to realise that an idea or doctrine was like a living thing.
… it tries, as it were, its limbs, and proves the ground under it, and feels its way. From time to time it may fail … In time it enters upon strange territory; and old points of controversy alter their bearing … and old principles reappear under new forms. It changes with them in order to remain the same. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often. Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine
1845-51, ‘Like coming into port after a rough sea.’
On October 8th, 1845, Fr Dominic Barberi, an Italian Passionist priest who was in England as a missionary, arrived at Littlemore in the pouring rain. By this point, many of those who lived there had already converted, and Newman had now resolved to do the same. While the guest dried himself by the fire, he suddenly found one of the greatest minds in the established church kneeling at his feet and asking to be received into the Church of Christ.
Newman’s confession went on so late into the night that Fr Dominic insisted that they go to bed and resume it in the morning. When it was completed, John Henry Newman was at last baptized conditionally and received into what he now professed to be ‘the one fold of the Redeemer’. This had huge personal consequences. By converting, Newman lost most of his friends from the Church of England, and he was ostracised even by members of his family. He lost in an instant the standing he had built up as a fellow at Oxford. He would later describe how the trials of this period moved him more completely to surrender his life to God.
He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends, He may throw me in among strangers, He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide the future from me – still He knows what He is about. Meditations and Devotions
His conversion was accompanied by a great sense of interior peace. He wrote:
I was not conscious to myself, on my conversion, of any change, intellectual or moral, wrought in my mind. I was not conscious of firmer faith in the fundamental truths of Revelation, or of more self-command; I had not more fervour; but it was like coming into port after a rough sea. Apologia pro Vita Sua
The year after his conversion, Newman was sent to Rome to further his studies, and here discovered the model of community life pursued by the Oratorian sons of St. Philip Neri. St. Philip was a saint of the sixteenth century, and Newman saw in him a great example of cheerful witness. He also saw in the shape of the Oratorian life something deeply familiar. He once wrote:
The nearest approximation in fact to an Oratorian Congregation that I know … is one of the Colleges in the Anglican Universities. Takes such a college, destroy the Head’s house, annihilate wife and children, restore him to the body of fellows, change the religion from Protestant to Catholic, and give the Head and Fellows missionary and pastoral work, and you have a Congregation of St Philip before your eyes. Chapter address of January/February 1848
On February 1st, 1848, with the approval of Pope Pius IX, Newman established the first Oratory of St. Philip Neri in the English-speaking world at Maryvale near Birmingham. The year after that, the community moved to Alcester Street near the town centre, where a disused gin distillery was converted into a chapel. Meanwhile, Newman founded a second Oratorian house in London, sending several members of the community there, led by Frederick William Faber. In 1852, the Birmingham community moved to its present home in Edgbaston.
In these years, Newman began to address those who had formerly been involved in the Oxford Movement to convince them that they, too, belonged in the Catholic Church. Newman’s conversion had prompted many in the intellectual spheres of Oxford and Cambridge to convert, but now, having returned and established communities, Newman set about writing to those he had once led, encouraging them to continue seeking for the spirit of the true Church. He wrote essays entitled ‘Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching’, and gave a series of lectures on the ‘Present Position of Catholics in England’. The next phase of his journey, however, would call him beyond his beloved England and to a new endeavour altogether.
1852-58, ‘Knowledge is one thing, virtue is another.’
In 1852, Newman was invited to give a series of lectures in Dublin on the principles and benefits of university education. He had been invited by those who wanted to see a Catholic university founded in that city. These lectures went on to become the first parts of his next great work, The Idea of a University. Building on his belief that ideas develop through lively dialogue, this new text was a defence of liberal education.
The University … has this object and this mission; it contemplates neither moral impression nor mechanical production; it professes to exercise the mind neither in art nor in duty; its function is intellectual culture; here it may leave its scholars, and it has done its work when it has done as much as this. It educates the intellect to reason well in all matters, to reach out towards truth, and to grasp it. The Idea of a University
In 1854, the Bishops of Ireland appointed Newman as Rector of the new Catholic University of Ireland, now University College Dublin. Aiming to build it on the principles outlined in his lectures, he drew inspiration from the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, but also from the Oxford collegiate system with which he was so familiar. In his time as Rector, he oversaw many projects, including the construction of campus buildings, the publication of periodicals and the recruitment of staff. He proved himself not only a strong intellectual and spiritual leader, but also a skilled manager of major projects.
Newman also wanted to counter the growing notion that being educated and cultured, being a gentleman, was enough to form the moral conscience. Recognising that such a view diminishes the importance of the Catholic religion in acquiring virtue, Newman wrote:
Knowledge is one thing, virtue is another; good sense is not conscience, refinement is not humility, nor is largeness and justness of view faith. Philosophy, however enlightened, however profound, gives no command over the passions, no influential principles. … It is well to be a gentleman, it is well to have a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind … but still, I repeat, they are no guarantee for sanctity or even for conscientiousness. The Idea of a University
For four years Newman served as University Rector in Dublin, but for much of this time he struggled with the role. Firstly, he was concerned for the still-young Oratory in Birmingham, to which he was no longer able to give his time. Moreover, he felt under-supported and misunderstood by the Irish episcopate, who had asked him to found the university. It was a demanding position, obliging him to make fifty-six crossings to and from Ireland over a period of seven years. In 1858, struggling in the absence of their Superior, the Fathers of the Oratory unanimously determined, ‘in General Congregation assembled, that his leave of absence shall end, and that, in virtue of obedience to St. Philip, he must return to us.’ Newman resigned his role as Rector and returned to England, to his beloved community.
1859-78, ‘I must give the true key to my whole life.’
The next two decades of Newman’s life brought him a series of highs and lows, with several controversies prompting some of his best work.
The first of these controversies came when, as editor of the Rambler, he was attacked by some fellow Churchmen for adopting an editorial stance perceived as critical of Pope Pius IX, and for suggesting that the faithful could be consulted in matters of doctrine. Although Newman wrote a public essay to clarify his position, some bishops came to view him as subversive, and one even reported him to Rome for heresy. For the next eight years, Newman was viewed with suspicion in Rome. Having been disowned by the Church of England for his conversion, Newman resented being seen as suspect by the Catholic Church, the church he had sacrificed so much to join. Several projects which he embarked upon ended in rejection or failure. These included a magazine for educated Catholics, a projected Oratorian foundation in Oxford and a new English translation of the Bible, none of which succeeded. He would write of this time, ‘as a Protestant, I felt my religion dreary, but not my life – but, as a Catholic, my life dreary, not my religion.’ Autobiographical Writings
Another personal trial would become the occasion for Newman’s most personal work yet, his autobiographical Apologia pro Vita Sua or ‘defence of his life’. In 1864, Charles Kingsley, an Anglican clergyman and Cambridge professor, wrote of Newman that he had never truly been an Anglican. Feeling the need to address this criticism, Newman decided to write his entire life’s story. He felt that he must ‘give the true key to my whole life; I must show what I am, that it may be seen what I am not, and that the phantom may be extinguished … I wish to be known as a living man, and not as a scarecrow.’ Apologia pro Vita Sua
For seven weeks, Newman worked himself to the point of exhaustion, writing at times for sixteen or more hours a day. The honesty and candidness of Newman’s five-hundred-page work led even his critics to admire his integrity; its publication did much to restore his reputation in England amongst Anglicans and Catholics alike. In subsequent years, Newman published further works, among them A Grammar of Assent, a deep philosophical exploration of how the mind reaches convictions.
With his reputation restored, when the Vatican Council convened in 1868, many bishops asked Newman to serve as an expert theological adviser at the Council. Although Newman was interested in the topic of papal infallibility, which the Council was to discuss, he turned down these invitations.
In 1874, Newman felt drawn to respond to an attack made on Catholics by the Prime Minister, William Gladstone. Gladstone, outraged by the Vatican Council’s affirmation of papal infallibility, asserted that, owing to their allegiance to the Pope, Catholics could never be loyal subjects to the Queen. Newman penned an open letter, responding to Gladstone’s contention that Catholics have ‘no mental freedom’. Newman wrote that Catholics ‘do not deserve this injurious reproach that we are captives and slaves of the Pope.’
1879-90, ‘Heart speaks unto heart.’
In 1877, Newman returned to his beloved Oxford for the first time in thirty-four years. It is a sign of how much the times had changed that he was able to receive the first honorary fellowship of Trinity College. In 1879, however, he would receive an even greater honour.
After the death of Pope Pius IX in 1878, the papacy of Pope Leo XIII began. The new pontiff, admiring Newman’s fierce religious orthodoxy, created him a cardinal of the Holy Roman Church in 1879. During the years since his conversion, he had endured many personal sleights, and had been the object of rash judgements. The news that he was to be a cardinal came as a conclusive vindication of his orthodoxy and loyalty to the Catholic Church. He himself declared, ‘the cloud is lifted for ever’. After receiving his red hat in Rome, Cardinal Newman described how, ‘for thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion. Never did Holy Church need champions against it more than now.’ Pope Leo was so fond of Newman and his desire to stay true to the Faith that he referred to him as il mio cardinale, ‘my cardinal’.
Newman chose as his motto the words ‘Cor ad cor loquitur’, ‘heart speaks unto heart’. When he was made a cardinal, Newman asked not to be consecrated as a bishop, as was usual, and also asked to be allowed to remain in Birmingham. Both requests were granted, and he continued to live as a cardinal, still writing, at the Birmingham Oratory.
Newman’s elevation to the cardinalate was widely celebrated by his fellow countrymen. An Anglican friend wrote to him, ‘I wonder if you know how much you are loved by England … by all religiously minded in England. And even the enemies of faith are softened by their feeling for you. And I wonder whether this extraordinary and unparalleled love might not be … utilized, as one means to draw together into one fold all Englishmen who believe.’
The year before he died, he wrote this about the journey to sainthood:
Such are the means which God has provided for the creation of the Saint out of the sinner; He takes him as he is, and uses him against himself: He turns his affections into another channel … it is the very triumph of His grace, that He enters into the heart of man, and persuades it, and prevails with it, while He changes it. Purity and Love
In his final years, Newman continued to correspond with and give spiritual guidance to many. His Eminence the Father died at the age of 89 on the August 11th, 1890. Tens of thousands lined the streets near the Oratory for the passing of his funeral cortege. He was buried in the Oratory’s cemetery at Rednal. A plaque on the cloister wall reads, ‘out of shadows and images into the truth.’ From the age of fifteen, John Henry sought God with all his heart. In 1845, he found Him in ‘the one fold of the Redeemer’ – the Catholic Church. In August 1890, God called His humble servant to his eternal reward: ‘well done, thou good and faithful servant, come, enter into the joy of thy Lord’.