John Henry Newman Essay - Critical Essays

Newman, John Henry


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.

Principal Works

St. Bartholomew's Eve: A Tale of the Sixteenth Century in Two Cantos [with John William Bowden] (poetry) 1818

The Arians of the Fourth Century: Their Doctrine, Temper, and Conduct (history) 1833

*Tracts for the Times, by Members of the University of Oxford (prose) 1833-41

Parochial and Plain Sermons. 8 vols. (sermons) 1834-43

Lyra Apostolica [with John William Bowden, Richard Hurrell Froude, John Keble, Robert Isaac Wilberforce, and Isaac Williams] (poetry) 1836

Lectures on the Prophetical Office of the Church, Viewed Relatively to Romanism and Popular Protestantism (lectures) 1837

Lectures on Justification (lectures) 1838

The Tamworth Reading Room: Letters on an Address Delivered by Sir Robert Peel, Bart. M. P., on the Establishment of a Reading Room at Tamworth (essays) 1841

An Essay on the Miracles Recorded in the Ecclesiastical History of the Early Ages (prose) 1843

Sermons Bearing on Subjects of the Day (sermons) 1843

Sermons, Chiefly on the Theory of Religious Belief, Preached Before the University of Oxford (sermons) 1843

An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (theology) 1845

Loss and Gain (novel) 1848


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George N. Shuster (essay date 1959)

SOURCE: “Introduction,” in The Idea of a University, by John Henry Cardinal Newman, Image Books, 1959, pp. 21-43.

[In the following introduction to The Idea of a University, Shuster explores Newman's thoughts on the intersection of religion and liberal education, and highlights the continuing importance of Newman's text.]

On the twelfth of November, 1851, John Henry Newman, then a priest of the Birmingham Oratory, became Rector of the newly created Catholic University of Ireland. Seven years later, to the very day, he resigned from the post. The story of what he accomplished during his tenure of office hardly constitutes a notable page in the history of...

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David Goslee (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “Rhetoric as Confession in Newman's Parochial Sermons,” in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 4, December, 1987, pp. 339-63.

[In the following essay, Goslee focuses on Newman's quest for a visionary apprehension of God's will.]

Perhaps because of its affinity with twentieth-century thought, Newman's dark view of the human condition has come to seem increasingly evident: “Starting then with the being of a God, … I look out of myself into the world of men, and there I see a sight which fills me with unspeakable distress.”1 Harold L. Weatherby uses this very passage to compare Newman's “modern” epistemology with that of Aquinas and...

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José Morales (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “Newman and the Problems of Justification,” in Newman Today: Papers Presented at a Conference on John Henry Cardinal Newman, edited by Stanley L. Jaki, Ignatius Press, 1989, pp. 143-64.

[In the following essay, Morales evaluates the arguments of Newman's Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification, and concludes by summarizing the basic tenets of Newman's thought on this subject.]

The doctrine on the Justification of sinners by God is one of the central aspects of the Christian Faith. It occupies a place of singular importance within the history of the religious opinions held by Newman, it has been one of the salient points at the center of disputes...

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Stanley L. Jaki (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “Newman's Assent to Reality, Natural and Supernatural,” in Newman Today: Papers Presented at a Conference on John Henry Cardinal Newman, Ignatius Press, 1989, pp. 189-220.

[In the following essay, Jaki analyzes the philosophical and logical merits of Newman's An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent.]

On Tuesday, March 15, 1870, Newman's Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent was published and sold out on that same day.1 A week later, to Newman's great surprise, there followed a second edition.2 Still another ten days later a long review of it was carried in the Spectator throughout the intellectual and literary world. The...

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Alan G. Hill (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “Originality and Realism in Newman's Novels,” in Newman after a Hundred Years, Clarendon Press, 1990, pp. 21-42.

[In the following essay, Hill comments on the artistic aims and successes of Newman's Loss and Gain and Callista.]

‘Newman a novelist?’ One can imagine the chorus of disbelief that at one time would have greeted such a claim. Literary critics find it hard to accept that one whose priorities were ordered so differently from their own could treat the genre seriously, while churchmen have naturally sought his larger achievement elsewhere. In the cultural divide which Newman himself predicted in The Idea of a...

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Ian Ker (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “The Writer,” in The Achievement of John Henry Newman, University of Notre Dame Press, 1990, pp. 152-83.

[In the following essay, Ker surveys Newman's satirical writings and his skills as a rhetorician.]

Apart from a verse romance which he and a friend published as undergraduates, Newman's first publication was an article he contributed to an encyclopedia in 1824. It was a lengthy essay on Cicero, whom he called “the greatest master of composition that the world has seen.”1 Years later he was to acknowledge Cicero's important influence on his own writing: “As to patterns for imitation, the only master of style I have ever had (which is...

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Robert Pattison (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “Last Things: The Greatness of Newman,” in The Great Dissent: John Henry Newman and the Liberal Heresy, Oxford University Press, 1991, pp. 188-217.

[In the following essay, Pattison contrasts Newman's thought on the subjects of truth and belief with that of his fellow Victorians, and explores the thinker's attack on liberalism.]

Is Newman still a great Victorian? His claim to be anything more than a religious curiosity must rest on his theory of belief and his dissent from liberalism. One is an abstruse series of philosophical speculations, the other a detailed indictment of the modern spirit. Do either of these arguments deserve our attention? Is either...

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Oliver S. Buckton (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “‘An Unnatural State’: Gender, ‘Perversion,’ and Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua,” in Victorian Studies, Vol. 35, No. 4, Summer, 1992, pp. 359-83.

[In the following essay, Buckton claims that the controversy between Newman and Charles Kingsley of the 1860s was a manifestation of Victorian hostility to Newman's religious conversion and perceived sexual ambiguity.]

Long before he actually wrote the autobiography that resulted in the transformation of his reputation in his own country, Newman had considered the possibility of writing a narrative of self-justification in order to clarify the motives for his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1845....

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Ed Block, Jr. (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Venture and Response: The Dialogical Strategy of John Henry Newman's Loss and Gain,” in Critical Essays on John Henry Newman, edited by Ed Block, Jr., 1992, pp. 23-38.

[In the following essay, Block argues that Loss and Gain should be viewed as fiction—rather than as a satirical or autobiographical work—and describes the novel's dialogical structure.]

Critics generally see Loss and Gain, John Henry Newman's first novel, published in 1847, as either a satiric, Catholic polemic or a somewhat unfeeling portrayal of his reasons for converting from Anglicanism to Catholicism two years earlier.1 Other than Kathleen Tillotson's...

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John R. Griffin (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Difficulties Felt by Anglicans, I,” in A Historical Commentary on the Major Catholic Works of Cardinal Newman, edited by Peter Lang, 1993, pp. 35-47.

[In the following essay, Griffin concentrates on Newman's satirical lectures on the Oxford Movement in Difficulties Felt by Anglicans.]

You do me an injustice, if you think, as I half-gathered from a sentence in it, that I speak contemptuously of those who now stand where I have stood myself. But persons like yourselves should recollect the reason why I left the Anglican Church was that I thought salvation was not to be found in it. The feeling could not stop there. If it led me to...

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Ian Ker (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “A Personal God,” in Healing the Wound of Humanity: The Spirituality of John Henry Newman, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1993, pp. 10-22.

[In the following essay, Ker probes Newman's philosophical and literary approach to the existence of God.]

In a recent study of the arguments from human experience for the existence of God, Newman has been criticized by Aidan Nichols, OP ‘for concentrating his energies so exclusively on one aspect of our experience, our awareness of moral obligation’, for ‘a unilateral concentration on moral experience’, that is, ‘our experience of conscience’.1

Presumably there could be no objection to...

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Ian Ker (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “The Fullness of Christianity,” in Newman and the Fullness of Christianity, T&T Clark, 1993, pp. 123-45.

[In the following excerpt, Ker considers Newman's contribution to Catholic theology and the applicability of his theories to a critique of the modern Catholic Church.]

By 1843 Newman saw that not only was the principle of doctrinal development a persuasive hypothesis to account for the facts of Christian history, but also ‘a remarkable philosophical phenomenon, giving a character to the whole course of Christian thought’, particularly of course to Catholic thought, lending it ‘a unity and individuality’ such that ‘modern Rome was in truth...

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Emmanuel Sullivan (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “The Development of Doctrine,” in Things Old and New: An Ecumenical Reflection on the Theology of John Henry Newman, St Pauls, 1993, pp. 33-52.

[In the following essay, Sullivan discusses Newman's philosophical presuppositions and summarizes the major aims of his theological method as defined in his Essay on the Development of Doctrine.]

Newman was neither naive nor unduly optimistic in articulating his philosophical theology of development. He was aware of the constant need for renewal in Church life. He speaks of ‘real perversions and corruptions … often not so unlike externally to the doctrine from which they come, as are changes which are consistent...

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William J. Wainwright (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “John Henry Newman and the Grammar of Assent,” in Reason and the Heart: A Prolegomenon to a Critique of Passional Reason, Cornell University Press, 1995, pp. 55-83.

[In the following essay, Wainwright observes Newman's process of informal reasoning—his “illative sense”—as it is demonstrated in An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent.]

Consider these chains of reasoning. (1) Our conviction that Great Britain is an island is well-founded. We have no doubt that it is true. But if asked to give our evidence for it, we can only respond that “first, we have been so taught in our childhood, and it is so on all the maps; next, we have never heard it...

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Sheridan Gilley (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Newman and the Convert Mind,” in Newman and Conversion, edited by Ian Ker, T&T Clark, 1997, pp. 5-20.

[In the following essay, Gilley describes Newman as a figure representative of conversion to Roman Catholicism.]

There would have been converts to Roman Catholicism in England even without John Henry Newman. Most converts have been ordinary folk, converted by some sort of family connection, especially on their marriage to a practising Catholic.1 Even on a more exalted intellectual level, the tradition of conversion among poets like Hopkins and Patmore goes back to the seventeenth century, to Crashaw and Dryden, and in Newman's own day, some...

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Further Reading


Newsome, David. “Roads to Rome.” In The Convert Cardinals: John Henry Newman and Henry Edward Manning, pp. 131-84. London: John Murray, 1993.

Biographical account of the events that preceded Newman's conversion to Roman Catholicism.


Altholz, Josef L. “Newman and the Record, 1828-1833.” Victorian Periodicals Review 32, No. 2 (Summer 1999): 160-65.

Recounts Newman's efforts to diffuse conflict between the editors of the partisan Anglican Evangelical periodical the Record and the writers of the Tracts for the Times.

Barros, Carolyn...

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