John Henry Newman (1801-1890) was one of the great Englishmen of the nineteenth century; perhaps one could call him a Victorian, yet he was very different from other famous Victorians such as Charles Dickens, George Elliot, or William Gladstone. He was an Anglican convert to Catholicism, a Catholic priest, and later a cardinal. Like many of the celebrated Victorians, he was a man of letters, a prolific writer, and an influential figure in public life.1
His extensive intellectual and literary legacy makes of him an attractive figure, one often quoted, and more often misquoted — a thinker whose endorsement is sought by Catholic writers in doctrinal and moral matters. Liberals and religious conservatives seek him as standard-bearer for their positions. But Newman was neither; he should instead be considered orthodox, indebted as he was to the doctrinal principle in religion. He was controversial because he voiced his beliefs in difficult subjects of the day, relying on the logical consequences of accepted Christian premises.
Born in London on Old Broad Street, where the London Stock Exchange stands today, he was the oldest of six children in the family of John Newman and Jemima née Fourdrinier. Mr. Newman, son of a Cambridge grocer, was a banker. His wife, daughter of a wealthy papermaker, was descended from French Huguenots. The family was Low Church Anglican, and in addition to morning and evening prayers, they attended Sunday service in church. Newman was baptized less than two months after his birth, and his grandmother Elizabeth Good and aunt Elizabeth Newman read to him the Sacred Scriptures from an early age.
The family enjoyed material comfort and, unlike most children of the period, Newman attended a boarding grammar school in Ealing, just outside London. There he excelled in his studies, including Latin, and won competitions in writing. He also learned to play the violin, a pastime that he would enjoy for the rest of his life.
In March 1816, Mr. Newman’s bank failed and the family suffered financial difficulty. That summer, young Newman remained at school and, while convalescing from an illness, came under the strong religious influence of Walter Mayers, a Calvinist clergyman. During this time he experienced what he would later call his first conversion: a conscious awareness of God’s existence and providence in his life, and of the importance of religious doctrine.
The following year, Mr. Newman took his son to Oxford and enrolled him at Trinity College where, after a difficult start because of his strict religious beliefs and youth, the young man did well. In 1818, he won a scholarship at Trinity, but in 1820, out of overexertion in study and fear of failure, he did not obtain the desired honors in his final undergraduate examinations. For a short while he considered — at his father’s promptings — a career in law, but in 1822, he finally decided to become a clergyman instead and was elected a fellow at Oriel College. At that time, Oriel was one of the most prestigious colleges at Oxford. As a fellow, he lived and studied in the company of other bright men who helped him to reason better, overcoming simple fundamentalist ideas in religion.
Some years later, Newman became a tutor at Oriel where, with Provost Edward Hawkins and other tutors, he had undergraduates under his care. This would prove a great experience for him but would also lead to a significant collision with the provost. In keeping with an ancient Oxford tradition, practically lost by the time Newman was at Oxford, he thought that a tutor should care not only for the intellectual but also for the moral and religious lives of his students. In this effort, he engaged the help of two younger tutors, Isaac Wilberforce, a later Catholic convert and second son of the abolitionist, William Wilberforce and Richard Hurrell Froude, and together they attempted to reform Oriel’s educational system. After a few years of individual success with students, however, the provost deprived the reformers of future students. Edged out of Oriel, Newman decided to accompany his friend Froude, who was suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis at the time, and Archdeacon Froude, the latter’s father, on a long trip to the Mediterranean.
Their visits to some Greek islands and later to Rome, with its churches and ancient monuments, made a particularly memorable impression on Newman. The young Anglican clergyman experienced the contrast of the remains of ancient civilizations and early Christianity. In long and detailed letters to his family members and friends, he expressed the sentiments he felt regarding the greatness of ancient Greece and Rome, all the while aware of their pagan customs, and walked over the sites hallowed by the first Christians.
It was, however, in Sicily, after separating from the Froudes, where he had a powerful conversion experience. After a very brief visit to Syracuse, he fell sick, most likely due to typhoid fever, from which he almost died. For a number of weeks, while convalescing in the interior of the island and at Palermo, he had the clear conviction that he was to be spared for some divine purpose. It was at sea on his return trip to England that he penned the now-famous poem Pillar of the Cloud , asking God to lead him and trusting in his all-powerful providence:
LEAD, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home —
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene — one step enough for me.2
Within a week of returning to Oxford, Newman met with John Keble, Froude, Hugh James Rose, and a few others, who agreed to launch a spiritual renewal of the Anglican Church. It was an informal plan, with deep doctrinal roots, which sought to strengthen the moral authority of the bishops. It consisted in the publication and distribution of tracts as well as sermons, most notably those of Newman delivered at St. Mary’s University Church before expectant congregations of students and professors. The young Oxford clergyman cast a spell on his audience with a deep draught of biblical truths, awakening his listeners to an exacting call to holiness in everyday life and greater faithfulness to the Church’s liturgy and norms.
The influential Oxford Movement had begun, and soon Edward B. Pusey, a Hebrew scholar, as well as other younger and deeply committed men joined its ranks. Dean Church, Edward Manning, and other important Anglicans would later partake in the movement. Almost from the start, it met resistance from the “high-and- dry” high Anglican establishment as well as from the Low Church Anglicans of the Calvinist cast. Various developments in ecclesiastical life made the claims of the movement more pressing and controversial. The breaking point came with Newman’s publication of Tract 90 in which. for the sake of keeping men from going over to Rome, he argued that the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Church were compatible with Catholic teaching. In fact, many Anglicans regarded themselves as within the larger Catholic body. Newman’s enemies denounced the tract to a bishop, and one bishop after another added his condemnation. This was a painful time for Newman, who regarded himself Anglican in all respects and who only sought the doctrinal and spiritual strengthening of the Church.
His days as an Anglican were, however, numbered; he felt in conscience that he must cease his duties as a clergyman. He moved permanently to the village of Littlemore, just outside Oxford, where he spent some years praying and studying with men younger than he who sought out his company. Gradually they individually came to the moral conviction that they should be received into the Roman Catholic Church. On the evening of October 8, 1845, Newman began his confession before Italian Passionist Fr. Dominic Barberi, a visiting missionary, who was overcome with emotion upon seeing the distinguished Newman coming to him for this purpose. On the morrow, Newman and a few of his companions recited the Creed and were admitted into communion with the Church of Rome.
It had been a long and arduous process of discernment, with careful examination of claims and intentions, until the final, irrevocable decision. Newman was forty-four years old, an established writer, a tutor at Oxford, and an Anglican clergyman. He was venturing on faith, as he had said in an earlier sermon. He had taken a momentous step because he felt that, given the lights that he had received, he — not others — must take this step to save his soul. He had reached a safe port after a difficult journey and would live another forty-five years as a Roman Catholic priest and cardinal. Although he would suffer a great deal as a Catholic due to misunderstandings by Anglicans and Catholics alike, he never regretted his decision.
Thus, Newman became Catholic after many years of prayer and study of Christian doctrine and history. During the immediate four years before his reception, he labored over the notion of a true and false development in Christian doctrine: to ascertain whether in reality the Roman Catholic Church was a corruption or a true development from early Christianity. The result of his study was an important book, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, which in fact remained incomplete when he put his pen down as an Anglican on the first week of October 1845.
After a short period as a Roman Catholic, at the suggestion of Bishop Nicholas Wiseman, Apostolic Vicar to the Midland District of England, Newman and a few fellow converts traveled to Rome where they studied for ordination to the priesthood at the College of Propaganda Fidei. On Trinity Sunday, May 29, 1847, Newman and Ambrose St. John were ordained, and, shortly afterward, they returned to England to begin, as was their desire and the wish of Pope Pius IX, the English Oratory of St. Philip Neri. The Oratory was established in Birmingham and had under its care a parish that served poor Irish immigrants. Shortly after its establishment, Frederick William Faber, a young convert and talented writer, prevailed on Newman to join him with a group of converts. Almost immediately, Faber’s excessive zeal to bring about conversions to the Catholic faith and preference for Italian expressions of piety created difficulties at Birmingham, and Newman was obliged to open the Brompton Oratory in London for Faber and some of his followers.
Faber became a close friend of Wiseman, who was named Archbishop of Westminster, the Catholic diocese of London. Moved by different ideas about the purpose of the Oratory, and out of jealousy, Faber raised suspicions concerning Newman in the mind of Wiseman, who blocked a number of important projects that Newman wished to pursue. One of these was a new English translation of the Bible entrusted to him by the First English Synod of Bishops following the restoration of the English hierarchy.
After the death of Wiseman and Faber, two other influential men — Edward Manning, Wiseman’s successor, and Msgr. James Talbot, his agent in Rome — caused comparable suffering to Newman in Rome. The latter made him suspicious in the eyes of Propaganda Fidei, and they blocked Newman’s desire to open an oratory at Oxford. In fact, toward the end of Newman’s life, they almost succeeded in blocking his reception of the cardinalate granted him by Leo XIII.
One of Newman’s greatest achievements was the formulation of fundamental ideas about the nature of a university education and the actual establishment of the Catholic University of Ireland in 1854. Although the university did not continue for a variety of reasons mostly out of Newman’s control, its founding gave him the occasion to compose his masterful Idea of a University which, together with his Sketches on University Education and various discourses to schools at the university, as well as the day-in and day-out running of the university, has provided a lasting contribution to Catholic liberal arts education.
As a Roman Catholic, Newman wrote many memorable works. The one that most rapidly gained respect for him, both from Catholics and Anglicans, was his Apologia pro vita sua, an intellectual biography of the development of his religious beliefs. After the apparent earlier failure and many contradictions in Dublin, the success of the Apologia gave Newman new impetus in his writings and dealings with others. Another one of Newman’s major intellectual contributions was Grammar of Assent, the result of more than twenty years of considering the subject of the act of faith and the certitude reached by the believer.
Permanently back in Birmingham after resigning as rector from the Catholic University of Dublin, he resumed his pastoral work and supervision of the Oratory. A few years later he engaged in one last educational work: the establishment of a Catholic Eton: a boarding school with the prestige of English public schools like Eton, and with the Catholic ethos and sacramental life. To the end of his long life he would devote his efforts to the formation of students and the many faceted difficulties of the administration of a school.
In 1877, Newman was elected the first honorary fellow at Trinity College, Oxford. When he visited for the first time after his departure in 1844, he was kindly welcomed. Then in 1879, after returning from Rome with the cardinal’s hat, he was honored by many throughout England. He was a champion returning from receiving a great prize — a tribute to him and to the English people.
Newman was an old and wise man: humble, gentle, and kind. He prayed, offered the Sacrifice of the Mass, and served his community as much as he could even as his strength withered away year by year. His last years were peaceful; he maintained his intellectual sharpness, but his body could not respond to the usual demands of life and he suffered prolonged colds. In the end, his correspondence — by then dictated to his faithful secretary Fr. William Neville — diminished considerably both in number and length. He had run the race and completed his work on earth. After a relatively short respiratory infection, he died on the morning of August 11, 1890, to be mourned immediately by all his countrymen. His remains were buried on the grounds of Rednal, the Oratory country house in Edgbaston just outside Birmingham.3
During his life, Newman was recognized for his intellectual brilliancy and literary composition. He was also admired for his charity and piety. Today, after having been declared beatus (blessed) by Pope Benedict XVI on September 20, 2010, he is venerated by Catholics.
1 For a good overview of his writings see John T. Ford, “John Henry Newman: A Short Introduction to his Writings,” Newman Studies Journal, 12:2 (Fall 2015): 33-44.
2 John Henry Newman, “The Pillar of the Cloud,” in Verses on Various Occasions [June 16, 1833], London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1903), 156.
3 In 2008, the exhumation of his grave did not reveal any physical remains. His corpse had completely decomposed because he was buried in a wooden coffin, and the gravesite at Rednal was damp.
About The Author
Juan R. Vélez
FR. JUAN R. VÉLEZ grew up in Medellin, London and Philadelphia. As a physician specialized in internal medicine, he obtained a licentiate in theology at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross and a doctorate in theology at the University of Navarre. In 1998 he was ordained a priest for the Prelature of Opus Dei. A resident of Chicago, he has published academic articles on medical ethics and on Cardinal John Henry Newman. He is author of Passion for Truth, the Life of John Henry Newman as well as A University Education for the 21st Century: The Opening of the American Mind.