The Oxford Movement Essay - Critical Essays

The Oxford Movement


The Oxford Movement

A revival of Roman Catholic doctrine within the Anglican Church in the first half of the nineteenth century, the Oxford Movement has been understood as a reaction against the conventional understanding of religion in Victorian Britain, governmental involvement in ecclesiastical life, the increasing secularism that accompanied the rising importance of economic structures, and the rationalist thought that sprang from the Enlightenment. Calling for a return to the beliefs of early Christianity, the leaders of the Oxford Movement emphasized religious dogma, the centrality of faith, and its practice in daily life. Although the Oxford Movement remained a minority faction within Anglicanism, and many of its members eventually left the national Church, its challenges to complacent spirituality—its commitment to a more fervent, mindful, and almost ascetic engagement with the divine, and stringent protections of religious life from the authority of the state—spurred intense intellectual controversy and contributed to the reform of the Anglican Church.

The official beginning of the Oxford Movement is marked by John Keble's Oxford Assize Sermon (published as "National Apostasy") on July 14, 1833, which focused on the problem of spiritual apathy as well as the diminishing power of the Church. Richard Hurrell Froude, Robert Wilberforce, and Isaac Williams, all students of Keble, would form the earliest core of the Oxford Movement. Two other major figures also taught at Oxford, in Oriel College: John Henry Newman, the most well-known leader of the Oxford Movement, and Edward Bouverie Pusey, who only later joined the group and would succeed Newman as leader after Newman's 1845 conversion to Catholicism. All of these men saw the Anglican Church as undergoing a period of crisis and resolved to take action to rejuvenate its authority through sermons and religious tracts. A series of printed pamphlets, called Tracts for the Times (1833-41), attracted attention both within and outside Oxford, and its writers would come to be known as Tractarians. These works engendered a great deal of controversy within the Church, and the leaders of the Oxford Movement gained increasing influence at the University.

A common charge leveled against the Tractarians was their Papist leanings, manifested by their attachment to Christian dogma, their alertness to heretical beliefs and practices, and their claim of apostolic priesthood (implying authority exceeding that of the state). In staunchly anti-Catholic England, this was an eventually crippling accusation. The posthumous publication of Froude's letters and journals, Remains of the Late Reverend Richard Hurrell Froude (1838), caused further controversy and popular hostility towards the Oxford Movement. The revivalist excitement generated by the Tractarians' publications and sermons, however, also spread to the United States and the Continent. Over the entire course of the Oxford Movement, its proponents were forced to reiterate their loyalty to Anglicanism, with an insistence that grew sharper with Newman's decision to convert to Catholicism and the younger leaders' deep criticisms of the Anglican Church. Immediately before his conversion, Newman wrote the last and most famous of the Tracts, Tract 90 (February 1841), on the significance of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Church, which he claimed do not reject Catholic tradition but do establish some distance from it. Newman wrote the tract in order to argue against those within the Oxford Movement whom he considered excessivély enthusiastic about the Romanization of the Anglican Church. The Anglican response to Newman's Tract 90 was dramatic and harsh, and Newman soon left the Movement. In 1844 W. G. Ward wrote The Ideal of a Christian Church, considered in comparison with Existing Practice, in which he argued openly for the supremacy of Roman doctrine. The leaders of the Oxford Movement swifly condemned the work and acted to distance their position from that of Ward. With increasing secessions to Rome and attacks from moderate Anglicanism, the Tractarians were forced to reform their movement throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century. Under Pusey's leadership, which succeeded that of Newman, the Oxford Movement moved into increasing mysticism and ritualism, as well as continuing doctrinal orthodoxy. "Puseyism," as it came to be known, was deeply unpopular among Anglicans, who were profoundly suspicious of extremist faiths of all varieties. Tractarianism impacted the Anglican Church in a more subtle way by challenging the secularist leanings of Victorian England and by re-establishing, as Raymond Chapman claims, "a more Catholic interpretation of [the Church of England's] functions."

The evolution of the Oxford Movement, as an intellectual controversy, was displayed in literature as well as in religious and political journals of the time. Not only were the early leaders of the movement articulate and impassioned authors—Newman is particularly noted in this regard—but the ideas spawned by the movement inspired such novelists and poets as Matthew Arnold, Anthony Trollope, and Charles Kingsley. Newman's clarity of style and religious faith impelled not only his many sermons, letters, and essays, but his two novels as well: Loss and Gain (1848) and Callista (1856). Both novels traced crises of faith that were in part drawn from Newman's own experiences, and presented staunchly Catholic and somewhat ascetic resolutions to these crises.

The Oxford Movement was deeply conservative in its attempts to revive the Catholic roots of the Anglican Church. Its emphasis on the importance of faith entailed, relative to other major political and religious causes of the period, a disregard of social reform as an explicit, defining feature. As such, some critics underscore the link between the Tractarians and the medieval Church, in its monasticism, greater authority, and adherence to the early beliefs and practices of Christianity. Although most scholars agree that the Oxford Movement failed to attain popular support within the Anglican Church and after its brief heyday devolved into extreme ritualism that existed on the periphery of Anglicanism, Tractarianism successfully challenged the disintegration of Church authority and the unreflective growth of secularism in Britain. Many recent authors claim that the Oxford Movement prefigured issues that confront current religious institutions, and generated impassioned and articulate responses to the central conflicts of nineteenth-century thought.

Representative Works

Tracts for the Times (essays) 1833-41

Richard Hurrell Froude

Remains 2 vols. (letters, journals) (edited by John Henry Newman and John Keble) 1838-9

John Keble

National Apostasy Considered in a Sermon Preached in St. Mary's, Oxford Before His Majesty's Judge of Assize, on Sunday, July 14, 1833 (lecture) 1833

Lyra Apostolica (lectures) 1836

John Henry Newman

Loss and Gain: The Story of a Convert (novel) 1848

Callista: A Sketch of the Third Century (novel) 1856

Apologia pro Vita Sua (nonfiction) 1864

Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching Considered: In a Letter Addressed to the Rev. E. B. Pusey, D. D., on occasion of his Eirenicon of 1864 (letter) 1876

Letters and Correspondence of John Henry Newman During his Life in the English Church 2 vols. (letters) (edited by Anne Mozley) 1891

William G. Ward

The Ideal of a Christian Church (nonfiction) 1844


Charles Frederick Harrold (essay date 1950)

SOURCE: "The Oxford Movement: A Reconsideration," in The Representation of Victorian Literature, edited by Joseph E. Baker, Princeton University Press, 1950, pp. 33-56.

[In the following essay, Harrold contends that the primary goal of the Oxford Movement was a rejuvenation of the "apostolic conception of Christianity, " a radical reaction against European secularism and liberalism.]

In our present years of crisis it is appropriate to reconsider a movement which in itself was the product of a crisis, and which looked backward and forward to a series of culminating forces which give the word "modern" a meaning at once hopeful and ominous. For the Oxford Movement was not merely the work of what someone has called "a band of Oxford parsons," but an event—a continuing event—which has especial significance for anyone contemplating the fateful years of 1789, 1830, 1848, 1870, 1914, and 1939.

In the framework of this historical perspective, it is no longer possible to follow the traditional accounts of Tractarianism as largely an "aspect of the Romantic Revival,"1 or as a religious form of early nineteenth-century obscurantist Toryism, or as the expression of a weak-minded hunger for dogma. It would be idle to deny that the Oxford Movement shared with the great Romantics their sense of the mysterious depths in nature and in man, or their appreciation of the value of the past. It is unforgettable, too, that in the wretched England of Chartism, "The Song of the Shirt," Sybil, and Hard Times, Newman and his cohorts attacked such earnest and admirable reformers as Mackintosh, Brougham, and Shaftesbury for permitting the plight of the Victorian masses to blind them to the importance of the "Apostolical Succession" and "the prophetical office of the Church." It is true, again, that the Newmanites frankly preached the necessity of dogma, though in a far different spirit from that attributed to them by readers ignorant alike of dogma and of the true nature of religion.

We shall find it profitable to consider the Oxford Movement in terms less temporal and controversial, regarding it, rather, as a part of a vast European effort to retrieve and to warn. Unfortunately, most of the literature resulting from the movement has suffered from the difficulty and the remoteness of its language. The "educated" man of today no longer understands the highly specialized theological traditions of his own culture. Now that religious education has gone the way of theological education—becoming the possession of the expert—the average person is simply a religious illiterate. Newman and Keble and Pusey speak to him in a dead language, about ideas of which he has never heard, on premises which seem to him preposterous, and for purposes which strike him as fantastic and superstitious. Yet at the core of the Tractarian teaching, there lay a set of intelligible convictions which have relevance not only to "the stupid nineteenth century" but also to the "highly informed" twentieth century.

Originally, of course, the Oxford leaders were concerned with problems which demanded an immediate solution: the assertion of the spiritual independence of the church from the state; opposition to the rationalism of the "Noetic" group (Whately, Arnold, Hampden) in Oriel College;2 a search for a firmer foundation than current theology for the Catholic tradition latent in Anglicanism; and a recovery of the tradition of piety, spirituality, and authority, as found in the English divines of the seventeenth century (Hooker, Andrewes, Vaughan, Ken) and in the great Church Fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries. The determination of the Tractarians, in the fourth decade of the nineteenth century, was boldly to realize the primitive "apostolic" conception of Christianity, and to apply it uncompromisingly to modern conditions. This was at once the great strength of the movement and the great obstacle to its acceptance. Yet in the degree that it brought itself into collision with the main spirit of its own time, it remains today a continuing power against the forces which have largely produced the world crisis of the twentieth century. Its very radicalism—a religious radicalism more explosive in its potentialities than any conceivable secular radicalism—throws into sharp relief some of the basic ills of modern society.

One is therefore justified in asking precisely in what respects a movement so theological can throw light on our own time, on the problems of economic injustice, social dissolution, competing political ideologies, and atomic warfare. The light will often be indirect, as we shall see. But a close study of the Tractarian point of view may convince some of us that, as Nicholas Berdyaev pointed out,3 we have reached the bitter end of Renaissance secularism, in the increasing dehumanization of man, in the loss of spiritually organic social unity, in the vast and barbarous conflict which comes from the exploitation of nature rather than in a sacramental use of it in the service of the human spirit. A kind of "liberalism" had "burst out in infidel fury at the French Revolution," and so naturalized itself in England that even Greville regarded it in 1830 as "the spirit of the times … a movement no longer to be arrested,"4 and which "believed that rational intelligence, education, and civilization would cure all the evils and sorrows of mankind."5 This is not to say, of course, that the splendid gains of nineteenth-century liberal culture are to be denied reality. We shall see that it was not liberalism in the deepest sense that the Tractarians opposed, but a secular liberalism which looked to a millennium based on the spirit-denying, Philistine proposition that to make men perfect is no part of mankind's objective, but to make imperfect men comfortable.6 We shall see that the Tractarians attacked liberalism, and its bourgeois world, because for them it meant the ultimate victory of secularism. They had a dim premonition, based on a profound knowledge of religion and human nature, that secularism would destroy the last remnants of organic social order. They could not foresee the specific shape of things to come, but from the general nature of their teachings, we may draw the conclusion that the total secularization of life leads to the depersonalization of man in the triumphant despotic state.


The Oxford Movement was not of course an isolated phenomenon. As is well known, it was a part of the general European reaction against the spirit of the Aufklärung and of the French Revolution. It was indeed a part of the English effort in the early nineteenth century to re-enter the circle of European life. At bottom, it was, as Guido De Ruggiero has pointed out, "an expression of the same universalistic attitude which inspired … the Radicals, economists, and Liberals."7 This effort to break down the isolation imposed by the pride of past generations of Englishmen, this tendency to Europeanize itself, forms one of the most striking characteristics of Victorianism. In the field of religion, the Oxford leaders, in thus reaching out for contact with what they regarded as the central tradition of continental Christianity, shared the general recoil of the conservative spirit against revolutionary liberalism. This reaction was far from being as simple as is sometimes believed: it was at once religious, intellectual, and political. Everywhere, whether in France, in the work of Chateaubriand, De Maistre, De Bonald, and Lammenais, or in Germany, in the labors of Görres, Friedrich von Schlegel, or Novalis, the spiritually conservative mind—sensing the mystery of loyalty, imagination, the soul—looked with distrust upon the dangerously facile intellectual statements of eighteenth-century revolutionism—the "rights" of man, and of reason; the contractual nature of society; the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity.8 It sought, on the contrary, to resuscitate the sense of corporate and organic order, with authority (the rights of God and of governors) as the only true basis of such order, and with a concrete and total conception of man's nature to oppose the abstract, fragmented view of man as a rational animal. To such a mind, valuable as is liberty, advantageous as is equality, Christian as is fraternity, there was one fatal flaw in the revolutionary program: it was conceived in terms of human self-sufficiency, in terms of rebellion to divine authority. To such a mind, European Christendom for the past three hundred years had been progressively apostate to authority. No genuine reform could be effected without the humbling of human pride before an authority transcending the instabilities of human nature. This seemed to have been proved by three centuries of change. "The literary revolt of the fifteenth century, the religious revolt of the sixteenth, the philosophical systems of the seventeenth, the political revolution of the eighteenth, were all parts of a whole, successive steps in the dread argument that had been fulfilling itself in history."9

In England, where the revolution had been won gradually, and was at last legally and peacefully accomplished, there was less need of the swift and politically militant counter-reformation which occurred in France; it could afford to be more personal and religious in character. The Oxford Movement was not concerned with rehabilitating the old hierocratic doctrine of political authority as resting upon the spiritual authority of a divine institution. It was, however, concerned with discovering an authority capable of resisting that mild, persuasive, "reasonable" "Liberalism" which, in England, was the equivalent for the violent but less insidious Gallican "Revolution."10 It was not merely interested in defeatingthe Whigs' intentions of disestablishing the church (of which there was really little danger in 1833), or in asserting the essence of the church to lie in the doctrine of Apostolical Succession or of the three-fold ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons. There were other and less ecclesiastical objectives, and it is these which have especial relevance for us today.

The Oxford leaders were as acutely aware as were Coleridge and Carlyle (and Burke before them) that the new secularism, founded in eighteenth-century empirical skepticism, and developed in modern materialistic industrialism, was to be the supreme enemy of man's spiritual identity. Once the revolutionary democracy of 1789 came into functional service with the machine and the laissez-faire market, the time was ripe for social dissolution and the progressive emptying of man's meaning for himself as an individual. All truly final authority—transcending the never-ending contingent authorities of nature and man—would yield to competing secularisms, and men would find themselves isolated in the mechanical meshes of an atomic social "order." This was the nightmare of Coleridge, Carlyle, Maurice, Ruskin, Arnold, and all those Victorians who failed to be quickened or comforted by the gospel according to Lord Bacon and Jeremy Bentham, or by their evangelists Macaulay, Brougham, Peel, and John Stuart Mill. Many took heart at Carlyle's oftreiterated affirmation, "There is a Godlike in human affairs…. Man is still Man,"11 and not a "Patent Digester" or "Motive-grinder"12 and social order is a "mystic, miraculous, unfathomable Union"13 of men in the bonds of spirit, not a contractual "partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco … to be taken up for a little temporary interest."14 The seat of authority for man and society must be sought in a sphere transcending the mechanisms of logic, on a plane where man's spiritual wholeness will be inviolable. By 1870, many could feel, with Ruskin, that when confronted by the "dry-featured dwarfish caricatures" of men,15 one's own contemporaries, one had the eerie sensation of talking to specters: "in our modern life … you not only cannot tell what a man is, but sometimes you cannot tell whether he is, at all!—whether you have indeed to do with a spirit, or only with an echo."16 Most popular "advanced"religious thought of the day followed Coleridge, or Carlyle, or Thomas Erskine of Linlathen, or Maurice. These sought to rehabilitate man's spirit by pointing to the universality of genuine spiritual experience, hoping somehow, by means of it, to divinize history and nature. Whether in the transcendental idealism of Coleridge, in the "natural supernaturalism" of Carlyle, or in the Christian-Platonic doctrine of the logos in Julius Charles Hare, Erskine, or Maurice, there was persistent hope in seeing in "God's universe a symbol of the Godlike … [in] Immensity a Temple … [and in] Man's History, and Men's History [biography] a perpetual Evangel."17 This was the century-long hope, the creation of what amounted to little more than a new "nature myth." It was eventually to vanish in the rose-colored mist of Victorian pantheism, leaving behind it the iron god of Mammonism, worshiped by those who had divinized nature just enough to sanctify labor, money, and property.

The Tractarians, on the other hand, protected by the Pauline and Augustinian emphasis on "the transcendence of the supernatural order and the incommensurability of Nature and Grace,"18 felt none of the seductions of nature, but instead saw in the Church, as divinely established, an instrument which alone could provide a principle of order beyond the reach of "the all-corroding, all-dissolving skepticism" of the intellect where it is permitted unrestricted freedom in dealing with man's nature or with the character of the world. For the Tractarians, nothing but a divinely authoritative religion could cope with the unique predicament of man, that of being fated to live in two different orders: in his own "existence," which is always personal although full of super-personal values, and in the objective world, which is always non-personal and quite indifferent to human values. If man defined himself solely in terms of the second order, he would end by denying his own essence. All the religious sanctions for the power which had held society in an organic unity would collapse, and with the fall of religious authority, a new and remorseless authority would take its place: the Caesarism of the all-embracing secularist state. One of the first stages in the triumph of the secularist spirit was the enthronement of the middle class. Thus, long before there rose threat of "the Man versus the State,"19 the Tractarians could easily see—what was celebrated by Macaulay, denounced by Carlyle, and satirized by Matthew Arnold—the "bourgeoization" of standards and values. On religious grounds alone this was highly repugnant to men like Newman. The still popular theological utilitarianism of William Paley—#x0022;doing good to mankind … for the sake of everlasting happiness"20—was but the counterpart of that cruder utilitarianism of the reformers which organized society for the making of money and disorganized it for anything else. It smiled upon the principle that the secular rules of the market justified the merchant in using for his own benefit whatever gifts had been bestowed upon him. As one critic has already noted, it might well have taken for its motto those words from Tyndale's translation of the Bible which R. H. Tawney has placed at the head of his account of the Puritan-Capitalist movement: "And the Lorde was with Joseph, and he was a luckie felowe."21 This spirit of adjustment of religion to worldly success—one of the least admirable aspects of the "Victorian compromise"—was especially hateful to the Tractarians, for whom, as we shall see, all things have properly a sacramental value. They could easily foresee that condition in England which later, in the 1860's, Bishop Creighton saw in Oxford, after the defeat of Newman and the advent of Mill's Logic as the dominating influence there: "At the close of the 'sixties it seemed to us at Oxford almost incredible that a young don of any intellectual reputation for modernity should be on the Christian side."22 The triumph of "modernity"—liberalism, secularism, mechanical civilization—inevitably nourished the conception of religion as at best merely an investment, and at least as a moral and emotional stimulant. Under the influence of the middle-class spirit, the English Church had drunk deeply of the temper, ideas, and laws of an ambitious and advancing civilization; it had become respectable, comfortable, sensible, temperate, liberal; it had laid its blessing on what Dean Church designated as "triumphant Macaulayism."23 And to the Tractarians, as to Carlyle, the outlook was inexpressibly dreary as the "Gospel of Mammonism" surrendered humanity to the tender mercies of industrialism.

It was precisely in the social dissolution resulting from an advancing industrialism that the Oxford men saw one of the greatest threats to that high organic idea of society which Burke had held, and which Coleridge, Southey, and Carlyle were keeping alive in the mind of many an enlightened conservative. In fact, as we shall see, the Toryism of the Tractarians was not that of the "two-bottle orthodox … the thoroughgoing Toryism and traditionary Church-of-England-ism" which Newman found in the colleges and convocation of Oxford;24 it was, instead, a spiritual Toryism which opposed endorsing remedies for reform derived solely from a philosophy fundamentally individualist and secular. Its aim was, in fact, twofold: "Tractarianism not only brought Industrialism under the condemnation of the Church. It set itself also to recover a right doctrine of 'the World,' in opposition to the Evangelical identification of it with 'some particular set of persons, or pleasures, or occupations,'"25 and in opposition to the economic liberals' conception of it as a mere quarry for exploitation. It hoped to retrive the seventeenth-century conception of the church and state as organically one, when, in Coleridgean terms, "the National Church was no mere State-institute" but rather the "State itself in its intensest federal union, … the guardian and representative of all personal individuality."26 In the 1840's, it was this lost organic unity and humanity which was disturbing all classes. It was by no means an accident that the authors of the Communist Manifesto, in 1848, deplored in the language of Past and Present the modern "nexus between men" as being nothing but "callous 'cash payment.'" Marx and Engels lamented in almost Romantic terms the fact that the bourgeoisie had "put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations" among men, "those feudal ties that bound man to his natural superiors." The rapacious mercantile class had "drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy waters of egoistical calculation."27 This is the language not only of nineteenth-century Marxians but also of Burke and Cobbett. Something incommensurable with money was vanishing from the world.

It was partly to redeem men from such despair of the supersensible that Newman emphasized the sacramental character of the world. Though Newman himself seldom speaks of nature in definitely sacramental terms—the Calvinist in him never died, and "the whole world lieth in wickedness"28—nevertheless there are innumerable passages in his works where the notion is clearly present:29 the Christian will of course "see God in all things," but he will more specifically "see Christ revealed to his soul amid the ordinary actions of the day, as by a sort of sacrament."30 All objects and events are at once profane and sacred, finite instrumentalities for the realization of divine ends, ends which alone can give meaning to the groping significance of nature's symbols. To seek a meaning solely among the symbols, to seek a humane ideology among economic or political secularisms, is to follow false gods, to cut man from man, and frustrate tragically the fierce longing of man to solve his social and individual problem. For by some strange fact of his constitution, man continually discovers that "so long as the economic [or political] operation is conceived as the human end, no truly humane ideology can be evolved. The strange but characterizing feature of humanity is that the principle of its true socialization cannot be discovered within earthly horizons, and must be sought in a transcendent sphere. It is only when work is governed by the sacramental idea of realization of spiritual ends through visible means, that a distinctly human co-operation emerges."31 The lost sense of the spiritually organicunity of society, which Carlyle sought to revive through transcendentalism, the Tractarians sought to revive through "sacramentalizing" the world and restoring man to his dual citizenship in the two orders of nature and spirit.

It was Tractarian sacramentalism which, when applied to social order, gave rise to the superficial belief that the Oxford Movement was, after all, merely the religious aspect of the hidebound Toryism of Eldon and Wellington. But the official Toryism dominant in Newman's early career was just as secular at heart as was the Liberalism which the Newmanites opposed, and had not even the humanitarianism and the moralism which were at least two undeniably redeeming characteristics of the best Liberals. If we are to call Newman a Tory, then his Toryism was of a singularly revolutionary kind, with its emphasis upon the divine issues of social order, the supernatural value of every man, and the sacramental relation of the world to the spirit of man. "In so far as the Oxford Movement was Tory, its Toryism was not that of the defenders of vested interests, the 'Conservatives' who aroused Hurrell Froude's scorn, but that of Southey and Coleridge and the young Disraeli who were among the first to denounce the injustices of the Industrial Revolution."32 Indeed, for a time in 1833, Newman seemsto have moved astonishingly close to Radicalism, noting how, at least historically, "the people were the fulcrum of the Church's power."33 And in more specifically social terms, not only Newman but also Pusey and Keble were able to rise above the barriers of cultural and intellectual inequality in their personal attitudes toward poor and humble folk.34 While the Tractarians nevercast their thought in the mold of social science, and never familiarized themselves with contemporary economic problems, the fact remains that they boldly criticized existing social conditions, condemned injustice and oppression, and clearly asserted the radical conflict between the aims of industrial capitalism and the aims of the Christian religion. Thus we find Pusey denouncing the prevailing idolatries: "Covetousness … is the very end and aim of what men do, the ground of their undertakings, to keep and enlarge their wealth…. In our eager haste toheap more comfort to ourselves, we beat down the wages of the poor, in order to cheapen or multiply our own indulgence."35 And it is Newman who lashes out at the money-hungry middle class in his famous sermons at St. Mary's, in which he flagellates the early Victorians for their "avarice, fortune-getting, amassing of capital."36 In the sermons of the Tractariansthere are unmistakable hints that they heard the ominous rumblings of world-wide disaster. "The kingdoms of this world," said Pusey in his Christianity without a Cross, are "retaining an outward civilization, [but] they are fast decaying and becoming uncivilized."37

The Tractarian opposition to Liberalism as a method of regulating the economic process rested, one should add, on what in their own day, as in ours, provoked the opposition of innumerable intelligent readers: namely, on the very limited value which they placed upon the historical spirit. It is because the Oxford Movement has long been dealt with through an overworked historical sense that it has so often been seen in a false light. To account for the movement solely in terms of historical cause and effect is to fall into the very secular fallacy which they saw overtaking their contemporaries. It is to judge an absolute standpoint from a relativist point of view: valid only to a certain degree, but fatally missing the essence of the thing judged. For it must always be remembered that when we are dealing with a movement based upon theological propositions, the essence of the movement will transcend the limits of historical definition. Like the fundamentals of metaphysical truth, the basic dogmas of theology do not change. And it is on this vantage ground that the Tractarians were able to overcome that "historicism" which Etienne Gilson has shown to have vexed the minds of later nineteenth-century historians,38 that imprisonment in historical relativity which prevented any genuine solution of real problems, because the only leverage for dealing with nature and history must be found outside the circle of cause and effect. Put into social terms, this means that Tractarianism naturally finds no help for man's deepest needs in the state. The state is not concerned with life, but only with the ordering of life, with organization and control. The real friend of life, the only true source of spiritual power, is to be found ultimately in religion. Men like Keble, Newman, and Pusey had no need to be reminded, as most of us do, that all genuine forms of religion—contemplation, sacrifice, unselfish action—are a turning away from the external, centrifugal, non-vital activity to the heart of life, to sources of power inaccessible by the crude hand of secular or civil authority. The Oxford leaders were relatively indifferent to the claims of the new "historical spirit" because they felt that it dealt, after all, with "fallen" human nature, which needs something supra-historical: a new principle of life which would reveal the inadequacy of human knowledge and human civilization, and heal and restore them. The Tractarians were no more indifferent to the Corn Laws than were the early Christians to Roman slavery; they were no more eager to destroy the Victorian secular civilization around them than were the early Christians to destroy the Roman empire. They were not social idealists. On the other hand, they were blessed with a sophistication far more profound and far more profitable than that of the hard-headed social reformer: a religious sophistication, by which they realized man's dilemma more intensely than the most fervid secular idealist, since they saw it as an inner, "inherited" burden of evil which could never be lifted by any political or economic program, but which required, for its eradication, a turning to a frame of reference transcending the flux of history.

We should now be able to understand the grounds on which the Tractarians distrusted "Liberalism." To them the word "Liberalism" referred to a twofold modern movement, at once intellectual and political. In 1833, it was the intellectual aspect of the movement which disturbed them; Newman has defined it clearly in the Apologia as "the exercise of thought upon matters, in which, from the constitution of the human mind, thought cannot be brought to any successful issue…. Amongsuch matters are first principles of whatever kind; and of these the most sacred and momentous are especially to be reckoned the truths of Revelation."39 The application of what Newman calls "liberal" reason to philosophy and theology results in positivism, in the scientism of popular thought, in the de-supernaturalism of the "social Christianity" of Protestantism, and in the general absorption of religion into the secularized culture of the modern world. The political side of Liberalism laid less claim on Newman's attention, but it represented the outer or practical manifestation of the same spirit. It has been conveniently summed up by Matthew Arnold, in Culture and Anarchy, as "middle-class liberalism, which had for the cardinal points of its belief the Reform Bill of 1832, and local self-government, in politics; in the social sphere, free trade, unrestricted competition, and the making of large industrial fortunes; in the religious sphere, the Dissidence of Dissent and the Protestantism of the Protestant religion."40 Liberalism in either sense represented the effort of man to solve the problem of life "without the aid of Christianity."41

It was the conviction of the Tractarians—as of many other religious Victorians—that nineteenth-century Liberalism could be but a temporary phenomenon, a transition between a Christian culture and one that is completely secularized. It was plain to them that European culture had already ceased to be Christian in the eighteenth century, and that while it retained the inherited moral standards and values of a Christian civilization, it succeeded only in erecting a quasi-religious substitute for faith. For the time being, it was living on the spiritual capital inherited from historic Christianity; as soon as this was exhausted, something else must come to take its place. Once society were really launched on the path of secularization, it could find in Liberalism only a half-way house; it must go on to the bitter end: some form of "state-ism"—what the twentieth century was to know as "totalitarianism." The Tractarians could have no knowledge of the exact forms which secular Liberalism would take, but there is an inner logic in any secularism, a logic which can easily enough be seen in the programs against which the Oxford leaders fought. For if we believe, with the secularists, that the Kingdom of Heaven can be established by political and economic programs, then we have no right to object to the claims of the state to embrace the whole of life in order to produce and distribute its secular goods, even though it demands—as it logically will in time—the absolute submission of the individual will and conscience. The realization of this fact drove the religious conscience of the Victorian age to disapprove of unrestricted liberal doctrine. Not only the Tractarians, but also Maurice, Coleridge, Carlyle, Ruskin, and Arnold were outspoken in their distrust of mass-democracy and economic individualism. The universal expectation of a liberal millennium42 was scoffed at by Carlyle in his social writings, in which he gave Europe two hundred years in which to learn, painfully, that the worship of Mammon must end in some form of power-leadership.

For Newman the very word "progress" was merely a "slang term."43 For him "the progress of the species" meant greater and greater loss of spiritual nourishment for mankind. He was not unaware of the possibility of a proletarian revolution; as the masses were increasingly deluded with the expectation of the fruits of secularism, and at the same time bored and angered by the spiritual vacuity of their lives, a new barbarism would generate from within the very heart of civilization. "Who are to be the Goths and Vandals who are to destroy modern civilization?" asked one of Newman's friends in 1871; and answered, with Newman's approval, "The lowest class, which is the most numerous, and is infidel, will rise up from the depths of the modern cities, and will be the new scourges of God." "This great prophecy," adds Newman, "is first fulfilled in Paris [of the Commune]—our turn may come a century hence."44


Such words make any reconsideration of the Oxford Movement a study in the implications which it has for our own time. Making allowances for what the Oxford leaders did not say, or did not intend to say, it is possible nevertheless to draw up some very pertinent conclusions based on the general tendency of their thought. Of these, perhaps the most notable at present is the fact that the secularism which they feared and fought has attained precisely the proportions which could have been predicted at the time when Newman wrote his first tracts. It is not too much to say that in the apparently beneficial soil of secular Liberalism, there lay the seeds of totalitarianism, whether in form of Fascism or Communism, or in the form of national mobilization by democratic nations for that "total warfare" which is the natural offspring of nineteenth-century middle-class industrialism.

The debacle of civilization is not merely a failure in leadership, as Carlyle had maintained; it has been a failure of spiritual leadership. For generations, religion has steadily retreated into man's inner life; it has left social and economic life to the state and to a civilization becoming secularized. Losing its hold on social life, religion loses its hold on life altogether. By the end of the nineteenth century, it could no longer be said of any nation that "Christianity was the law of the land." Never before in the history of the world had civilization become so completely secularized as was that of the late-Victorian and Edwardian periods. Soon the new secularism was to cease being content to dominate the outer world, leaving man's inner life—his loyalties, his enthusiasms, his imagination, his capacity for sacrifice—to religion. Within a generation it was to begin claiming the whole man. New and bastard religions were to arise, appealing to man's mystical instincts, in the name of "Race," or of "the State," or of "the Proletariat." These show a phenomenon new in history: the "Kingdom of Anti-Christ" fully equipped with political form and substance, standing over against the Christian church as a counter-church, with its own dogmas, moral standards, hierarchy, and militant will to world conquest.

All this may seem a far cry from Newman's original grievance against Lord Grey and his Reforming Whigs of 1830, but there is an unbroken continuity underlying the advances and retreats of Liberalism from those early years to the present. Political liberalism, such as Gladstone's, is now dead.45 But the secularism on which it fed has crowded out that spiritual authority which once was sovereign over all temporalities. Even in the democracies it threatens to erect a new "church," what has been called the "omnicompetent State," which will mold the mind and guide the life of its citizens from the cradle to the grave, developing a kind of democratic étatisme which, while being less arbitrary and inhumane than Communism or Fascism, will make just as large a claim on the individual and demand an equally whole-hearted spiritual allegiance. Both in war and in peace, it will continue to differ from the "police-state" of the nineteenth-century Liberals, but will become "a nurse, and a schoolmaster and an employer and an officer—in short, an earthly providence, an allpowerful, omnipotent human god—and a very jealous god at that."46 This will be the logical outcome of setting up the City of Man as an end in itself. Men will have forgotten that even the pagans knew that social order rested on a center not its own, i.e., on a divine center. Men have always felt that civilization did not exist merely for the gratification of needs and desires, but that it ought to be a sacred order resting on what Plato called "the divine Law."47

That the Oxford Movement is so frequently seen in only its narrower aspects—in relation to theology, church history, and the problem of belief—is no doubt owing to the scarcity of studies dealing with its larger implications. As we have already noted, it was a part of a wide European movement in search of a true principle of authority or sovereignty. Various writers have touched upon the Tractarians' relation with France, notably in the work of Fairbairn, Knox, and Laski,48 but we need a full treatment of it as a separate subject. If, as Knox says, "the religious Romantics of France were indirect, but far from insignificant factors in the development of the Oxford Movement,"49 then it would be well to know preciselyhow such works as Lammenais' Essai sur l'indifférence and Des progrès de la révolution affected Newman and Hurrell Froude. Much remains to be discovered about Newman's correspondence in 1837 with the French Abbé, M. Jager, about the Roman Catholic influence on many Englishmen when England opened her doors to refugee clergy, monks, and nuns in 1789-1790, about the surprising similarities between the early issues of Lacordaire and Montalembert's new journal, L'Avenir, and the first Tracts for the Times, about the "secret" efforts of Bloxam and Ambrose Philipps de Lisle, even before the publication of Tract XC (1841), to make the Oxford Movement a means of uniting the Church of England with the Church of Rome. Little as has been written on the Oxford Movement and France, still less has been written on the Oxford Movement and Germany. The best study we have is L. A. Willoughby's,50 which surveys the affinities of two points of view, leaving detailed treatment for other students. Here the relations are indeed tenuous, real German echoes of Newman coming only late in the century, from Ignatius Döllinger, the Modernist.51

The relation of the Tractarian Movement to the social and intellectual changes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has received considerable attention, but special studies still remain to be done. The general work in this field has been carried on, for the most part, by clergymen;52 but students of Victorian literature have an equal interest in the subject inasmuch as the Oxford Movement was both the background and the material for much Victorian prose and poetry. It remains to be proved "how little [the Movement] touched [the] characteristic and creative minds" of the period.53 It is true, as Storr has said, that "none of the greater poets of the nineteenth century yielded themselves to its spell. Tennyson and Browning show no sympathy with Anglo-Catholicism."54 Yet just what impact it made on such men, as well as on Clough, William Morris, Swinburne, and various minor poets, makes an interesting speculation. The often-noted parallels between elements in Coleridge's thought and that of the Tractarians still remain to be systematically examined. If Carlyle's acerb observation be true, that from Coleridge's "Cloud-Juno" came "spectral Puseyisms, monstrous illusory Hybrids,"55 then there is room for a definite statement of just how that "seminal mind" affected, not Newman himself, but the atmosphere in which the Oxford Movement generated its power. The degree in which the movement found expression and opposition in Victorian fiction has already been well indicated by Joseph E. Baker;56 but there still remain the wider fictional backgrounds which throw the movement into sharper focus. According to T. S. Eliot, three distinct stages can be traced in the attitude of Victorian novelists toward Christianity. In the first "the Faith is taken for granted, but omitted from their picture of life; in the second it is contested or worried about; in the third (which was reached with the present generation) it is treated as an anachronism."57 Scott, Thackeray, and Dickens show considerable interest in religion, but are somewhat unfair to nonconformity and evangelicalism. Later in the century, Kingsley's Alton Locke conveys, perhaps unintentionally, a rather vulgar and materialistic account of nonconformity. It is the women novelists, George Eliot and Mrs. Gaskell, who give a juster picture of the religious life of Victorian England. By the end of the century, Hardy, Meredith, and Butler reflect the moral and spiritual conflict around them; religion has become a problem. How accurate such generalizations as these may prove to be, can be shown only by special studies. The varieties of Victorian religion, as seen through Victorian fiction, are still to receive adequate treatment.

In any reconsideration of the Oxford Movement, whether on its theological, intellectual, or literary side, it is no longer sufficient to think of it as a backwater in the onward rush of nineteenth-century enlightenment. It had its own center, its own motive-power, and its significant place among those articulations of modern uneasiness which now may be seen as more prophetic than even the Victorians could have believed. Perhaps its greatest significance for a time of crisis, such as ours, is to remind us that man is so constituted that even in his idealism, if such idealism is turned to his own glorification, he gravitates toward materialism and boredom and destruction. The great idealisms of the nineteenth-century Liberals resulted, strangely enough, in the crass acquisitiveness of capitalism, and led onward to the vast and anonymous savagery of mechanized wars. Thus, with all their intellectual limitations, and in spite of the technical objectives at which they aimed, the great Tractarians remain, in the general grounds of their thought, singularly prophetic of much that astounds us in the wreck of our modern world.


1 The true relation between Tractarianism and Romanticism has been ably stated by Yngve Brilioth, in The Anglican Revival (London, 1925, 1933), pp. 57-58, 71: "The Oxford Movement … can only to a small extent be explained by the literary currents of the age. It was prepared for by these, and appropriated some of their thoughts; but it was not evoked by them, nor can it … be classified only as part of the Romantic Movement." A more recent, and very cogent, account concludes that in the light of history, and by any accurate use of words, "the core of the Revival is a faith which stands in eternal opposition to the Romantic spirit"—Hoxie N. Fairchild, "Romanticism and the Religious Revival in England," Journal of the History of Ideas, II (1941), 330-338.

2 Mark Pattison has maintained that the Oxford Movement, far from reacting against the Noetics, was in fact an outgrowth of their teachings; the Oriel school "implanted the germ" (see Pattison's review of T. Mozley's Reminiscences in The Academy, July 1, 1882, quoted by S. L. Ollard in A Short History of the Oxford Movement, London, 1915, p. 15). However, we have Newman's word that, in 1828-29, he came sharply to resist his own Noetic tendency "to prefer intellectual excellence to moral"—Apologia, ed. Wilfrid Ward (London, 1913), p. 116.

3The End of Our Time (London, 1933), Chapter 1; also the same author's The Fate of Man in the Modern World (London, 1935), pp. 9, 26-27, 113, etc.

4 See sub ann. 1830 (August 31), Leaves from the Greville Diary, ed. Philip Morrell (London, 1929), pp. 109-110.

5 Ollard, op. cit., p. 9. See also, for a satire on the superficial progressivism of the time, Thomas Love Peacock, Crotchet Castle, Chapter II, "The March of Mind."

6 Utilitarian secularism found its great prophet, for many early Victorians, in Lord Bacon, rather than in Bentham or James Mill. Macaulay represents this more theoretical "liberalism," and founds his own middle-class philosophy upon the "two words which form the key to the Baconian doctrine, Utility and Progress…. To make men perfect was no part of Bacon's plan. His humble aim was to make imperfect men comfortable." See Macaulay's essay on Lord Bacon.

7The History of European Liberalism, translated by R.G. Collingwood (London, 1927), pp. 121-122.

8 The revival of French Catholicism, in theocratic Ultramontanism, was of course heralded by Chateaubriand's Génie du Christianisme (1802), which was so successful as to lead De Maistre to formulate his hierocratic doctrine of papal authority as the guarantee of royal power (Du Pape, 1819). De Bonald had already ascribed sole sovereignty to God, who transmits it to the pope and thence to the king (Théorie du pouvoir politique et religieux dans la société civile,1796). Lammenais, hoping to "ensoul" the liberal gains in France, gathered about him such ardent disciples as Lacordaire, Montalembert, and Maurice de Guérin, and molded a whole generation with his famous Essai sur l'indifférence en matière de religion (1817-21), which argued for authoritarian religion as the basis of social order. The German reaction may be observed in Joseph von Görres' Christliche Mystik (1836-42), in Novalis' Die Christenheit oder Europa (1799), and in F. von Schlegel's Geschichte der alten und neuen Literatur (1815).

9 A. M. Fairbaim, Catholicism: Roman and Anglican (London, 1899), p. 101.

10Ibid., p. 112.

11 "Characteristics," Collected...

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Background Of The Movement

Raymond Chapman (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "The Background of the Movement," in Faith and Revolt: Studies in the Literary Influence of the Oxford Movement, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1970, pp. 9-29.

[In the following essay, Chapman contends that the Oxford Movement emerged in an environment of intense religious controversy between Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism in England.]

The temptation to contain human complexities in simple images is nowhere stronger than in matters of religion. The churchgoing Victorian, puritan and fundamentalist, is an image that has resisted the revaluation of nineteenth-century society more successfully than most. In...

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The Oxford Movement And Education

Timothy Corcoran, S. J. (essay date 1926)

SOURCE: "Liberal Studies and Moral Aims: A Critical Survey of Newman's Position," in Thought, Vol. 1, No. 1, June, 1926, pp. 54-71.

[In the following essay, Corcoran examines Newman's late essay "Discourses on University Education," an elaboration of the methods and goals of liberal education, which "must not be 'burdened' or 'implicated' with virtue or religion."]


Seventy-five years have elapsed since, in the interval between the Falls of 1851 and 1852, John Henry Newman composed, delivered publicly, and issued in book form his "Discourses on University Education."


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Religious Responses

Kenneth M. Peck (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "The Oxford Controversy in America: 1839," in Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church, Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, March, 1964, pp. 49-63.

[In the following essay, Peck discusses the significance of the Oxford Movement in the United States, which, as he argues, was largely isolated to the religious leadership, in contrast to the widespread controversy in Britain.]

Some difficulty is encountered ascertaining exactly when the Oxford Movement made its appearance in this country. The problem is confused by two factors. First, the Hobartian High Church party emphasized the sacramental life of the...

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Literary Aspects

Joseph Ellis Baker (essay date 1932)

SOURCE: "Newman as Novelist," in The Novel and The Oxford Movement, Princeton University Press, 1932, pp. 54-68.

[In the following essay, Baker discusses Newman 's novels, Loss and Gain and Callista as partly autobiographical reflections on spiritual faith as an "inner drama. "]

John Henry Newman wrote two novels, both portraying a development of mind somewhat similar to his own,—a development which, for him, culminated in one of the most important events in the history of the Church since the Reformation, his conversion to Rome. Since fiction is freer than history, some of Newman's spiritual...

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Political Implications

Thomas Arnold (essay date 1836)

SOURCE: "The Oxford Malignants and Dr. Hampden," in The Edinburgh Review, Vol. LXIII, No. CXXVII, April, 1836, pp. 225-39.

[The father of English man of letters Matthew Arnold, Thomas Arnold was a distinguished scholar of classical literature and Christian doctrine. In the following essay, he defends the Bampton Lectures of Dr. Hampden, who criticized the perpetuation of Catholic traditions within the Anglican Church, against the accusations of "rationalism " by the proponents of the Oxford Movement. This essay, deemed excessively pro-Catholic by the critic's peers upon its publication, nearly cost Arnold his position as Master of...

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Further Reading

Abercrombie, Nigel. "Some Directions of the Oxford Movement." The Dublin Review 193, No. 386 (July 1933): 74-84.

Provides a general introduction to the Oxford Movement and its influence on intellectual history since the nineteenth century.

Brendon, Piers. "Newman, Keble, and Froude's Remains." The English Historical Review 345 (October 1972): 697-716.

Compares the two major texts of the Oxford Movement—Newman's Tract 90 and Froude's Remains.

Butler, Perry. Gladstone: Church, State, and Tractarianism. A Study of His Religious Attitudes,...

(The entire section is 510 words.)