Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

John Henry Newman and the Anxiety of Influence

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

John Henry Newman and the Anxiety of Influence

Article excerpt

There is much to suggest that Charles Kingsley's climactic controversy with Newman in 1864 resulted from the enduring threat Newman's conversion posed to Kingsley's latitudinarian theology. Many of Kingsley's contemporaries had a difficult time "managing" Newman's decision, (1) but this became conspicuously true in Kingsley's obsessive response. Having settled the anxieties of his own life by adopting the broad compromise of Frederick Denison Maurice in the early 'forties, Kingsley apparently lived for the next twenty years in fear of another who denied the possibility of such an accommodation. He continued to worry that he, too, might find compromise impossible, and wrote in 1857: "I fear sometimes that I shall end by a desperate lunge into one extreme or the other. I should have done so long ago (for this battle has gone on in me since childhood), had I not seen something of a compromise in what Maurice has taught me." (2)

Kingsley's disaffection with Newman had apparently become irreversible in 1841, when Newman published Tract 90 and signaled his complete abandonment of the via media. Kingsley attacked the casuistry he found there in a letter to his mother: "Whether wilful or self-deceived, these men are Jesuits, taking the oath to the Articles with moral reservations which allow them to explain them away in senses utterly different from those of their authors. All the worst doctrinal features of Popery Mr. Newman professes to believe in" (LK 1:56).

When Newman formally embraced Roman Catholicism, Kingsley claimed he was glad "the disease ha[d] reached its crisis," but there is real fear in his subsequent questions. "Who is our prophet?" he asks a friend, in language reminiscent of Carlyle. "Who? And if a nation cannot answer that--woe to it!" (LK 1: 133). Two months later he tells his wife, "the plot is thickening with the poor Church of England. All parties are in confused and angry murmur at they know not what-every one is frightened" (LK 1: 134). By the end of 1845 the "disease" seems to have ravaged Kingsley's community like the black death. He calls himself "an Ishmael of catholicity, a John the Baptist ... bemoaning myself in the wilderness.... Nobody trusts nobody. The clergy are split up into innumerable parties, principally nomadic. Every one afraid to speak.... Everybody swears we are going backward" (LK 1: 137). Kingsley's sense of general disarray and even personal abandonment is obvious. The collapse of Newman's attempt at compromise seriously threatened Kingsley and all those who hoped to bridge the gap between reason and authority and thereby to avoid so final a leap of faith. The Oxonian's spiritual odyssey covered territory familiar to Kingsley, but then precipitously forged ahead.

Disillusioned with one "voice," and frightened by its powerful challenge, Kingsley eagerly sought another prophet who might show him a path less treacherous. At his fiancee's suggestion he read Maurice's The Kingdom of Christ, and in Maurice he discerned a way to circumvent Newman's choice. Again with Carlylean overtones, a liberated Kingsley excitedly proclaims that with Maurice's emphasis on the moral demands of Christianity, removed from Newman's paralyzing architectonic theologizing, all things were possible: Victorian England could embrace progress, nationalism, and Christianity at once and need not try to adopt a comforting but false and unEnglish medieval worldview.

He chose Maurice as his theologian at a particularly anti-Roman phase of the older man's career. Preoccupied with the Oxford Movement's continuing attraction, Maurice was concerned that if he failed in "exposing" Catholicism there would be many more defections. In 1841 he wrote to R.C. Trench, one of the Cambridge Apostles and one of Maurice's disciples, that his "own greatest anxiety at this time is to bring out the highest form of Catholicism (not of Anglicanism) as the direct opposite of Popery, and to show that Popery is not the excess of everything good, but simply the denial of it" (Maurice I:321). …

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