The Oxford Movement Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.