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: