The Conversion of Mr. Newman

[The Tablet, vol. vi, No. 286, 25 October 1845, pp. 673-674.]

{673} Our readers will naturally expect from us a few words on the subject of Mr. Newman's conversion, but we confess we find great difficulties in fulfilling that expectation. The subject is so wide and yet so simple, so personal and yet so diffusive, that we hardly know what to say or what to avoid saying. To use the current slang of the day, Mr. Newman's conversion is "a great fact." It has been looked for anxiously and long. It has been prayed for; it has been written for; it has been wished; it has been dreaded; it has at length come. So far as a remote observer can presume, imperfectly at the best, to judge of character, the Anglican Establishment has been deprived of the largest mind and the most penetrating intellect lately to be found, at least among her ecclesiastical children. The least part of what has occurred is that a man informed by profound genius has passed from heresy to the Church; has brought over to the camp of truth the stores of his profound learning, of his active and disciplined intelligence. This, of itself however, is no immemorable event. Not merely among those commonly called the Puseyites was Mr. Newman without a peer. If during the last half or entire century the Anglican Church can name a Divine his equal in power and comprehensiveness of mind, that name is unknown to us.

The fact thus simply stated becomes more important when we consider Mr. Newman not merely as an individual, but as the head of a school or party in the hostile camp. Of the enthusiastic attachment with which vast numbers of men looked up to Mr. Newman as to one in whose learning, piety, profound spiritual discernment, and perfect mastery over the points at issue between Anglicanism and Rome, they could perfectly confide, we may leave others to speak more in detail who know more in detail the internal relations of that body of men. Of the more advanced and advancing section of the Puseyites; of those who, originally devoted to Anglicanism, were possessed with a yet more fervent devotion to the truth, Mr. Newman was the unquestioned intellectual chief. Without his seeking them, he enjoyed or possessed all the prerogatives and also all the responsibilities of one to whom his fellow-men look up as to the pole star of their course.

In truth, his position in this respect was not a little strange—as it seems to us; and the anomalies of it are worth a moment's consideration. The party which attached itself to him was composed of the men who of all other Anglicans were most zealous for Church authority; for the subjugation of the individual judgment and intelligence beneath the yoke of the an outward, public, authorized and compulsory rule. It was their very quarrel with all the forms of Ultra-Protestantism, that these left men to the guidance of their individual fancies or subjected them to the unauthorized guidance of teachers self-chosen and self-choosing. They contended vigorously for the necessity of an external Church authority, to repress the excesses of undisciplined zeal and of straggling imaginations. And yet these men were the followers of a man; his followers not in any special discipline or rule of life and manners, but in the choice of a Church! Professing the utmost abhorrence of Protestantism and of all private choice in matter of religion, they were yet by virtue of their position the most ultra-Protestants in existence; for the complexion of their creed was the result of three acts of individual choosing. They chose in general; they chose in special; they chose in individual. And in all three choices they admitted the possibility of error. They chose the Anglican Establishment for their Church; they chose a party in the Establishment as the interpreter of its doctrines; they chose a man as the interpreter of that party. This man—who, considered as an individual, was the very best leader they could have chosen—they chose for their guide in the outset of his vehemence against Rome; they have continued with him in the changes of his opinions; they are now, many of them at least, accompanying or following him in the final change which has brought him to an everlasting rest.

So followed, Mr. Newman, as we have said, had upon him all the responsibilities of the intellectual chief of a party. And he had also many of its qualifications. Judging from such evidence as is before the public, he discharged the duties of his post with singular efficiency and power, and showed himself not merely possessed of the necessary intellectual qualifications, but of the not less necessary moral qualifications also—was eminently wary and discrete in all his movements, but at the same time singularly bold and intrepid when the occasion called for the exercise of these qualities. No one could fairly charge him with cowardice, or rashness, or any form of affectation, or perversity of mind, or that cloudy apprehension of affairs which springs from a warped understanding, or from the domination of unreasonable partialities or aversions. In all his public acts—and we dare say his private sufficiently corresponded to these—there has appeared a singular fairness, openness, and evenness of mind. No one can say of him that he has taken any step under the influence of ill-regulated passions or incongruous impetuosity. With his whole mind he has composedly examined and maturely weighed every part of the subject under his consideration. We may almost say that no nook or cranny of it has escaped his searching glance. He commenced fifteen years ago an ardent anti-Romanist. During that time, with every prejudice against the truth, he has diligently laboured in his endeavours to place the Anglican theory on a sound basis in his own mind and before the public. He has tried scheme after scheme. Step by step he has fallen back before the resistless onset of truth. He has yielded slowly; reluctantly—we may say; surrendering no point gratuitously; even when defeated making use of his matchless ingenuity to discover standing-room where a less keen sight would have discovered nothing but a vacuum; entrenching himself stubbornly among ruins; every moment (we may imagine) checked in his course of retreat by the anxieties of his public position and by reflecting how many looked up to him as a guide; and sparing no pains or labour to escape, if it might honestly be done, the last, great, painful, satisfying change.

Never was any testimony more complete than that of Mr. Newman's to the baselessness and rottenness of Anglican theology, to the necessity of the authority of Rome. Other converts have possessed only a moderate acquaintance with theology. They have been young men, half or a hundredth part instructed. They have been poets, painters, architects, historians, logicians, philosophers. But Mr. Newman's especial ground is theology, and the various theological systems of ancient and modern times he has studied with a minuteness and subtlety of mind which we suspect few living writers or thinkers have exceeded. But with all this he is not a dry theologian; a man of an angular, arid, restricted, scientific mind. With the minute industry of a pedant, and the method and intellectual perspicacity of a logician, he has a large and masculine imagination; and we cannot but think that he has displayed some of the rarest qualities necessary for the calling of a profound historian. All these capacities of intellect, directed by the purest and simplest honesty, Mr. Newman, aided by the counsels of numerous persons of high ability and unquestioned learning, of whom he was the companion and associate or the guide, has employed for fifteen years and more in an attempt to make good the cause of Anglicanism—first to uphold it in enmity to Rome, and then to establish its claim to an equal sisterhood. In both these attempts he, who ought to have succeeded if any rational man could succeed, has signally failed, and has just proclaimed his failure to the world. He, too, like so many before him, and so many that are to follow, has renounced Opinion for Faith; Heresy for Truth; and the ever-changing fluctuations of human speculation for the unchanging certainty of the teaching of God's Church.

Over him as over all who show themselves like-minded that Church will rejoice, as the shepherd rejoices over the lost sheep, and the mother over the child that was lost and is found. But she will not boast nor exult over him. All human capacities, great and small, are her natural tributaries. They are her inalienable property, either cheerfully placed in her keeping or wrongfully withheld. She uses them; she purifies them; she gives them a sound and wholesome direction; she patronises them; she gives them a new value; she rewards them infinitely for the petty services they render her. But she does not need them, nor does her cause depend upon them. In her foundation, when her difficulties were the greatest, her needs the greatest also, it was said of her by one of the wisest of her teachers, that not only not many rich and noble were called to her feast, but also "not many wise, according to the flesh." As it was then so it may be again in any country or portion of the world. For the strength of the Church is not merely in God and of God, but it is God himself—the Almighty, who brings to nought the counsel of the wisest that presumes against His decree; who prospers the counsel of the fool that obeys Him; and who has sworn that against His Church the gates of Hell shall not prevail.

Hence it is that in a consideration, which we have hitherto purposely omitted, and upon which we can only touch lightly and generally, we see the greatest reason to rejoice in the conversion of Mr. Newman. Great talents are not needed by God; but when men of profound wisdom after the flesh have their souls liberally watered with the dew of the Spirit, saturated with God's holy unction, and filled with the graces of humility, purity, and burning zeal; then, indeed, we may reasonably and humbly hope that an all-wise Providence has chosen and anointed a great instrument for the accomplishment of a great work. How far this description is applicable to Mr. Newman it would be presumptuous in us to attempt to define; but those who wish to see how men who have narrowly watched his inmost life for near a quarter of a century have judged and judge him, we refer to the letter of Dr. Pusey in another part of our paper.

By that letter, we confess, we have been very much affected. It is in all respects a touching farewell; honourable alike to the writer and to him of whom it is written. It suggests, indeed, abundant matter for controversy; nor is it easy to avoid the contrast between Dr. Pusey's vauntings of the visible presence of God in the Establishment at this time, and that affecting passage in which he fears not to attribute Mr. Newman's conversion to the prayers of continental Churches and religious houses for his conversion, and the {674} absence of Anglican prayers for his retention. Is it at the very time when the absence of "love and prayer" in the Establishment has brought down upon it so heavy a judgment as Dr. Pusey considers the loss of Mr. Newman or be, that he can think it reasonable to boast of an "amazing growth of life" throughout the entire Establishment? It seems strange to us that the time of so great a growth should also be the time of so heavy a chastisement for the absence of life. Nor, if we pursue this contrast through another of Dr. Pusey's recent letters, will our wonder at it in the least diminish.

But the point in Dr. Pusey's letter which arrests our special attention is that in which, speaking of this conversion "as perhaps the greatest event which has happened since the communion of the Churches has been interrupted," he expresses a hope full of good feeling that such a transplantation may soften down the prejudices of Anglicans against us, and open our eyes to what is good in them, when we receive from them such a man, "the work of God's spirit, as dwelling within" the Establishment. Unquestionably we, in our humble department, reciprocate this good feeling so far as it implies a desire for the increase of genuine Christian charity. Nor do we willingly, at this time and on this occasion, add any distasteful qualification. But we cannot resist what we conceive to be the imperative call upon us not to let this observation pass without remark.

We hope no Anglican reader will suppose that on such a text as Dr. Pusey's letter we would say anything in a spirit of bitterness or vulgar controversy. We respect too much the genuine, unaffected sorrow which breathes through every line of that document to intrude upon it by any intentional discourtesy. It is, we trust, in the very spirit of charity, that on this very case and occasion we take issue with Dr. Pusey most respectfully, (if we might say so) most affectionately, but most firmly. It almost amazes us that we have occasion to assure Dr. Pusey that nothing can open the eyes of Catholics to the fact of God's spirit dwelling in the Establishment. We imagine that no intelligent and reasonable Catholic is ignorant or unwilling to confess how much of good there is among the sincere and humble of all communions; or how largely, under different outward manifestations, God pours out His spirit upon the members of different heretical organizations, wooing them as it were with the sweetness of His breath to leave the "cities of the plain" before the vengeance of Heaven falls upon them, and to take refuge betimes in the one City that is built upon a rock. These movements of God's Spirit every Catholic must regard as proofs of God's favour towards individuals; as an increase of their responsibilities; as a manifestation of mercy in their behalf. But as to the City in which they dwell, and in which [four words illegible] have been wrought, as well might we regard the mission of the Holy Angels and their miraculous appearance to Lot as an evidence of God's love for Sodom, as consider these workings of grace within the Anglican Establishment as a proof of God's affection for that heretical and schismatical communion.

We make the fullest acknowledgment of the excellence of the men. No pride, no vain-glory, no spirit of controversy shall make us grudge any reasonable praise that can be granted them. But as to their Church, it would be a gross want of charity ever to admit for a moment that anything, that any combination of events, can by possibility lead any instructed Catholic to think better of the Anglican organization until it has ceased radically to be, what it radically is, a camp set up against the camp of the Lord of Hosts, and (like the armies of the Long Parliament) fighting in the name of the Great King against His authority.

Besides, look to the instance now before us. A great soul has been transplanted by God from your seed-plot to His. You hope that this transplantation may increase our good-will towards your Church as distinct from your individual members. You hope that it will dispose us to recognize God's spirit as dwelling within your Church. But how can it have such an effect? A witness has passed over from you to us—let him report of your condition. Does he believe that the spirit of God dwells in the Church that he is leaving? dwells in the Church of England in any other sense than that in which it may be said to dwell in the Kirk, or in the Congregations of Independents? that is, in the upright and devout intentions of individual members, assisted and purified by the special graces vouchsafed to them, and by the graces of the sacrament or sacraments which they have not discarded or perverted? What grounds for his conversion Mr. Newman may set forth in that work of his, which it is understood he is preparing for the public, we cannot say, and have no means of knowing. But we shall be very much surprised if he tells us that he has quitted the Establishment with the belief that "God's spirit dwelt within her" in the sense we have explained; or that he has joined us with any other belief than that the Roman Catholic Church is the one community in which God's spirit really dwells; and that every other community, speaking of it in its corporate character and capacity, is essentially, necessarily, permanently, under all circumstances and conditions, in all its corporate parts and members, unholy, unclean, and an utterly unsafe residence.

Nothing, it seems, can convince Anglicans, even the most Puseyite, that the judgment of Rome against them is final and irreversible. Their pertinacity in cherishing a hope that Rome may relent upon other terms than those of submission is something wonderful. The same number of the English Churchman which contains Dr. Pusey's letter, contains another letter (p. 654) in which the writer speaks with a very lively earnestness upon this point. He thinks that a little more carefulness in the administration of baptism would remove "a slur" from the Establishment in "the minds of other Catholic Churches;" and that by this means "the way would be cleared for our" (Anglicans) "winning them"—(Rome, Petersburg—the Nestorians, &c., &c.)—"back to acknowledge and to love us, a consummation that would fill the angelic hosts with joy and congratulation." We cannot answer for what alliance may be struck up between the schism of Petersburg and the heresy of St. James's; nor will we be vouchers for the crafty policy of the Eastern heretics. But we devoutly trust that the angelic hosts may not wait for joy and congratulation till the arrival of that consummation on the part of Rome!

But we are pursuing too far a purely collateral topic. Our main purpose in this article was to congratulate Mr. Newman warmly and with the most devoted affection on his happy conversion, and our readers upon their share in the fortunate event. God knows, it fills us with a joy which we cannot adequately express, and with expectations sufficiently sanguine (we think), though not quite so sanguine as those of some better hopers among ourselves. May God prosper him every way; and, from the first hour of his baptism to the last of his breath, may the Almighty deign after his own good will to use him unremittingly in the noblest service this world can witness.

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