John Henry Newman

On September 25 1843, the Rev John Henry Newman—42 years old, leader of the Tractarian Movement; famous preacher and writer, vicar of one of the most famous churches in England, St Mary’s Oxford, and later to become England’s most famous and celebrated convert to Roman Catholicism, made a Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church and now scheduled to be beatified with the approval of Pope Benedict XVI, in 2010—preached his last sermon as an Anglican at Littlemore, a satellite parish of St Mary’s, where he lived in an interesting experiment in quasi-monastic Anglican Catholicism (Trevor, 1962:303). He said:

“And, O my brethren, O kind and affectionate hearts, O loving friends, should you know anyone whose lot it has been, by writing or by word of mouth, in some degree to help you thus to act; if he has ever told you what you knew about yourselves, or what you did not know; has read to you your wants or feelings, and comforted you by the very reading; has made you feel that there was a higher life than this daily one, and a brighter world than that you see; or encouraged you, or sobered you, or opened a way to the inquiring, or soothed the perplexed; if what he has said or done has ever made you take interest in him, and feel well inclined towards him; remember such a one in time to come, though you hear him not, and pray for him, that in all things he may know God’s will, and at all times he may be ready to fulfil it.”

Newman refers to this time as his Anglican ‘death-bed’. (Newman, 1864: 141) But the last line of this final Anglican sermon is telling and suggests hidden depths to his conversion: ‘that in all things he may know God’s will, and at all times he may be ready to fulfil it.’ The sermon was entitled ‘The Parting of Friends’, but he was still two years away from reception into the Roman Catholic Church.

More than 10,000 books and articles on Newman were written by the time of the centennial year (1990) of his death (Gilley, 1990), and many more will appear following his beatification. The grounds for his conversion to Roman Catholicism will be covered many times over, with probably ever increasing complications and subtleties, but I would suggest we need not over-complicate Newman’s conversion. His conversion was, as this last sermon puts it, I suggest, Newman simply doing God’s will, and his Catholicism, simply his fulfilment of God’s will.

What a nice word ‘simply’ is – it makes it all seem – well…. so simple. And so it is, I suppose, for those people who are able to discern God’s will. But for those of us who can’t so easily do that, I can think of nothing more complex and complicated.

To do God’s will. Unpack the hidden stories involved in that simple little sentence, and you give yourself a lifetime’s work – let alone what it would take in eternity.

But that’s what Newman did.

He had tried for years to inject Catholicism into a somewhat religiously bereft national church, through what we now know as the Oxford (Tractarian) Movement. An interesting counter-reformation move you might think, and so it was seen to be by the powers of both State and Church at the time, with opposition to Catholicising the Anglican church reaching its strongest point when the Court of Arches, through the judgement on June 30 1845 of Judge Jenner Fust in the Oakley case, declared that ‘the Church Catholic did not exist within the Church of England.’ (Turner, 2002:540-1) With this clear judicial statement Newman literally had nowhere else to go. To be Catholic, as he saw himself then, within Anglicanism, was now in fact made illegal according to the law of his Church. For most Anglican ‘Priests’, this would not have mattered, but Newman, unlike most Anglicans in orders at the time, took his Priesthood very seriously – as far as he was concerned a judgement from the Court of Arches was legally binding on him as a clergyman in the Church of England.

He could no longer continue to write and practice as a Catholic Anglican. But more than this, this judgement confirmed for Newman that the Anglican Church which he had loved so much, and had tried so hard to reform, was, in fact, in schism. And that, for Newman, meant his Priesthood was effectively made null and void. As a Catholic Anglican, he believed that Bishops in the Anglican Church followed an unbroken succession from Apostolic times – in other words that, amongst other things, is what continued to make the Anglican Church Catholic for Newman, but if the Church court then declares Catholicism to be illegal in Anglicanism then that means the Bishops and the Priests they have ordained are no longer licit – no longer in valid orders. That, in itself is a depth of thinking that would not have entered into the heads of almost every other Anglican Priest at the time, where the idea of Priesthood was simply a job description rather than a commitment to religious or spiritual ideals.

Not so for Newman

He wrote twenty years later in the Apologia Pro Vita, probably his most famous book and still in print and widely read, ‘I had one final advance of mind to accomplish, and one final step to take. That further advance of mind was to be able honestly to say that I was certain of the conclusions at which I had already arrived. That further step, imperative when such certitude was attained, was my submission to the Catholic Church.’ (Newman, 1864:195)

‘Submission’ – this is very different from ‘conversion’. Conversion, more often than not is understood by most people as some sort of intellectual judgement with a different set of ideas and values, perhaps – whereas ‘submission’ implies – no, more than that – requires, a lowering of self to a higher authority. – in Newman’s case to God’s will.

Even the most cursory analysis of his corpus of writings, both as Anglican and as Catholic, will show that time and time again he engaged with the lure and snares of ‘private judgement’ taking over from God’s will – he was surrounded by a world in the mid 1800s, political and scientific, that was increasingly positioning private judgement over God’s truths. Certitude for Newman would not come from his own private judgement; nor indeed from his own immense scholarship and wide reading – despite the fact that many commentators and biographers put his conversion down to his logical reasoning about Church history and development – certitude, for Newman, was nothing to do with the natural world of man at all – certitude was God-given – supernatural – and obtaining that certitude doesn’t come easily; to many of us it may never come at all.

But there is a hidden depth of the certitude Newman was searching for, which usually goes unplumbed and unstated. He was not, for example, like so many Catholic converts, now and then, introduced to the Catholic Church by a friend; he had little or no interest in the rituals of Catholicism, in fact knew nothing of them in any real detail until after his reception (see Ker, 1988:320); he was born into the age of Romanticism, but he had no romantic inclinations towards the Church aesthetically or otherwise, as many did at that time; he was not at all interested in what we might call the ‘vestments and vestures’ drama of Roman Catholicism; nor indeed, in Gothic revivalism, which brought so many into the Church at that time.

Newman’s conversion resulted from engagement with, and acceptance of undeniable and non-negotiable, absolute, objective, revealed truths. Something that we fight shy of talking about in this day and age where relativism rules almost everything we do in the academic and scholarly world, and where ‘unbelief’ powers the media and cultures of the Western world in particular.

His interest lay in being sure that the one true Church would be the Church where he could have the certitude of knowing that within that Church…….. HE COULD SAVE HIS SOUL.

Simple as that! (That word ‘simple’ again) Surely not? After all, we are talking about one of the leading intellects of his day; a serious and significant scholar; a major theologian and Oxford Don – the leader of a major movement; the writer of dozens of books and tracts; feted by Popes and famous to the point that rarely a day would go by without something in the newspapers about him. Surely, his conversion to Catholicism has to be more complicated that this?

Not at all. Personal Salvation is the key to understanding Newman’s conversion – saving his soul was the one and only motivation for his reception into the Catholic Church, because, as we saw earlier, he had come to the certain belief that the Anglican Church was in schism and so therefore unable to be the vehicle of Christ’s salvific grace.’ (Newman, 1864:206) ‘The simple question is, he wrote at the time he was formally received into the Catholic Church: ‘Can I (it is personal, not whether another, but can I) be saved in the English Church? Am I in safety, were I to die tonight?’ (Newman, 1864:208)

His very question was, of course, thought outrageous within the Anglican Church, and indeed, one of the tests that then started to be asked of candidates for Anglican orders at this time was ‘whether they thought Newman “an ill-used man”’ or not (Trevor, 1962:341). If they did, they weren’t ordained!

He wrote not long after his reception that ‘I never knew what worship was, as an objective fact, till I entered the Catholic Church…’ (Ker, 1988:324) Catholicism was for Newman ‘an awful reality’.

What Newman did, then, in becoming a Catholic in a world where the privileging of man was taking over in all spheres of activity and thinking; where unbelief was growing exponentially; where science and engineering were the new gods, what Newman did, made him stand out from the world of English privilege and status he was such a major part of, and he stood out I would suggest NOT because he became a Catholic as such – though that made good media coverage – but because he stood out for the salvation of his soul over and above everything else around him.

His becoming a Catholic, which was a secondary motivation to the prime motivation of saving his soul, has, however, further hidden depths. It was, in fact, a total indictment of, and embarrassment to, not only State Anglicanism – the Erastian Church in England – but also the State itself. He had tried, unsuccessfully for so many years through the Tractarian movement to reform Anglicanism and restore its Catholicity, arguing as early as 1829 in his sermon ‘The Unity of the Church’ that ‘The Church of Christ … is not an institution of man, not a mere political establishment, not a creature of the state, depending on the state’s breath, made and unmade at its will, but it is a Divine society, a great work of God. (Newman, 1842: 242). Sixteen years later he revealed, by the act of his conversion as personally salvific, the unthinkable at this time of British Victorian supremacy of the world …. that neither of the prime English institutions, Church and State, both growing in influence and importance around the whole world ….that neither of these bastions of Victorian security and prosperity, was capable of saving a man’s soul.

In doing what he did, at the time he did it, Newman broke all the rules of a Victorian England, gloriously self-confident in its abilities to control, as it basically did and was to do even more as so as the years went by, the entire world – he ran up to the Emperor, unabashed and totally sure about what he had come to learn and see for himself, and whispered to the King the truth about his new clothes.

At a time when Empire was the be all and end all of Britain; when manufacturing, industry, transport and almost every other aspect of life was changing rapidly; when buildings – whole towns and cities – were being built with such scale and solidity to scream out to everyone who saw them, ‘this building and all it stands for politically, socially, culturally and economically will last 1000 years’, Newman stuck a pin into the balloon and blew apart the myth, in a way no one had really done before him, that the State and its Erastian church, were simply a chimera, and could never offer real and lasting salvation to their people, despite all the appearances they might be able to do so.

And he did this, not by writing a book about it, though reflections emerged later; not by preaching sermons; not by capturing it in words of theology or philosophy, but by his action, taken thoughtfully and carefully over many years of often daily media scrutiny, of actually becoming a Catholic. He did this, in the end, quickly and without fanfare. He didn’t seek instruction; he didn’t call on his high status contacts like the then Bishop Wiseman to receive him with pomp and ceremony in glorious Gothic splendour, or map out a career path for himself as Archdeacon, later Cardinal, Manning seemed to do after his conversion. He was received by (the now Blessed) Fr. Dominic Barberi, following a cold wet and windy night at Littlemore in a converted cattle shed for a Chapel (Trevor, 1962:292).

Newman had spent a few years in quasi-monastic reflection and prayer at Littlemore, but all of that was to change when on October 1845 he resigned from Oriel College – a move of such magnitude at that time that we can barely comprehend its import over 160 years later. The simplicity of his letter should not fool us into diminishing the magnitude of the action. On October 3 1845 Newman wrote to Edward Hawkins, Provost of Oriel, ‘I shall be obliged to you if you will remove my name from the books of the College of the University.’ (Conn, 2007)

That was it.

And his sister wrote, saying: ‘What can be worse than this? It is like hearing that some dear friend must die.’ (Trevor, 1962:349)

Becoming a Catholic in England at this time was not just to make oneself a social pariah (within the Establishment) but it was also actually very difficult, in many places, to get to Mass or to a Priest with any reasonable frequency. Newman, like so many Catholics emerging from the dark penal days, had to learn to be a Catholic without the full on machinery, so to speak, of Catholicism, as it now exists in England, around him. And, strange though this may sound, some of his strongest opponents were Catholics themselves, those who had struggled through three hundred years of penal servitude, with no access, as Catholics to education, positions of status and political power. They saw themselves as the ‘real’ Catholics; after all they had defended Catholicism for all that time – not these new Catholic converts coming out of Oxford. The leading Catholic newspaper at the time of Neman’s conversion put it in no uncertain terms writing: ‘An indocile Puseyite may be many degrees further from the Church than a teachable Atheist.’ (Turner, 2002: 615)

Convert Catholics at this time were much more open than it had been possible for old Catholics ever to be, often dramatically so. Gladstone’s sister Lucy, much to his horror, had become a Catholic and would appear at Sunday Mass wearing a large dark cloak ‘which she threw off dramatically at the Gloria in excelsis Deo displaying a bright coloured dress…… as token of the resurrection.’ (Chadwick, 1966:282).

This was not, of course, Newman’s way. ‘Catholicism’, he was to say in 1846, ‘is a deep matter – you cannot take it in a teacup.’ (Ward, 1913:121) And on September 17 1846 he set off for Rome, via Milan and other places, just eleven months after he was received into the Church. On October 9 he writes from Milan, ‘This day I have been a year in the Catholic Church- and every day I bless Him who led me into it more and more. I have come from clouds and darkness into light, and cannot look back on my former state without the dreary feeling which one has on looking back upon a wearisome miserable journey.’ (Letters XI: in Dessain: 257). He finally arrived in Rome on the 28th October 1846, was ordained Subdeacon on the 26th May 1847, Deacon the following day, Priest on Trinity Sunday, the 30 May, and said his first Mass on Corpus Christi 1847. He arrived back in England with the brief for establishing the English Oratory on Christmas Eve 1847 and said his first Mass in England on Christmas day 1847, two years after he was first received into the Church.

The rest, as they say, is history. And what I have tried to show here is a little part of the hidden stories behind one tiny part of that history in Newman’s first steps as a Catholic.

Yes, his conversion to Catholicism had political consequences, for Anglicanism, State and Catholicism in England at the time – and still does.

But the power of what Newman did lies much deeper than anything he wrote or said in a long and illustrious life.

The hidden story of what he did lay in something he never actually wrote himself – in the rite of reception for converts into the Catholic Church – the Rituale Romanum. There the Priest formally asks of the convert, and Fr Dominic Barberi would have asked this of Newman that cold wet night in 1845, ‘Quid petis ab Ecclesia?’, ‘What do you seek from the Church?’ and Newman would have answered very simply (that word again!!) ‘Fides’, ‘Faith’. And then the Priest would ask, ‘Fides quid tibi praestet?’, ‘What might that faith offer you?’ and Newman again responding simply, but with such hidden depths, ‘Vitam Aeternam’ – ‘Eternal Life’.

Simple as that!!

One of the hidden stories of one of the Victorian age’s leading intellectuals and writers – the simple Story of a Soul.


Chadwick, Owen (1966) The Victorian Church, part 1, OUP, New York.

Conn, Walter E (2007) ‘From Oxford to Rome. Newman’s Ecclesial Conversion’, Theological Studies, 68/3, 2007, 595-617.

Dessain, Charles Stephen (ed) (1961) The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, Vol XI October 1845 – December 1846, Thomas Nelson, Edinburgh & London, 1961.

Gilley, Sheridan (1990) Newman and His Age, Darton Longman & Todd, London, 2nd ed 2003.

Ker, Ian (1988) John Henry Newman A Biography, OUP, Oxford.

Newman, John Henry (1864) Apologia Pro Vita Sua, ed Ian Ker, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1994.

Newman, John Henry (1842) ‘The Unity of the Church’ in his Parochial and Plain Sermons Vol 7 (1929) Sermon no. 17.

Trevor, Meriol (1962) Newman The Pillar of the Cloud, Macmillan, London.

Turner, Frank M (2002) John Henry Newman The Challenge to Evangelical Religion, Yale UP, New Haven & London.

Ward, Wilfrid (1913) The Life of John Henry Cardinal Newman, vol 1, Longman Green & Co, London.