William Davage discusses the influence of John Henry Newman


In Rome on 13 October Pope Francis canonized a 19th century Englishman, an academic theologian. For 45 years of his life he was an Anglican. He converted to Rome in 1845 and for the next 45 years of his life he was a Roman Catholic, eventually becoming a cardinal. And now John Henry Newman has been raised to the altars of the Church.

In a century where religion mattered and was a subject of national debate—not the trivia of the installation of a helter-skelter or a crazy golf course in two of our cathedrals—John Henry Newman had ‘star quality.’ (Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, Newman and the Idea of a University; David Brown (ed.), Newman: A Man for Our Time (SPCK, 1990), p.142). William Gladstone said: ‘I do not believe that there has been anything like his influence in Oxford, when it was at its height, since Abelard lectured in Paris.’ (C. S. Dessain, John Henry Newman, p.43; quoted in David Newsome, Newman and Oxford. David Brown (ed.), Newman: A Man for Our Time (SPCK, 1990), p.42.)

His eloquent enunciation of the ideals and aspirations of the Oxford Movement, that intellectual and cultural movement to recover the spiritual dominion of the Church of England as a divine society, to bring (in the words of E.B. Pusey) ‘to the vivid consciousness of members of the Church of England, Catholic truths, taught of old within her,’ made him its natural leader and literary focus. Generations subscribed with enthusiasm to the vision he fostered and the political and ecclesiastical programme he articulated. It was originally seen as a conservative force in the university and in national church life, but more regarded it as a revolution against the dominant liberal ethos in church and state. Others saw it as less a conservative force than a reactionary one, an Anglican Counter-Reformation.

The appeal of Newman and the Oxford Movement Fathers was to the numinous and the divine. Part of the attraction to the Early Fathers of the Church, who were their inspiration, was their deep engagement with and profound reflections on the mysteries of faith, which found candid and sincere expression in their writings. Neither a reductionist nor an explicative approach was acceptable. They saw danger in the church of dilution, a watering-down of the mystery and the numinous, and, consequently, a diminution of the spiritual power of the mystery of faith. For them such an attenuated theology became divorced from its spiritual well-spring. It suggested that it had fathomed the mystery and in so doing it had taken away the sense of reverence, the feeling of the holy which was appropriate to the mysteries of the faith. The Oxford Movement and its successors returned the transcendent to the religion of the English. For them the church was a divine society, not a department of a secular state.

    Dr Pusey has some claim, of the original triumvirate of leaders, to have provided the Movement with its moral and devotional power. John Henry Newman provided it with its moral and intellectual force through the power and attractiveness of his prose and the beguiling enchantment of his preaching as Vicar of the University Church of S. Mary the Virgin. Matthew Arnold, in the tranquil recollection of his old age, has left us a vivid glimpse of Newman at the height of his powers: ‘No such voices as those which we heard in our youth at Oxford are sounding there now. Oxford has more criticism now, more knowledge, more light; but such voices as those of our youth it has no longer… [Newman] was preaching at St Mary’s pulpit every Sunday… who could resist 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.’ (Matthew Arnold, Philistinism in England and America, p.165; quoted in Sheridan Gilley, Newman and His Age (London, Darton, Longman & Todd, 1990), p.126.)

Newman preached that ‘Every word of Revelation has a deep meaning. It is the outward form of heavenly truth, and in this sense a mystery or sacrament.’ (John Henry Newman, The Via Media of the Anglican Church (London, 1901), p.257.) In this we can see prefigured some of the conclusions of the Second Vatican Council, sometimes called Newman’s Council. There are some who claim perhaps a little too much for Newman’s influence on that Council but there can be little doubt that much of what he wrote finds echoes in the documents that came out of the Council. His insights foreshadow, to some degree, ecumenical dialogue and the Council itself, which has proved seminal and influential not only for the Roman Catholic Church but for all Christians of goodwill. He articulated clearly the idea that there is only one source of scripture and tradition, that is Christ, whose teachings are handed down to the disciples and to the apostles and from the disciples by the apostolic ministry through the ministry of the Church. Both scripture and tradition share a common divine well-spring.

Despite that significant long-term effect, however, during his lifetime Newman proved as controversial in the Church of Rome as he had been in the Church of England. There were, in both communions, suspicions and hostility: of Romanizing in one and of perceived intellectual reservations or doctrinal hesitations in the other. After his conversion ‘his reputation was soon being… [denounced by] members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy who questioned his docility to teaching authority and doubted the authenticity of his conversion.’ (Fr Julian Large, The [London] Oratory Magazine, November 2018, vol. 95, No. 1170, pp. 5–7.) Scorned by fellow Anglicans as a crypto-papist for his sympathy with doctrines such as transubstantiation and the Immaculate Conception, which, in the light of their antiquity and their compatibility with scripture, he accepted, and his conflict with Anglican liberalism and latitudinarianism, he was viewed with similar reservation by fellow Catholics for his insufficient fundamentalism and what they perceived as his less than fanatical devotion to their cause.

Newman was a complex character and personality. He was subtle, sinuous, careful, elusive, sensitive (perhaps hypersensitive). He was feline and not without vanity. He had a degree of malice and a taste for intellectual conflict, not uncommon among academics, which he could express in the prose of an angel. (Peter Washington, Literary Review, April 2011.) His spiritual autobiography, one of the glories of English prose, the Apologia pro vita sua of 1864, was hugely influential as was much else of his writing. His intellectual and febrile personality, his spiritual journey, his elegant prose, dominated English religious life for most of the 19th century.

Whereas the prevailing ethos of 19th century English Roman Catholicism was intransigent, rigid, keen on an extensive centralization, of dogmatic assertions like that of papal infallibility, Newman was perceived, by friends and especially by his detractors, as more charitable, uneasy at the tightening of dogma, regarding the Church as more of a federation of local churches grouped around a common centre in Rome. Yet he was clear in his rejection of the proposition that there was no positive truth in religion. Religion was the revelation of truth. Religion was about truth, not a matter of opinion, not a mere sentiment. It was objective and miraculous.

The whole Christian life is a growth in understanding, a deepening awareness of God’s love, an inexhaustible journey into the mystery of the Holy Trinity. We might see that Christian life, see our Christian lives, as progressing, in the moving words incised on his gravestone: ‘ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem’: from shadows and images into truth. The Church was, for Newman, the divine society in which the people of God were built up in faith by the apostolic creeds, and the ministry, and the holy sacraments. It was, and is, a school for saints, the breeding ground for saints. And now a new saint has been proclaimed and to whom we now have recourse. John Henry Newman, pray for us.


Fr William Davage was Custodian of Dr Pusey’s Library.