Chapter 4. Newman’s Relation to the Tractarian Movement

{46} DURING the whole of his Mediterranean journey Newman was, as we have seen, profoundly impressed with the conviction that he and the band of friends who wished to restore the authority of the Church of England had a great work before them. In Rome Newman and Froude had an interview with Monseigneur, afterwards Cardinal, Wiseman, and the latter expressed a wish in parting that they might make a second visit to Rome, to which Newman replied “with great gravity, 'We have a work to do in England.'” He adds, “I went down at once to Sicily, and the presentiment grew stronger. I struck into the middle of the island, and fell ill of a fever at Leonforte. My servant thought that I should die, and begged for my last directions. I gave them as he wished, but I said, 'I shall not die.' I repeated, 'I shall not die, for I have not sinned against light, I have not sinned against light.' I have never been able,” he adds in the Apologia, “to make out at all what I meant. I got to Castra Giovanni, and was laid up there for nearly three weeks. Towards the end of May I set off for Palermo, taking three days for the journey. Before starting from my inn on the {47} morning of May 26th or 27th, I sat down on my bed and began to sob bitterly. My servant, who had acted as my nurse, asked what ailed me. I could only answer, 'I have a work to do in England.'” On the Sunday after his arrival at home, namely, July 14th, 1833, Mr. Keble preached the Assize sermon in the University pulpit. “It was published,” says Newman, “under the title of National Apostasy. I have ever considered and kept the day as the start of the religious movement of 1833.” It was the forty-fourth anniversary of the taking of the Bastille, which the French people keep as the anniversary of the great Revolution. The Tractarian movement was no doubt in its tendency distinctly anti-revolutionary, for it not only used “Liberalism” as the name for its chief foe, identifying, as it then did, Liberalism with Latitudinarianism, but it proved a distinctly clerical movement, while the Revolutionary party in France has always regarded “clericalism” as a foe even more bitter than the Church of Rome herself. Now Tractarianism was clerical to the core—more clerical, I conceive, in some real sense than the Roman Catholic Church herself. The recoil against the world which made Newman so unwilling to recall even the glories of pagan antiquity when he was abroad, the semi-evangelical, semi-ascetic dread of any but a consciously religious life, which marked the poems and tendencies of 1833, all seemed to imply a somewhat rigid form of sacerdotalism. In the very first of the Tracts for the Times which was written by Newman himself he asks, “On what are we to rest our authority when the State deserts us?” and the answer given is, “On our Apostolical descent.” Of course the Roman Catholic Church would give the same answer, but there {48} is a great difference between the attitude of a Church which has always and notoriously rested on the claim of Apostolic descent, and a Church which puts in such a claim at a time when a very considerable proportion of its clergy repudiate it, and when the claim sounds to the ears of most men strange and paradoxical. This was so much the case in the Anglican Church that Newman tells a story of one of the bishops, “who on reading an early Tract on the Apostolical Succession could not make up his mind whether he held the doctrine or not.” But of course in such a condition of things the claim for the Apostolical succession forced the party which made it into a much more pronounced and self-conscious, not to say almost aggressive and even pretentious, type of sacerdotalism than that of a Church wherein direct Apostolical succession had been the plainly and universally avowed basis of the priesthood for nearly two thousand years. And Newman’s personal attitude gave a great deal of additional effect to the ostentatiously sacerdotal tone of the party. “I thought,” he says, “that the Apostolical form of doctrine was essential and imperative, and its grounds of evidence impregnable. Owing to this confidence, it came to pass at that time that there was a double aspect in my bearing towards others, which it is necessary for me to enlarge on. My behaviour had a mixture in it both of fierceness and of sport, and on this account, I dare say, it gave offence to many; nor am I here defending it.” [Note 1] “I was not unwilling to draw an opponent on step by step to the brink of some intellectual absurdity, and to leave him to get back {49} as he could. I was not unwilling to play with a man who asked impertinent questions. I think I had in my mouth the words of the wise man, 'Answer a fool according to his folly,' especially if he was prying or spiteful. I was reckless of the gossip which was circulated about me, and when I might easily have set it right, did not deign to do so. Also I used irony in conversation, when matter-of-fact men could not see what I meant.” [Note 2] And then what Newman calls his occasional “fierceness” was equally well calculated to impress men with his setting up a new order of things on a definitely sacerdotal basis. “In the very first page of the first Tract,” he tells us, “I said of the bishops that, 'black event though it would be for the country, yet we could not wish them a more blessed termination of their course than the spoiling of their goods and martyrdom.'” [Note 3] “Again, when one of my friends of liberal and evangelical opinions wrote to expostulate with me on the course I was taking, I said that we would ride over him and his as Othniel prevailed over Chushan Rishathaim, King of Mesopotamia. Again, I would have no dealings with my brother, and I put my conduct upon a syllogism. I said, 'St. Paul bids us avoid those who cause divisions; you cause divisions, therefore I must avoid you.' I dissuaded a lady from attending the marriage of a sister who had seceded from the Anglican Church.” [Note 4]

All this gave an impression that the head of the movement which claimed Apostolical succession as the foundation of the order of the Anglican Church was himself almost “fiercely” sacerdotal. I don’t think {50} that that ever was his character at all. Indeed, I think his was very much the reverse of a specially sacerdotal character. Cardinal Newman has always been too shy and too reserved a man, with too individual a nature, to care to assert effectively for a caste the sway it should theoretically exert over his fellow-men. Least of all would he care to exercise that sway through the respect felt for his position as a priest, rather than through the affection felt for his person as an individual. But it is perfectly true, I think, that he regarded an authoritative Church as at least as important an element in revelation as a clearly-defined doctrine, and that, so far as I can judge, he never gave that pre-eminence to the gradual unveiling of the character of God as the main subject-matter of revelation, which could alone, I suppose, hold sufficiently in check the tendency to exalt and magnify the function of the priesthood.

Newman was always more or less disposed to accept Bishop Butler’s principle, that probability is the guide of life (though, as I have shown, he did not think it could be applied to enforce the duty of prayer on those who only believed the existence of God to be a highly probable hypothesis), to a much greater extent than I should have thought either safe or in conformity with our Lord’s teaching, and hence he attached a much greater relative importance to the institutions which grew up under the Gospel as significant parts of the Divine purpose of revelation, than they were perhaps intended to bear. He thought as much, I suppose, of the effect—in the direction of humility, for example—which the habit of confession and the ordinance of absolution would produce on the human character, as {51} he thought of the effect in the same direction which the constant study of Christ’s character would produce, for him and his colleagues. Revelation meant not merely, perhaps not chiefly, the unveiling of the Divine character and personality, but the totality of the results to be produced by all the new agencies which Christianity set in motion, and of these of course he regarded an authoritative Church as by far the most important. To him the Church, instead of being merely the great organization which handed down to future generations the original testimony to Christ, and which strove to embody His teaching in actual practice, was in the first instance the depository of the sacraments which Christ instituted, and became through their instrumentality the only agency competent to impress adequately on the soul those regenerate habits of mind which could alone make that testimony effectual.

Newman and his friends hold, if I understand them rightly, that the institutions that grew up in the kingdom of God, which our Lord announced, counted for at least as much in relation to the salvation of men as the unveiling of God’s character itself,—this kingdom of God being another name for the Church into which the Apostles (and their successors) were to have the power of admitting those who were willing to submit to the appropriate conditions. But this implied definite conditions under which alone valid sacraments could be granted and received, and a certain number of traditional principles by which the ministers of these sacraments must be bound. Questions relating to the Church generally became, therefore, in the minds of those who held that these sacraments were of the first importance as agents of spiritual life, not mere {52} ecclesiastical questions, but questions of theology of the utmost significance, questions of theology at least as weighty as the due unveiling of the Divine character itself. Hurrell Froude, in the remarkable essay on Rationalism as shown in the Interpretation of Scripture which seems to present the Tractarian view of the Church and its agency with singular clearness, maintains that Christ, in breathing on His Apostles, gave them the power of transmitting to others the gift which He had bestowed on them, by prayer and the laying on of hands; that the Apostles did so transmit it to others, and they again to others, and that in this way only it has been preserved in the world to the present day. This gift, it was contended, also bestows the power to admit into communion and to exclude from it; to bless and intercede for those who are in communion; to bless bread and wine so as to create the body and blood of Christ in the same sense in which our Lord’s blessing made them so; and “to enable delegates to perform this great miracle by ordaining them with imposition of hands.”

It was frankly admitted by the leading Tractarians,—and explicitly by both Newman and Froude,—that there is comparatively little explicit statement in the New Testament on the subject of these most important terms of communion and the privileges of communicants, and that it is somewhat mysterious that there is so little, though they held that what there is on the subject is very impressive, and quite sufficient to direct attention to the significance of the traditional teaching on this head. Of course they supplemented the evidence, which they regarded as so deficient in Scripture, by the teaching and practice of the primitive Church in the earliest {53} age in which its teaching and practice are intimately known to us. And so far as the evidence still seemed more or less inadequate, they schooled themselves with Bishop Butler’s doctrine, that the Almighty, in revealing to us any part of His will in writing, has done more than we had any reason to expect, and that consequently He may have left many parts of it unrevealed in writing, for aught reason tells us to the contrary. They argued, that so soon as we have clear evidence of the tendency of God’s will from any one source, natural piety ought to make us eager to supplement our knowledge of it, so far as it is possible to do so from any other sufficient source of knowledge, just as a son who had certain documentary evidence of his father’s wishes would, if he heartily loved that father, be eager to supplement the knowledge so acquired by the oral testimony of any credible witnesses of his father’s death, who should tell him that he had expressed wishes to them about him which were not embodied in the formal will. And they argued, that if a generously filial spirit would show itself by accepting such credible oral testimony, then it is reasonable for Christians to supplement the teaching of the New Testament as to our Lord’s purpose by the evidence of the friends and successors of the Apostles, as it was embodied in the habits and devotions of the primitive Church. Especially they insisted that in the case supposed as to the father’s will, the son would be doubly eager to guide himself by the oral evidence of those who were around the death-bed, if the drift of these unwritten directions tended on the whole to enforce on him self-denial and self-sacrifice, for this would increase the obligation on him for circumspection, and abridge his right to do as he pleased {54} with the property. And this was the case, they contended, as regarded the traditional practice of the primitive Church with regard to the use and conditions of the sacraments. And they pressed Butler’s use of the doctrine that probability is the guide of life, most earnestly when it came to the question as to the amount of evidence. Even, they said, if we can only convince ourselves that there is a slight presumption that it was Christ’s will that we should govern ourselves by the ordinances and practices of the primitive Church, we are as much bound to act upon that presumption,—supposing, of course, that there is nothing contrary in it to His known will,—as if we had the fullest proof that it was so. Indeed, they went further, and urged that probably the speculative difficulties in which the evidence of some parts of religion is involved, is a providential part of some persons’ trial, and the only sort of trial which would really provide them with the proper materials for the discipline of their own character. Such people feel no temptation to the ordinary sins of injustice, unrestrained pleasure-seeking, and irreligion, but they need discipline for their wills just as much as those who are so tempted, and for them the true discipline is to act on a presumption as to what God’s will is, which they know to be anything but certain, and that too with as much earnestness and dutifulness as they would act on it if they had the most final evidence that it is His will.

I insist upon this very marked element in the Tractarian movement, because it distinguished the whole genius of that movement. It gave the Tractarians the same anxious, and, as I may call it, precautionary piety which distinguished the great Bishop Butler’s {55} type of religion, and which is as different from the implicit and joyous confidence which the Roman Catholics place in their Church, as it is from the sober conventionalism of the religion of the “Establishment.”

It will be seen later, that when Newman at last made up his mind to join the Church of Rome, his genius bloomed out with a force and freedom, such as it never displayed in the Anglican communion, though he belonged to that communion till he was forty-four years of age. And I ascribe a good deal of its repression during the twelve years between 1833 and 1845 to that habit of schooling himself to act on assumptions of which there could be no certitude, which the Tractarian party, conscious that it was proposing a religious system more or less alien to the temper of their Church, forced itself to adopt. The Tractarians lived more like a colony of immigrants amongst a people of different language and customs, than like a band of patriots who were reviving the old glories of their native country. Indeed, they felt that they were acting on a hypothesis which was not only intrinsically doubtful, but as yet unacclimatized to the soil of English Churchmanship, and which did not take very kindly to that soil.

The following passage from Hurrell Froude’s essay on Rationalism as shown in the Interpretations of Scripture, embodies very adequately the principles of the Tractarian movement. After admitting that the ancient belief of the Church respecting the sacraments and the priesthood “is not forced upon us by Scripture,” and that “the texts which seem to imply it do not necessarily imply it,” he goes on—”Hence it is inferred that they certainly do not imply it; that it is not alluded to in {56} Scripture; and is therefore a foolish if not criminal superstition. Persons who think in this manner will do well to recollect that there are in the Bible the following words,—'Thomas, because thou hast seen Me thou hast believed; blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed.' These words do not apply directly either to the sacred elements or to the priesthood; primarily they refer to our Lord’s resurrection, not to the institutions which were the standing monuments of it; yet they are not the words of one who would be exceedingly displeased at our accepting even these on evidence short of demonstration. 'Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed'—this declaration (humanly speaking) is strangely unguarded, if a generous, unsuspecting reverence for all that claims to be from Him is indeed so dangerous a temper; nor do I think that man’s condition an unenviable one who at the last day shall plead as validly for all his errors as this text will plead for those of a ready faith. If at that day it shall indeed prove true that sacerdotal Benedictions and Absolutions, and the mysterious Consecration of the Bread and Wine, are nothing more than many a zealous Protestant would reduce them to; and the reverence of those who have bowed to them as Christ’s ordinances, shall thus turn out to have been superfluous, is it to be thought that the fear to reject what might possibly be from the Lord, will prove no excuse for having accepted what was not? that the temper which has in these instances been led astray by trusting evidence short of demonstration, will find no grace in His eyes who reproved the incredulity of Thomas?"

Thus the very core of the Tractarian movement was a precautionary creed for which the leaders felt {57} that the evidence was doubtful, but which they held to be more likely than not, and in any case to be an ecclesiastical “working hypothesis” on which it was their duty to act. This attitude of mind it was that tinged the whole Tractarian movement with an air of anxious venturesomeness, of hesitating audacity, of careworn courage, which was as foreign as possible to the spirit of the Anglican Church in which it originated, and as different as possible from the spirit of the Roman Catholic Church in which it found its goal. That Newman himself adopted this tone as explicitly as either Froude or any other of the leaders, is demonstrable. “If we will doubt,” he wrote in Tract 85, “that is, if we will not allow evidence to be sufficient which merely results in a balance on the side of revelation; if we will determine that no evidence is enough to prove revealed doctrine but what is overpowering; if we will not go by evidence in which there are (so to say) three chances for revelation and only two against, we cannot be Christians; we shall miss Christ either in His inspired Scriptures, or in His doctrines, or in His ordinances.” It is characteristic of the change in Newman’s views, that in republishing this tract with all the necessary retractations after his conversion to the Roman Catholic Church, he did not allow this sentence to stand as it stands here, even though it was covered by the necessary retractations, and altered it into “a dozen chances for revelation and only two against,” instead of “three chances for revelation and only two against.” In other words, he evidently held that even as a Protestant he had underrated the magnitude of the probability on which he believed, and that he had actually felt a much larger confidence in the truth of his assumption than {58} his language at the time expressed. And that was no doubt really the case. In his extreme anxiety not to understate the difficulties with which he was grappling, he often, I think, in his Tractarian days, gave an impression of a much more doubtful attitude of mind than he had really been conscious of.

And this leads me naturally to the charge which has so often been brought against him, that with a profoundly sceptical intellect, he forced upon himself a belief which was not only not the true conclusion of his unbiased mind, but was one which he had implicitly, though not perhaps with full consciousness, rejected. Let me add, however, that Newman’s attitude in the movement was always far more hesitating, precautionary, and tentative than that of Ward and the advanced party. But Mr. Wilfrid Ward’s admirable life of his father has given so powerful a sketch of the tone of the right wing of the Tractarian movement, that it is quite unnecessary for me to dwell upon it at any length.

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1. Apologia, p. 114.
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2. Apologia, p. 115.
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3. Ibid. p. 117.
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4. Ibid. p. 118.
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Newman Reader — Works of John Henry Newman
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