Who was the soon-to-be saint, John Newman? A priest, theologian, educator, historian, philosopher, poet and writer, Newman began his career as an Anglican, converted to Catholicism and ended his days a cardinal. Here, Edward Short, the author of three highly acclaimed studies of Newman, explores his life and reveals why the cardinal fascinates our contemporaries as much as he did his own…
When news of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman’s canonisation was first announced earlier this year, some might have recalled what the liberal UK prime minister Lord Rosebery, Gladstone’s protégé, thought of the great convert. When Rosebery met the 79-year-old cardinal in 1880, he was impressed by his “deliciously soft voice” and “courtly” address. Indeed, Newman was surprised and pleased when Rosebery told him that he always kept Newman’s autobiography by his bedside.
Ten years later, when Newman was laid out on the high altar of the Oratory Church in Birmingham, Rosebery wrote in his journal: “This was the end of the young Calvinist, the Oxford don, the austere vicar of St Mary’s. It seemed as if a whole cycle of human thought and life were concentrated in that august repose. That was my overwhelming thought. Kindly light had led and guided Newman to this strange, brilliant end.”
John Henry Newman: a mini biography
Born: 21 February 1801
Died: 11 August 1890
Parents: John Newman, a private banker, Ramsbottom, Newman, Ramsbottom and Co. in Lombard Street
Jemima (née) Fourdrinier, descendant of distinguished Huguenot printers, engravers and stationers from Normandy
Education: Ealing School and Trinity College, Oxford
Conversion to Roman Catholicism: 9 October 1845
Career: Fellow of Oriel College; Vicar of St Mary’s University Church, Oxford; Leader of the Oxford Movement; Founder of the Birmingham Oratory; Founder of the Oratory School in Birmingham and the Catholic University in Dublin; Made cardinal by Pope Leo XIII in 1879; Beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010.
Motto: Cor ad cor loquitor: “Heart speaks to heart”
Quote: “If we are intended for great ends, we are called to great hazards”
– John Henry Newman, The Nature of Faith in Relation to Reason (1839)
Gravestone: Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem: “Out of shadows and phantasms into Truth”
Of course, Rosebery was referring not only to Newman’s lovely poem The Pillar of the Cloud (now a beloved hymn titled Lead Kindly Light), but to the fact that in 1845 he walked away from everything he had known and loved as an Anglican don at Oriel to embrace the Church of Rome. Gladstone, if anything, was even more laudatory about the man with whom he had crossed swords over the First Vatican Council (1869–70), especially its adoption of papal infallibility:
“When the history of Oxford during that time comes to be written, the historian will have to record the extraordinary, the unexampled career of [Newman]… He will have to tell, as I believe, that Dr. Newman exercised for a period of about ten years after 1833 an amount of influence, of absorbing influence, over the highest intellects — over nearly the whole intellect, but certainly over the highest intellect of this University, for which perhaps, there is no parallel in the academical history of Europe, unless you go back to the twelfth century or to the University of Paris.”
What, then, was it about Newman that made him so extraordinary?
Gladstone was not wide of the mark when he said that Newman’s “influence was sustained by his extraordinary purity of character and the holiness of his life”. Yet there were other factors that contributed to his greatness. John Henry Newman left behind a body of work of exceptional acuity. His several books of sermons, written as both an Anglican and a Catholic; his Oxford novel, Loss and Gain (1848); his Tamworth Reading Room (1841); Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845); Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England (1851); Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864); Grammar of Assent (1870); Idea of a University (1873); and Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (1875) continue to inform our studies on religion, history, education, and philosophy.
Moreover, schooled in the prose of English writers Samuel Johnson and Edward Gibbon, Newman would become the best prose stylist of the 19th century, and this in an age that produced such redoubtable stylists as Thomas Babington Macaulay and John Ruskin. The list of later writers influenced by Newman would be too long to tally, but they include Gerard Manley Hopkins; Oscar Wilde; Siegfried Sassoon; G K Chesterton; James Joyce; T S Eliot; Evelyn Waugh; Graham Greene; Ronald Knox; Muriel Spark; Christopher Dawson; Flannery O’Connor; G M Young; Penelope Fitzgerald and Alfred Gilbey – not an unimpressive lot.
Another thing that makes Newman extraordinary was his dedication to education, which he regarded as his true métier. In founding the Catholic University in Dublin, he provided the blueprint for all good liberal arts education, even though the university itself was a failure, thanks, in large part, to Disraeli refusing to grant it a charter. In any case, Newman’s book The Idea of a University is rightly recognised as the most astute book ever written on education.
When it came to giving credit to his own Oxford education, Newman was memorably acerbic. “What would come . . . of the ideal systems of education which have fascinated the imagination of this age, could they ever take effect, and whether they would not produce a generation frivolous, narrow-minded, and resourceless, intellectually considered, is a fair subject for debate,” Newman wrote, “but so far is certain, that the Universities and scholastic establishments, to which I refer [he was referring to Oxbridge] . . . these institutions, with miserable deformities on the side of morals, with a hollow profession of Christianity, and a heathen code of ethics,—I say, at least they can boast of a succession of heroes and statesmen, of literary men and philosophers, of men conspicuous for great natural virtues, for habits of business, for knowledge of life, for practical judgment, for cultivated tastes, for accomplishments, who have made England what it is,—able to subdue the earth, able to domineer over Catholics.”
Cardinal Newman’s lasting impact
Beyond his published writings, Newman also exerted a lasting impact on his world and ours by bringing the Oratory of St Philip to England and establishing the Birmingham Oratory. As an Oratorian, Newman continued to sustain and replenish the wide circle of friends that he had formed when he led the Oxford Movement, the purpose of which was to try to renew the Anglican Church at a time when its prerogatives were being eroded by successive Liberal governments. Newman’s 32 volumes of letters show the solicitude and good counsel that he would always show not only to his many friends and associates around the world but also to utter strangers who felt impelled to write to him for advice on various matters.
In his letters, one often encounters the saint in Newman, who, for all of his attainments, always made time to help others. To one friend dedicated to looking after the London poor, he wrote: “I inclose a post office order for £5. If you think Miss S. ought to have £2, be so good as to ask her to accept it, according to her letter. As to the rest, I wish it to go in a special kind of charity, viz in the instrumenta, as I may call them, and operative methods, of your own good works – that is, not in meat and drink, and physic, or clothing of the needy, but (if you will not be angry with me) in your charitable cabs, charitable umbrellas, charitable boots, and all the wear and tear of a charitable person who without such wear and tear cannot do her charity.”
As one Newman scholar remarked: “His women friends thought the world of him, were delighted when he was made a cardinal and at his death they would instantly have acclaimed him a saint if their opinion had been asked.”
After Newman’s death in 1890, Emily Bowles, one of his closest friends, actually referred to him as their “lost Saint.” Some 40 years before, Newman had written to another female correspondent: “I have nothing of a Saint about me as every one knows, and it is a severe (and salutary) mortification to be thought next door to one. I may have a high view of many things… but this is very different from being what I admire.” His friends would have begged to differ, though Newman’s demurral certainly exhibited one proof of the genuine saint: he never paraded his sanctity.
Now that Newman’s canonisation is imminent, we can see that what Rosebery regarded as his “strange” and “brilliant” end has acquired a richer meaning still. “It is the paradox of history,” G K Chesterton once said, “that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most… In a world that was too stolid, Christianity returned in the form of a vagabond; in a world that has grown too wild, Christianity returned in the form of a teacher of logic.” Referring here to St Francis of Assisi and St Thomas Aquinas, Chesterton could not have known that our own world would be blessed with an even more countercultural saint. Yet so it is.
Edward Short is the author of Newman and his Contemporaries (2011); Newman and his Family(2013); and Newman and History (2017). He is currently at work on his fourth book on Newman, Newman and his Critics, which will be published by Bloomsbury. He lives with his wife and two young children in New York.