Short Studies on Great Subjects, Vol. 4
by James Anthony Froude, M.A.

Longmans, Green, and Co., London, 1899

The Oxford Counter-Reformation
Letter 3. John Henry Newman

[Note 1] {272} MY DEAR——. My present letter will be given to a single figure. When I entered at Oxford, John Henry Newman was beginning to be famous. The responsible authorities were watching him with anxiety; clever men were looking with interest and {273} curiosity on the apparition among them of one of those persons of indisputable genius who was likely to make a mark upon his time. His appearance was striking. He was above the middle height, slight and spare. His head was large, his face remarkably like that of Julius Cæsar. The forehead, the shape of the ears and nose, were almost the same. The lines of the mouth were very peculiar, and I should say exactly the same. I have often thought of the resemblance, and believed that it extended to the temperament. In both there was an original force of character which refused to be moulded by circumstances, which was to make its own way, and become a power in the world; a clearness of intellectual perception, a disdain for conventionalities, a temper imperious and wilful, but along with it a most attaching gentleness, sweetness, singleness of heart and purpose. Both were formed by nature to command others; both had the faculty of attracting to themselves the passionate devotion of their friends and followers; and in both cases, too, perhaps the devotion was rather due to the personal ascendency of the leader than to the cause which he represented. It was Cæsar, not the principle of the empire, which overthrew Pompey and the constitution. Credo in Newmannum was a common phrase at Oxford, and {274} is still unconsciously the faith of nine-tenths of the English converts to Rome.

When I first saw him he had written his book upon the Arians. An accidental application had set him upon it, at a time, I believe, when he had half resolved to give himself to science and mathematics, and had so determined him into a theological career. He had published a volume or two of parochial sermons. A few short poems of his had also appeared in the 'British Magazine' under the signature of 'Delta,' which were reprinted in the 'Lyra Apostolica.' They were unlike any other religious poetry which was then extant. It was hard to say why they were so fascinating. They had none of the musical grace of the 'Christian Year.' They were not harmonious; the metre halted, the rhymes were irregular, yet there was something in them which seized the attention, and would not let it go. Keble's verses flowed in soft cadence over the mind, delightful, as sweet sounds are delightful, but are forgotten as the vibrations die away. Newman's had pierced into the heart and mind, and there remained. The literary critics of the day were puzzled. They saw that he was not an ordinary man; what sort of an extraordinary man he was they could not tell. 'The eye of Melpomene has {275} been cast upon him,' said the omniscient (I think) 'Athenæum': [Note 2] 'but the glance was not fixed or steady.' The eye of Melpomene had extremely little to do in the matter. Here were thoughts like no other man's thoughts, and emotions like no other man's emotions. Here was a man who really believed his creed, and let it follow him into all his observations upon outward things. He had been travelling in Greece; he had carried with him his recollections of Thucydides, and while his companions were sketching olive gardens and old castles and picturesque harbours at Corfu, Newman was recalling the scenes which those harbours had witnessed thousands of years ago in the civil wars which the Greek historian has made immortal. There was nothing in this that was unusual. Any one with a well-stored memory is affected by historical scenery. But Newman was oppressed with the sense that the men who had fallen in that desperate strife were still alive, as much as he and his friends were alive.

Their spirits live in awful singleness,

he says,

Each in its self-formed sphere of light or gloom. {276}

We should all, perhaps, have acknowledged this in words. It is happy for us that we do not all realize what the words mean. The minds of most of us would break under the strain.

Other conventional beliefs, too, were quickened into startling realities. We had been hearing much in those days about the benevolence of the Supreme Being, and our corresponding obligation to charity and philanthropy. If the received creed was true, benevolence was by no means the only characteristic of that Being. What God loved we might love; but there were things which God did not love; accordingly we found Newman saying to us—

Christian, would'st thou learn to love?
    First learn thee how to hate.

.       .       .       .       .       .

Hatred of sin and zeal and fear
    Lead up the Holy Hill;
Track them, till charity appear
    A self-denial still.

It was not austerity that made him speak so. No one was more essentially tender-hearted. But he took the usually accepted Christian account of man and his destiny to be literally true, and the terrible character of it weighed upon him.

Sunt lacrymæ rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.

He could be gentle enough in other moods. 'Lead, {277} kindly Light,' is the most popular hymn in the language. All of us, Catholic, Protestant, or such as can see their way to no positive creed at all, can here meet on common ground and join in a common prayer. Familiar as the lines are, they may here be written down once more:—

Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom
            Lead Thou me on.
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
            Lead Thou me on.
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
Far distant scenes—one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
            Should'st lead me on.
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
            Lead Thou me on.
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years.

So long Thy power hath blest us, sure it will
            Still lead us on,
O'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent, till
            The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.

It has been said that men of letters are either much less or much greater than their writings. Cleverness and the skilful use of other people's thoughts produce works which take us in till we see the authors, and then we are disenchanted. A man of genius, on the other hand, is a spring in {278} which there is always more behind than flows from it. The painting or the poem is but a part of him inadequately realized, and his nature expresses itself, with equal or fuller completeness, in his life, his conversation, and personal presence. This was eminently true of Newman. Greatly as his poetry had struck me, he was himself all that the poetry was, and something far beyond. I had then never seen so impressive a person. I met him now and then in private; I attended his church and heard him preach Sunday after Sunday; he is supposed to have been insidious, to have led his disciples on to conclusions to which he designed to bring them, while his purpose was carefully veiled. He was, on the contrary, the most transparent of men. He told us what he believed to be true. He did not know where it would carry him. No one who has ever risen to any great height in this world refuses to move till he knows where he is going. He is impelled in each step which he takes by a force within himself. He satisfies himself only that the step is a right one, and he leaves the rest to Providence. Newman's mind was world-wide. He was interested in everything which was going on in science, in politics, in literature. Nothing was too large for him, nothing too trivial, if it threw light {279} upon the central question, what man really was, and what was his destiny. He was careless about his personal prospects. He had no ambition to make a career, or to rise to rank and power. Still less had pleasure any seductions for him. His natural temperament was bright and light; his senses, even the commonest, were exceptionally delicate. I was told that, though he rarely drank wine, he was trusted to choose the vintages for the college cellar. He could admire enthusiastically any greatness of action and character, however remote the sphere of it from his own. Gurwood's 'Dispatches of the Duke of Wellington' came out just then. Newman had been reading the book, and a friend asked him what be thought of it. 'Think?' he said, 'it makes one burn to have been a soldier.' But his own subject was the absorbing interest with him. Where Christianity is a real belief, where there are distinct convictions that a man's own self and the millions of human beings who are playing on the earth's surface are the objects of a supernatural dispensation, and are on the road to heaven or hell, the most powerful mind may well be startled at the aspect of things. If Christianity was true, since Christianity was true (for Newman at no time doubted the reality of the revelation), then modern {280} England, modern Europe, with its march of intellect and its useful knowledge and its material progress, was advancing with a light heart into ominous conditions. Keble had looked into no lines of thought but his own. Newman had read omnivorously; he had studied modern thought and modern life in all its forms, and with all its many-coloured passions. He knew, of course, that many men of learning and ability believed that Christianity was not a revelation at all, but had been thrown out, like other creeds, in the growth of the human mind. He knew that doubts of this kind were the inevitable results of free discussion and free toleration of differences of opinion; and he was too candid to attribute such doubts, as others did, to wickedness of heart. He could not, being what he was, acquiesce in the established religion as he would acquiesce in the law of the land, because it was there, and because the country had accepted it, and because good general reasons could be given for assuming it to be right. The soundest arguments, even the arguments of Bishop Butler himself, went no farther than to establish a probability. But religion with Newman was a personal thing between himself and his Maker, and it was not possible to feel love and devotion to a Being whose existence was merely {281} probable. As Carlyle says of himself when in a similar condition, a religion which was not a certainty was a mockery and a horror; and unshaken and unshakable as his own convictions were, Newman evidently was early at a loss for the intellectual grounds on which the claims of Christianity to abstract belief could be based. The Protestant was satisfied with the Bible, the original text of which, and perhaps the English translation, he regarded as inspired. But the inspiration itself was an assumption, and had to be proved; and Newman, though he believed the inspiration, seems to have recognized earlier than most of his contemporaries that the Bible was not a single book, but a national literature, produced at intervals, during many hundred years, and under endless varieties of circumstances. Protestant and Catholic alike appealed to it, and they could not both be right. Yet if the differences between them were essential, there must be some authority capable of deciding between them. The Anglican Church had a special theology of its own, professing to be based on the Bible. Yet to suppose that each individual left to himself would gather out of the Bible, if able and conscientious, exactly these opinions and no others, was absurd and contrary to experience. There were the creeds; but {282} on what authority did the creeds rest? On the four councils? or on other councils, and, if other, on which? Was it on the Church? and, if so, on what Church? The Church of the fathers? or the Church still present and alive and speaking? If for living men, among whom new questions were perpetually rising, a Church which was also living could not be dispensed with, then what was that Church, and to what conclusions would such an admission lead us?

With us undergraduates Newman, of course, did not enter on such important questions, although they were in the air, and we talked about them among ourselves. He, when we met him, spoke to us about subjects of the day, of literature, of public persons and incidents, of everything which was generally interesting. He seemed always to be better informed on common topics of conversation than any one else who was present. He was never condescending with us, never didactic or authoritative; but what he said carried conviction along with it. When we were wrong he knew why we were wrong, and excused our mistakes to ourselves while he set us right. Perhaps his supreme merit as a talker was that he never tried to be witty or to say striking things. Ironical he could be, but not ill-natured. Not a malicious anecdote was ever heard from him. {283} Prosy he could not be. He was lightness itself—the lightness of elastic strength—and he was interesting because he never talked for talking's sake, but because he had something real to say.

Thus it was that we, who had never seen such another man, and to whom he appeared, perhaps, at special advantage in contrast with the normal college don, came to regard Newman with the affection of pupils (though pupils, strictly speaking, he had none) for an idolized master. The simplest word which dropped from him was treasured as if it had been an intellectual diamond. For hundreds of young men Credo in Newmannum was the genuine symbol of faith.

Personal admiration, of course, inclined us to look to him as a guide in matters of religion. No one who heard his sermons in those days can ever forget them. They were seldom directly theological. We had theology enough and to spare from the select preachers before the university. Newman, taking some Scripture character for a text, spoke to us about ourselves, our temptations, our experiences. His illustrations were inexhaustible. He seemed to be addressing the most secret consciousness of each of us—as the eyes of a portrait appear to look at every person in a room. He never exaggerated; he was never unreal. A sermon from {284} him was a poem, formed on a distinct idea, fascinating by its subtlety, welcome—how welcome!—from its sincerity, interesting from its originality, even to those who were careless of religion; and to others who wished to be religious, but had found religion dry and wearisome, it was like the springing of a fountain out of the rock.

The hearts of men vibrate in answer to one another like the strings of musical instruments. These sermons were, I suppose, the records of Newman's own mental experience. They appear to me to be the outcome of continued meditation upon his fellow-creatures and their position in this world; their awful responsibilities; the mystery of their nature, strangely mixed of good and evil, of strength and weakness. A tone, not of fear, but of infinite pity runs through them all, and along with it a resolution to look facts in the face; not to fly to evasive generalities about infinite mercy and benevolence, but to examine what revelation really has added to our knowledge, either of what we are or of what lies before us. We were met on all sides with difficulties; for experience did not confirm, it rather contradicted, what revelation appeared distinctly to assert. I recollect a sermon from him—I think in the year 1839—I have never read it {285} since; I may not now remember the exact words, but the impression left is ineffaceable. It was on the trials of faith, of which he gave different illustrations. He supposed, first, two children to be educated together, of similar temperament and under similar conditions, one of whom was baptized and the other unbaptized. He represented them as growing up equally amiable, equally upright, equally reverent and God-fearing, with no outward evidence that one was in a different spiritual condition from the other; yet we were required to believe, not only that their condition was totally different, but that one was a child of God, and his companion was not.

Again, he drew a sketch of the average men and women who made up society, whom we ourselves encountered in daily life, or were connected with, or read about in newspapers. They were neither special saints nor special sinners. Religious men had faults, and often serious ones. Men careless of religion were often amiable in private life—good husbands, good fathers, steady friends, in public honourable, brave, and patriotic. Even in the worst and wickedest, in a witch of Endor, there was a human heart and human tenderness. None seemed good enough for heaven, none so bad as to deserve to be consigned to the company of evil spirits, and {286} to remain in pain and misery forever. Yet all these people were, in fact, divided one from the other by an invisible line of separation. If they were to die at the spot as they actually were, some would be saved, the rest would be lost—the saved to have eternity of happiness, the lost to be with the devils in hell.

Again, I am not sure whether it was on the same occasion, but it was in following the same line of thought, Newman described closely some of the incidents of out Lord's passion; he then paused. For a few moments there was a breathless silence. Then, in a low, clear voice, of which the faintest vibration was audible in the farthest corner of St. Mary's, he said, 'Now, I bid you recollect that He to whom these things were done was Almighty God.' It was as if an electric stroke had gone through the church, as if every person present understood for the first time the meaning of what he had all his life been saying. I suppose it was an epoch in the mental history of more than one of my Oxford contemporaries.

Another sermon left its mark upon me. It was upon evidence. I had supposed up to that time that the chief events related in the Gospels were as well authenticated as any other facts of history. I had read Paley and Grotius at school, and their arguments {287} had been completely satisfactory to me. The Gospels had been written by apostles or companions of apostles. There was sufficient evidence, in Paley's words, 'that many professing to be original witnesses of the Christian miracles had passed their lives in labours, dangers, and sufferings in attestation of the accounts which they delivered.' St. Paul was a further and independent authority. It was not conceivable that such men as St. Paul and the other apostles evidently were should have conspired to impose a falsehood upon the world, and should have succeeded in doing it undetected in an age exceptionally cultivated and sceptical. Gibbon I had studied also, and had thought about the five causes by which be explained how Christianity came to be believed; but they had seemed to me totally inadequate. I was something more than surprised, therefore, when I heard Newman say that Hume's argument against the credibility of miracles was logically sound. The laws of nature, so far as could be observed, were uniform, and in any given instance it was more likely, as a mere matter of evidence, that men should deceive or be deceived, than that those laws should have been deviated from. Of course he did not leave the matter in this position. Hume goes on to say that he is speaking of evidence {288} as addressed to the reason; the Christian religion addresses itself to faith, and the credibility of it is therefore unaffected by his objection. What Hume said in irony Newman accepted in earnest. Historically the proofs were insufficient, or sufficient only to create a sense of probability. Christianity was apprehended by a faculty essentially different. It was called faith. But what was faith, and on what did it rest? Was it as if mankind had been born with but four senses, by which to form their notions of things external to them, and that a fifth sense of sight was suddenly conferred on favoured individuals, which converted conjecture into certainty? I could not tell. For myself this way of putting the matter gave me no new sense at all, and only taught me to distrust my old ones.

I say at once that I think it was injudicious of Newman to throw out before us thus abruptly an opinion so extremely agitating. I explain it by supposing that here, as elsewhere, his sermons contained simply the workings of his own mind, and were a sort of public confession which he made as he went along. I suppose that something of this kind had been passing through him. He was in advance of his time. He had studied the early fathers; he had studied Church history, and the {289} lives of the saints and martyrs. He knew that the hard and fast line which Protestants had drawn at which miracles had ceased was one which no historical canon could reasonably defend. Stories of the exercise of supernatural power ran steadily from the beginning to the latest period of the Church's existence; many of them were as well supported by evidence as the miracles of the New Testament; and if reason was to be the judge, no arbitrary separation of the age of the Apostles from the age of their successors was possible. Some of these stories might be inventions, or had no adequate authority for them; but for others there was authority of eye-witnesses; and if these were to be set aside by a peremptory act of will as unworthy of credit, the Gospel miracles themselves might fall before the same methods. The argument of Hume was already silently applied to the entire post-apostolic period. It had been checked by the traditionary reverence for the Bible. But this was not reason; it was faith. Perhaps, too, he saw that the alternative did not lie as sharply as Paley supposed, between authentic fact and deliberate fraud. Legends might grow; they grew every day, about common things and persons, without intention to deceive. Imagination, emotion, affection, or, on the {290} other side, fear and animosity, are busy with the histories of men who have played a remarkable part in the world. Great historic figures—a William Tell, for instance—have probably had no historical existence at all, and yet are fastened indelibly into national traditions. Such reflections as these would make it evident that if the Christian miracles were to be believed, not as possibly or probably true, but as indisputably true—true in such a sense that a man's life on earth, and his hope for the future, could be securely based upon them—the history must be guaranteed by authority different in kind from the mere testimony to be gathered out of books. I suppose every thinking person would now acknowledge this to be true. And we see, in fact, that Christians of various persuasions supplement the evidence in several ways. Some assume the verbal inspiration of the Bible; others are conscious of personal experiences which make doubt impossible. Others, again, appeal justly to the existence of Christianity as a fact, and to the power which it has exerted in elevating and humanizing mankind. Newman found what he wanted in the living authority of the Church, in the existence of an organized body which had been instituted by our Lord Himself, and was still actively present among {291} us as a living witness of the truth. Thus the imperfection of the outward evidence was itself an argument for the Catholic theory. All religious people were agreed that the facts of the Gospel narrative really happened as they were said to have happened. Proof there must be somewhere to justify the conviction; and proof could only be found in the admission that the Church, the organized Church with its bishops and priests, was not a human institution, but was the living body through which the Founder of Christianity Himself was speaking to us.

Such, evidently, was one use to which Hume's objection could be applied, and to those who, like Newman, were provided with the antidote, there was no danger in admitting the force of it. Nor would the risk have been great with his hearers if they had been playing with the question as a dialectical exercise. But he had made them feel and think seriously about it by his own intense earnestness, and brought up as most of them had been to believe that Christianity had sufficient historical evidence for it, to be suddenly told that the famous argument against miracles was logically valid after all, was at least startling. The Church theory, as making good a testimony otherwise defective, was {292} new to most of us, and not very readily taken in. To remove the foundation of a belief and to substitute another, is like putting new foundations to a house—the house itself may easily be overthrown in the process. I have said before that in a healthy state of things religion is considered too sacred to be argued about. It is believed as a matter of duty, and the why or the wherefore are not so much as thought about. Revolutions are not far off when men begin to ask whence the sovereign derives his authority. Scepticism is not far off when they ask why they believe their creed. We had all been satisfied about the Gospel history; not a shadow of doubt had crossed the minds of one of us; and though we might not have been able to give a logical reason for our certitude, the certitude was in us, and might well have been let alone. I afterwards read Hume attentively, and though old associations prevented me from recognizing the full force of what he had to say, no doubt I was unconsciously affected by him. I remember insisting to a friend that the essential part of religion was morality. My friend replied that morality was only possible to persons who received power through faith to keep the commandments. But this did not satisfy me, for it seemed contrary to fact. There were persons of {293} great excellence whose spiritual beliefs were utterly different. I could not bring myself to admit that the goodness, for instance, of a Unitarian was only apparent. After all is said, the visible conduct of men is the best test that we can have of their inward condition. If not the best, where are we to find a better?


Top | Biography | Home


1. [James Anthony Froude was an influential historian and, in middle and later life, a sceptic and (politically) an anti-Catholic. He knew J. H. Newman, who was a friend of his brothers Hurrell and William, from an early age and at Oxford collaborated with him on his History of the English Saints. This article demonstrates the powerful and enduring effect that Newman had on those coming into personal contact with him, even when they came to disagree with him.]
Return to text

2. Perhaps it was not the Athenæum. I quote from memory. I remember the passage from the amusement which it gave me; but it was between forty and fifty years ago, and I have never seen it since.
Return to text

Top | Biography | Home

Newman Reader — Works of John Henry Newman
Copyright © 2007 by The National Institute for Newman Studies. All rights reserved.