(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

John Henry Newman 1801-1890

English theologian, historian, essayist, autobiographer, novelist, editor, and poet. The following entry presents criticism of Newman's works from 1959 to 1997. For further discussion of Newman's life and career, see NCLC, Volume 38.

A prominent nineteenth-century religious figure, Newman is best known for his spiritual autobiography Apologia pro Vita Sua (1865), a work hailed as a masterpiece of English prose. The Apologia, which has prompted frequent comparisons to St. Augustine's Confessions, epitomizes the argumentative skill, psychological acuity, and rhetorical brilliance that distinguish many of the author's finest writings—among them An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845), Discourses on the Scope and Nature of University Education (1852), and An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1870). These works invariably reflect Newman's primary concern: to defend religious faith and the authority of church institutions in an age of increasing liberalism and disbelief. Newman is additionally distinguished as one of the leading members of the Oxford Movement, a call for the reformation of the Anglican Church initiated in the 1830s.

Biographical Information

Newman was the eldest of six children born to a London banker. Raised in the Anglican faith, he resolved at an early age to remain celibate and to consecrate his life to ministerial work. However, Newman was also drawn to the literature of religious skepticism during these early years, fascinated by the plausibility of arguments refuting Bible accounts and religious dogma. He entered Trinity College at Oxford in 1817, graduating with a Bachelor's degree before the age of twenty. In 1822, Newman was awarded a fellowship at Oxford's Oriel College. There he met the prominent English logician and theologian Richard Whately who influenced Newman's gradual acceptance of Anglican dogma. Newman was ordained a deacon in the Anglican Church in the year 1824 and was appointed to its priesthood the following year. He became vicar of St. Mary's—Oxford University's church—in 1828. At St. Mary's he delivered what are considered his most memorable and influential sermons, some of which were published later in the collection Sermons, Chiefly on the Theory of Religious Belief, Preached Before the University of Oxford (1843). Among his associates during these years were Richard Hurrell Froude and John Keble. Together Newman and these men—disturbed at what they perceived as liberal compromises and increasing governmental influence within the Church of England—initiated the Oxford Movement. Newman's contribution to a series of Tracts for the Times, published during an eight-year period beginning in 1833, forcefully expressed the concerns of the group. As the decade progressed, however, Newman became increasingly disillusioned with the Anglican Church. He left Oxford early in 1842, retiring to a parish in the nearby town of Littlemore. Newman's conversion to Catholicism late in 1845 was followed by a period of study and training in Rome; he was ordained a priest early in 1847. During the next fifteen years Newman published lectures, sermons, a collection of poetry, and two novels. Many of these works addressed not only prominent issues of the day, but also the phenomenon of religious conversion. His autobiographical Apologia pro Vita Sua, which first appeared as a series of letters and pamphlets in early 1864, was drafted in response to accusations made against him by the well-known Anglican clergyman Charles Kingsley. Following another decade of prolific literary activity, Newman was honored by both Oxford University and the Roman Catholic Church. In 1877, he was elected the first honorary fellow of Trinity College; two years later Pope Leo XIII appointed him a cardinal. His health began to fail shortly thereafter, and Newman lived the remainder of his life in retirement until his death in 1890.

Major Works

Newman's first book-length study, The Arians of the Fourth Century: Their Doctrine, Temper, and Conduct (1833), a product of his investigations into the history of the Christian church, examines early religious conflicts regarding the conception of the Trinity. Among the many essays Newman wrote as a member of the Oxford Movement, “Tract 90,” the last and most controversial of the Tracts for the Times, consists of his “Remarks on Certain Passages in the Thirty-Nine Articles” and suggests that the views propounded in these fundamental Anglican principles were more nearly Catholic than Protestant. In a series of satirical letters later collected and published as The Tamworth Reading Room (1841), Newman argued against the secular belief that knowledge and learning might displace religion as the arbiter of morality in society. His acclaimed Discourses on the Scope and Nature of University Education championed theology as an important branch of human knowledge and an essential part of a university's curriculum, while providing what is considered a seminal vindication of the liberal arts ideal of knowledge “as its own end.” Principal among his spiritual works, Newman's highly regarded Apologia pro Vita Sua contains an impassioned defense of his conversion from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism. Like the Apologia, Newman's imaginative works are largely drawn from his own personal experience. His two novels, Loss and Gain (1848) and Callista: A Sketch of the Third Century (1856), are essentially fictionalizations of Catholic doctrine and practice that reveal the author's sympathetic understanding of the arduous process of religious conversion. Similarly, his dramatic monologue The Dream of Gerontius (1866) details another sort of spiritual journey: its protagonist, paralleling Newman's own movement toward the Roman Catholic church, proceeds from death through judgment and purgatory before entering the eternal bliss of life in heaven. Representative of Newman's late theoretical work, his treatise on the psychology of religious belief, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent offers a more systematic approach to the ideas adumbrated in his Oxford University Sermons on the relation of faith and reason.

Critical Reception

Newman's insight into human psychology—his ability to anticipate many of the doubts and contentions of his audience in matters of faith and logic—enabled him to defend Christian orthodoxy against the prevailing liberalism and skepticism of his day with an eloquence that has been admired by numerous commentators. Praised for his graceful and impassioned use of rhetoric and his lucid prose, Newman has been favorably compared with the prominent social critics of the Victorian age: Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, and Matthew Arnold. In more recent years, critics have continued to study his collected writings with vigor, with most commentators focusing on the theological insights of his work. Other areas of specific interest to contemporary commentators have included his status as a religious convert, his role as a satirist and rhetorician, and the enduring significance of his thoughts on higher education.