One only Way to life:
One faith, deliver’d once for all;
One holy Band, endow ‘d with Heaven’s high call;
One earnest, endless strife:
This is the Church, the Eternal framed of old.
These lines from a poem by John Keble (the “founder” of the Oxford Movement) give us some help to answer the question as to what the Oxford Movement was about. This Movement was, fundamentally, religious in nature, and one of its aims was to rehabilitate the dignity of the Church and to deliver it from the grasp of secular authority.
But that was only one of the manifold issues which the Movement dealt with. Some other issues may also be mentioned here. One of them was the growing strength of Liberalism in religion and politics. The protagonists of this movement came forward to combat tooth and nail all such Liberalism as appeared in the Church as Latitudinarianism. The Oxford Movement had nothing to do with politics, but it favoured Conservatism or Toryism (of course, in religion). As W. H. Hutton points out in The Cambridge History of English Literature, Vol. XII, it “was certainly not a Tory movement, but it was opposed to liberalism in all its aspects. To the philosophy of conservatism the Oxford leaders were much indebted.” Further, the Movement was opposed to rationalism in matters concerned with the Church. The Victorian age witnessed a rapid and tremendous expansion of physical science and even more than in the eighteenth century (the age of prose and reason) there was a temptation in the nineteenth to put religion to the test of rational scientific examination. T. H. Huxley, for instance, became an agnostic after failing to be convinced ot the truth of Christianity, considered rationally and scientifically. The Oxford Movement stressed the absurdity of examining the Church in the light of reason. The Oxford men put special emphasis on faith as something superrational. “The main-spring of the Oxford Movement,” observes Hugh Walker, “was the dread of rationalism.” According to the same critic, the “problem” for Newman (the chief force of the Movement) “was how to check the growth of rationalism as he saw it in England.”
This aggressive anti-rationalism manifested itself in the Oxford men’s affirmation of the miracles associated with the history of the ancient church and numerous saints. The people, influenced by science in their age, were already finding it too hard to give credence to the numerous Scriptural miracles, and the Oxford men were adding new ones which had never been seriously believed except perhaps by the very orthodox Roman Catholics. This flagrant anti-rationalism, certainly out of tune with the times, naturally alienated many otherwise sympathetic people.
This anti-rationalism was somewhat “romantic.” Indeed between the Romantic Movement and the Oxford Movement there is something curiously common. The “romantic” interest in the Middle Ages for their mystery and splendour is one of these common factors. As Moody and Lovett put it, the Oxford Movement stood for “the restoration of the poetry, the mystic ritual and service which had characterised the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages.” It was this medievalism which was probably responsible for the ultimate entry of Newman into the Roman Catholic fold. The romantic tendency of the protagonists of the Oxford Movement is also apparent in a different way-their poetry. As Eugene R. Fairweather points out, “their poetic sensibility-which cannot be ignored, in view of the fact that Keble, Newman and Williams were all fluent, if’minor’, poets-was ‘romantic’ in tone.”
But the fundamental factor which sparked off the Movement and which was taken congnizance of and condemned by almost all the ‘brethren” was the increasing interference of secular authority in the affairs of the Church. All of them were at daggers drawn with Erastianism (the control of the Church by the State). The chief aim of the Oxford Movement, in the words of one of its protagonists, was to convince the people that “the Church was more than a merely human institution; that it had privileges, sacraments, a ministry, ordained by Christ.” Moody and Lovett observe in this connexion: “Newman and his friends wished also to defend the Church, in view of its divine character, against the interference of the state, which was disposed to reform it along with Parliament and other institutions, curtailing its powers and revenues.” Thus the Oxford Movement stood for Anti-Erastianism.
The History of the Movement:
These were the most important points which shaped the Oxford Movement. But the “brethren” were by no means a united lot. A brief survey of the history of this Movement will show this.
Newman was the soul of the Movement. But, generally, the name of John Keble is mentioned as the man who started the Movement. In July 1833 Keble preached a sermon at Oxford before the judges of assize, on national apostasy and against the Erastian and Latitudinarian tendencies of the day. His speech formally inaugurated the Movement, and even Newman accepted Keble as its “true and primary author.” But it must be noted that Keble only provided the spark; the fuel had already been piling for long. Keble was a quiet, simple, and modest man not of much literary pretension, but known for his anonymous book of sacred poems, The Christian Year, published in 1827. According to Hugh Walker, “there is nothing great in his life or in his works.” Anyway, he is the accepted pioneer of the Oxford Movement.
Keble’s sermon was followed by the generation of intense feeling in like-minded men of Oxford. They included Newman, Froude, Pusey and many more. Their concerted action crystallised in the publication of Tracts for the Times, the first of which came in September 1833. It was entitled Thought on the Ministerial Commission, respectfully addressed to the Clergy. The publication of the tracts continued till 1841 with contributions from many hands. However, Newman who wrote some twenty-nine of them was, as Hugh Walker puts it “the soul of the Tracts.” None approached him in the clarity of thought as well as of expression.
The avowed aim of the Tracts was to create public opinion in I favour of “the privileges of the Church and against Popery and Dissent.”" However, slowly and steadily the trend of thought as expressed in the Tracts showed evidence of moving towards the Church of Rome and away from the Church of England. Things came to a head iffthe famous (rather notorious) Tract XC, which came from Newman’s pen. In it Newman showed his Romish tendency by taking upon himself the task of arguing that the thirtynine Articles were in no way opposed to the Council of Trent. In other words, he was making plea for the Church of Rome and undermining a universally accepted Anglican view. This tract created a tremendous commotion. All the Anglican bishops condemned it vociferously. Newman’s conversion was complete after he had read articles by Wiseman, the able leader of the English Roman Catholics.
The general hostility which Newman provoked made it impossible for him to continue staying at Oxford. So he took refuge at Littlemore. He resigned his ecclesiastical living at Oxford in September 1843 and joined lay communion. Some of his ardent followers also joined him at Littlemore.
Meanwhile, W. G. Ward, an ebullient and energetic follower of Newman, published what W. H. Hutton calls “a heavy and exasperating book”-The Idea of a Christian Church. Ward openly favoured the Roman Church pointing to what he described as the “most joyful, most wonderful, most unexpected sight! We find the whole cycle of Roman doctrine gradually possessing members of English churchmen.” It was a very provocative book. The scandalised members of the University at a convocation held on February 13, 1845 withdrew from Ward the degrees of B. A. and M. A. The book had a wide influence but it is poor literature. Well did Jenkyns. the Master of Balliol, tell Ward : “Well. Ward, your book is like yourself; fat, awkward, and ungainly.”
Newman’s conversion to Roman Catholicism was formally complete when on October 9,1845 he became a member of the Church of Rome. Later, in 1879, the Pope made him a cardinal. But after 1845 the Oxford Movement spread beyond Oxford. The “brethren” were no longer perfectly united. Some like Ward accepted Roman Catholicism, but others like Pusey continued their work staying within the Anglican fold.
The Literary Aspect of the Movement:
The Oxford Movement was basically a religious movement. Directly, it had nothing to do with literature. However, the numerous writings which it threw up had some repercussion on contemporary literary taste and style. Previously also, divines (such as Hooker, Jeremy Taylor, and Tillotson), had exerted some influence on literature even when they had written’on purely religious themes. W. H. Hutton maintains in this context: “The Oxford movement certainly belongs to the history of English religion more definitely than to the history of English literature; but it had great influence, outside its own definite members on the literary taste of its age.” But out of the whole mass of the literature the Movement gave rise to, we can pick out as good literature only a handful of poems and Apologia, which is, in Hugh Walker’s words, “eminently and emphatically literature.” As for the rest of the works, they are biblia abiblia (=books that are no books).
Some Tractarians Considered-Keble:
John Keble (1792-1866) was Professor of Poetry at Oxford, and an Anglican preacher. It was he, as we have already said, who started the Oxford Movement with his famous sermon of 1833. He could boast of no intellectual calibre, though he was a saintly, simple, and humble figure. He, as Compton-Rickett puts it, “gives us the emotional atmosphere of the movement.” His literary merits are negligible, but some of his poetry is enjoyable for its sincerity and emotion.
John Henry Newman (1801-1890) was the spirit behind the Movement. Hurrell Froude called him the “indicating number,” the rest of the Tractarians being just so many ciphers. His contributin to literature is also the most considerable. His pellucid sincerity and simplicity, which are his distinguishing marks as both man and as writer, are abundantly visible in his best work Apologia pro Vita Sua (1864). which he wrote in self-defence in reply to Charles Kingsley’s charge of dishonesty against both himself and his new Church. Newman was stung into action and immediately took up the task of writing an apology to explain his conduct. As he puts it, he made his fingers “walk twenty miles a day” so as to finish his work quickly. The Apologia is characterised by what Hugh Walker calls a “palpitating humanity which vivifies every line.” In this work Newman has poured his heart and soul out. “It has,” says W. H. Hutton, “the merits of a letter rather than of a book.” But Newman is a finished artist. The greatest recommendation of his prose is its directness and simplicity. This crystalline simplicity, however, is the outcome of a rigorous art and abundant energy in check.
Newman’s other works, like the Essay of the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845), The Idea of a University Defined (1873), and religious novels Loss and Gain (1848) and Callista (1856), have also the same qualities of style. Mention may also be made of Newman’s verse. He wrote well, but the only memorable poem written by him is the famous prayer poem “Lead Kindly Light.”
Richard Hurrell Froude (1803-1836) was a link between Keble and Newman. He was, doubtlessly, a brilliant young man. He is now chiefly known for his posthumous Remains (1836). He wrote two of the Tracts for the Times and some poems. He was, as he himselfsaid, quite “hot-headed,” and he offended quite a number of people.
Edward Bouverie Pusey (1800-1882) was a man of very wide learning. He gave his name to the protagonists of the Oxford Movement (who came to be commonly termed “Puseyites”)- But in almost every respect he is inferior to Newman. As Compton-Rickett observes, “he is far less attractive as a personality, more questionable in his methods and immeasurably inferior as a literary craftsman.” Considered from the literary point of view, Pusey’s work is indeed hopeless. His style is, to quote Hugh Walker, “crude, ungainly and confused.”
William George Ward (1812-1882) was an extremely talented man who followed Newman’s lead in conversion to Roman Catholicism. We have already referred to The Idea of a Christian Church (1844) which is his best known work. His Essays on the Philosophy of Theism (collected in 1884) were written to controvert the views of Mill. His style is inelegant and cumbrous, but his ideas stirred his times.
Richard William Church (1815-1890) is, after Newman, the best of those connected with the Oxford Movement in the literary quality of their work. His clear and vigorous style, his sympathy and eclecticism are apparent in his monographs on writers as diverse in their nature and art as Dante, Spenser, and Bacon. Church also wrote a quite objective history of the Oxford Movement, published posthumously in 1891. With a rare degree of self-effacement, he refrains from mentioning his own name in this history, even though he had played an important role in the Movement.
Apart from those mentioned, there is “a whole Hydra more.” But, to use Dryden’s words
To speak the rest, who better are forgot,
Would tire a well-breath’d Witness of the Plot.
So we end here.
What tangible effect did the Movement produce? To quote Eugene R. Fainveather, “the Oxford Movement, for all its profound conservatism, seriously altered the accepted patterns of Anglican thought and practice.” For one thing, it directed the attention of the people to “personal holiness,” and was responsible for reviving or confirming the practices of serious prayers, formal piety, and fasting. It re-orientated the common views about apostolic authority, and, with some success, discovered a link between the Church of England and the Pre-Reformation-Church (of Rome). It made the Church of England conscious of the onslaught of Liberalism and Erastianism. Thus the Oxford Movement was more than a passing ripple on the surface of “the sea of faith.”