The Oxford Movement was an early nineteenth century school of religious thought that aimed to reinfuse Anglicanism with the Catholic tradition–to create an Anglo-Catholicism. Here is one of its spiritual leaders, St. John Henry Newman, with a suggestive description from his Apologia Pro Vita Sua:

Now and then a man of note appeared in the Pulpit or Lecture Rooms of the University, who was a worthy representative of the more religious and devout Anglicans. These belonged chiefly to the High-Church party; for the party called Evangelical never has been able to breathe freely in the atmosphere of Oxford, and at no time has been conspicuous, as a party, for talent or learning. But of the old High Churchmen several exerted some sort of anti-liberal influence in the place, at least from time to time, and that influence of an intellectual nature. Among these especially may be mentioned Mr. John Miller, of Worcester College, who preached the Bampton Lecture in the year 1817. But, as far as I know, he who turned the tide, and brought the talent of the University round to the side of the old theology, and against what was familiarly called “march-of-mind,” was Mr. Keble. In and from Keble the mental activity of Oxford took that contrary direction which issued in what was called Tractarianism.

A “historical Christianity,” as Cardinal Newman put it in another work. The twentieth century historian, Christopher Dawson, describes the coming of this school in this newly published volume that should be of great interest, The Spirit of the Oxford Movement (Catholic University of America Press), with an introduction by Professor Kenneth L. Parker.

Dawson and John Henry Newman were Oxonians and both were converts to Catholicism; both stood against progressive and liberal movements within society. In both ideologies, Dawson saw a pathway that had once led to the French Revolution. Newman, for Dawson, was a kindred spirit.

In The Spirit of the Oxford Movement, Dawson goes beyond a mere retelling of the events of 1833 – 1845. He shows us the prime movers who sought a deeper understanding of the Anglican tradition: the quixotic Hurrell Froude, for instance, who “had none of the English genius for compromise or the Anglican faculty of shutting the eyes to unpleasant facts.” It was Froude who brought Newman and Keble together and who helped them understand each other. In many ways, Dawson sees these three as the true embodiment of the Tractarian ethos.

Dawson probes deeply, though, to provide a richer, clearer understanding of the intellectual underpinnings of the Oxford Movement, revealing its spiritual raison d’être. We meet a group of gifted like-minded thinkers, albeit with sharp disagreements, who mock outsiders and each other, who pepper their letters with Latin, and forever urge each other on. Newman came to believe, as did Dawson, that the only intellectually coherent bastion against secular culture was religion, and the “on” to which they were urged was the Catholic church. The Spirit of the Oxford Movement provides insights into why Newman, and Dawson, came to this understanding.

One thought on “On the Oxford Movement

  1. Yes, good point but don’t forget the ‘nuance” (yucky word) shown by Newman:

    I do not undervalue at all the advantage of institutions which, though not Catholic, keep out evils worse than themselves. Some restraint is better than none: systems which do not simply inculcate divine truth, yet serve to keep men from being utterly hardened against it, when at length it addresses them; they preserve a certain number of revealed doctrines in the popular mind; they familiarize it to Christian ideas; they create religious associations; and thus, remotely and negatively, they may even be said to prepare and dispose the soul in a certain sense for those inspirations of grace, which, through the merits of Christ, are freely given to all men for their salvation, all over the earth. It is a plain duty, then, not to be forward in destroying religious institutions, even though not Catholic, if we cannot replace them with what is better; but , from fear of injuring them, to shrink from saving the souls of the individuals who live under them, would be worldly wisdom, treachery to Christ, and uncharitableness to His redeemed.

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