Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

New Perspectives on Newman and the Oxford Movement

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

New Perspectives on Newman and the Oxford Movement

Article excerpt

John Henry Newman and the Oxford Movement continue to generate critical interest, which to some must seem remarkable, for Newman was not the kind of man whose life makes compelling biography nor the Oxford Movement an event likely to prompt compelling history. But together they addressed the most significant religious issue of the nineteenth century: Whether Christianity would preserve its spiritual identity or be diluted and absorbed into an increasingly secular culture.

Interestingly, many of the best works on Newman and the Oxford Movement have appeared on or around significant centenary events. 1933, for example, the centenary of the Oxford Movement's beginning, was marked by the publication of Christopher Dawson's The Spirit of the Oxford Movement, an objective, large-minded assessment that remains a standard in the field. 1945, the centenary of Newman's conversion to Catholicism, saw the publication of C.F. Harrold's John Henry Newman: An Expository and Critical Study of His Mind, Thought and Art, still the most methodical, close-grained, analysis of Newman's work. In 1963,a year before the centenary of the Apologia's publication, Meriol Trevor finished her two-volume biography of Newman, the most thorough since Wilfrid Ward's fifty years earlier. In 1966, just two years after the same centenary, Stephen Dessain, who spent years editing Newman's vast correspondence, published a particularly sensitive introductory study. Now, in 1991, having reached the centenary of Newman's death, three new books are available which contribute in different ways to our understanding of Newman, the Oxford Movement, and their relevance to post-Reformation England and Europe: Owen Chadwick's The Spirit of the Oxford Movement." Tractarian Essays (Cambridge University Press, 1990); Ian Ker's John Henry Newman: A Biography (The Clarendon Press, 1988); and Brian Martin's John Henry Newman: His Life & Work (Paulist Press, 1990).


For some, Chadwick's "Preface" will raise doubts about the book's quality. Rather than a holistic examination of the Oxford Movement, we learn that this is a collection of previously published essays, written over a thirty year period, about Tractarian subjects and personalities. More than one distinguished scholar, wishing to add to a publication list, has put together a volume of previously published essays, and often the results (thanks to an unevenness of tone, purpose and intellectual quality) are disappointing. Such is not the case with this book, however. Taken as a whole, these essays not only provide a coherent view of the Oxford Movement, its legacy and leaders, but consistently first rate scholarship. They are all the more welcome because many were originally published in obscure places and have never been widely accesssible.

Though not strictly so, the essays are organized chronologically by subject, so that essays on Keble, Newman, and the founding of the Ecclesiastical Commission are placed before those on Liddon, King, and the founding of theological colleges. This arrangement and the breadth of topics considered make the volume a suprisingly complete assessment of the movement and its aftermath. Providing even more coherence, however, is a consistency of purpose. Nearly every essay clarifies the critical record on a matter of confusion or misinterpretation.

The most effective essays explore how complex, biographical issues illuminate Tractarian texts and issues. "Charles Kingsley at Cambridge," is a case in point. Kingsley is often bashed by students of Newman and the Oxford Movement. Here is but one example: "Kingsley's mind was blunt: he had no taste for qualifications, no percpetion of the color gray, or the delicacy and complexity of truth.... If we must choose between the great antagonists of 1864, ... let us follow Newman, even to Rome, than accept this patched-up excuse for a genuine religion [of Kingsley's] (88, 101). This citation, from the ordinarily responsible Walter Houghton, is a fair example of how Kingsley has been treated. …

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