Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
This long essay, also known as History of My Religious Opinions (1870), is the famous reply written by John Henry Newman in answer to the attack upon him by Charles Kingsley. The years 1833-1841 had seen the publication of Tracts for the Times, to which Newman had been a contributor; these tracts, which gave their name to the Tractarian or Oxford Movement, were the spearhead of the great theological controversy of the middle years of the century. Newman and his friends were eager to return the Anglican church to something like its position during past centuries; they valued tradition and hierarchy and wished to return to the severe, authoritarian faith of the past, from which they believed the Church of England had lapsed. They were the High Church party; and some idea of the rift that was created within the Church can be gleaned from Anthony Trollope’s Barchester novels. In 1845, Newman left the Anglican church for the Roman; two years later he was ordained priest in that communion.
In January, 1864, Kingsley, an Anglican clergyman of what was known as the Broad Church party and a popular novelist, attacked Newman in a magazine article, in which he stated that “Truth, for its own sake, has never been a virtue with the Roman clergy. Father Newman informs us that it need not, and on the whole ought not to be.” To this article, Newman replied in a pamphlet in February of that year, whereupon Kingsley wrote yet another pamphlet entitled “What, then, does Dr. Newman mean?” in which he accused Newman of having “gambled away” his reason, of having a “morbid” mind, and of not caring about “truth for its own sake.” It was in answer to this pamphlet that Newman wrote Apologia pro Vita Sua.
Newman divides the work into chapters, each dealing with a crucial period in his life. The first gives the story of his youth and his education up to his thirty-second year, by which time he was a Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, and had been ordained in the Anglican church. By his own account, he is an extraordinarily precocious lad who is preoccupied at a very early age with religious questions. He resembles, indeed, the hero of his own novel Loss and Gain (1848)—which phrase might be applied as a description of his career. Later readers may smile at Newman’s decision, reached at the age of fifteen, that celibacy is the only course for him, yet his prodigious intellect shines through the account of his youth. He tells of his reading, but the decisive influences are his friends Hurrell Froude and the older John Keble. It is Froude, with his love for tradition and for the external beauty of the Roman church, who begins to soften Newman’s insular dislike of that institution.
The year 1830 is a momentous one for Newman. The revolution that deposed Charles X of France distresses him; the Whig victory in England distresses him even more. He has a violent dislike of liberalism, which seems everywhere triumphant, and the Tractarian Movement is largely a counterattack. Newman claims that the movement began to stir as far back as 1828, when he was vicar of St. Mary’s, Oxford; but the date of its beginning is usually set in July, 1833, when Keble preached a famous sermon at Oxford against the errors of the Whig government in Church policy. In Tracts for the Times, Newman and his friends state their position. As Newman sees it, the Whigs must be opposed and the Church of England returned to the position of authority it had held during the early seventeenth century. He considers himself as belonging to neither the High nor the Low Church party; he is merely anti-Liberal. He explains his position as based on dogma (he has no use for “religion as...
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Overview (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
In his Apologia pro Vita Sua (literally, “a justification of his life”), John Henry Newman set out to defend himself against charges of dishonesty and deceitfulness. In the January, 1864, issue of Macmillan’s Magazine, an article by the popular writer Charles Kingsley had questioned Newman’s honesty. On the surface, this allegation involved Newman’s supposed view that it was acceptable for Catholic clergymen like himself to resort to cunning and not necessarily adhere to the truth.
The deeper issue, however, involved Newman’s conversion to Catholicism twenty years earlier. Newman had long served as a vicar within the Anglican Church before becoming a Catholic, and the real charge that he felt compelled to answer was that he had been a secret Catholic within the Protestant Anglican Church long before he announced his conversion and that his conversion was simply the culmination of a deliberate plan to lure Protestants out of their faith and into the Catholic one.
In the Apologia pro Vita Sua, Newman decided that it would be more effective to present a narrative of his own life than to attempt to answer specific charges. Instead of rebutting false ideas, he would present true ones, so that the bulk of the book became a sort of spiritual autobiography explaining how he came to convert to Catholicism and attempting to show that he was sincere in this change and had not merely hidden his true Catholic beliefs beneath a Protestant disguise.
This central part of the book goes back to Newman’s earliest childhood and his attraction to Arabian tales and magic. It also mentions his early habit of crossing himself in the Catholic fashion and describes a cross he drew when young. His point seems to be to indicate that from a young age he was drawn to Catholicism even before he really knew what it was. He also emphasizes his growing belief in the unreality of the material world and his corresponding belief in angels and other spirits, views that he would later feel accorded best with Catholicism and its emphasis on the sacraments and their connection with the unseen world.
Newman also notes his brief interest in the skeptical writings of Thomas Paine and Voltaire and his temporary adherence to the extreme Protestant beliefs...
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Bibliography (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Arthur, James, and Guy Nicholls. John Henry Newman. London: Continuum, 2007. Overview of Newman’s life and work. Includes intellectual biography, critical exposition of his work, and discussion of his work’s reception, influence, and continued relevance.
Barros, Carolyn A. Autobiography: Narrative of Transformation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998. Analyzes Apologia pro Vita Sua and autobiographies by several other prominent Victorians, describing how these authors relate tales of major transformations in their lives.
Harrold, Charles Frederick. John Henry Newman: An Expository and Critical Study of His Mind, Thought, and Art. New York: Longmans, Green, 1945. Authoritative and detailed. Chapter 12 discusses the Newman-Kingsley controversy and Apologia pro Vita Sua. Lengthy bibliography and index.
Houghton, Walter E. The Art of Newman’s “Apologia.” New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1945. Focuses on the artistic qualities of the work rather than on its historical or theological aspects. In-depth concentration on Newman’s “principles of biography” and prose style. Includes diagrams of stylistic analysis.
Martin, Brian. John Henry Newman: His Life and Work. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. An accessible and useful work for the beginning student. Discusses Apologia pro Vita Sua throughout, but particularly in chapter 8, “Literature and Religion.” Examines the book’s influence on Newman’s contemporaries.
Newman, John Henry. Apologia pro Vita Sua. Edited by David J. DeLaura. New York: W. W. Norton, 1968. A valuable source and overview. Contains the text of Apologia pro Vita Sua, as well as basic texts of the Newman-Kingsley debate. Two further sections offer critical essays and early reactions to the work.
Rule, Philip C. Coleridge and Newman: The Centrality of Conscience. New York: Fordham University Press, 2004. Compares works by Newman and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in which the two men argued that God exists as the moral conscience of humankind. Chapter 3 discusses Apologia pro Vita Sua and Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (1817).
Strange, Roderick. John Henry Newman: A Mind Alive. London: Darton Longman & Todd, 2008. Introductory overview of Newman’s life and thought designed for students and general readers.
Ward, Wilfrid. The Life of John Henry, Cardinal Newman: Based on His Private Journals and Correspondence. 2 vols. New York: Longmans, Green, 1912. Early but definitive biography of Newman. Includes a thorough discussion of the background, sources, and effect of Apologia pro Vita Sua.