Newman’s Littlemore legacy
John Henry Newman was born in London on 21st February, 1801, the eldest of six children, three boys and three girls. His father was John Newman, a banker (the name may indicate Jewish ancestry), and his mother was Jemima Fourdrinier, of Huguenot descent. He attended Ealing School from the age of seven, and as a boy enjoyed reading the Bible. At the age of fifteen he began the quest for spiritual wholeness which was to last the rest of his life. He thought perhaps that life might be just a dream, that he might be an angel, and even that his fellow angels were deceiving him with the mirage of a material world. From the outset Newman was of a philosophical disposition, and this evolved into a form of Christian mysticism with which he could not ultimately accommodate his Anglican principles, even after the reforms of the Oxford Movement. Tract Ninety of 1841 represents a final attempt to show that the Anglicanism, as defined in the Thirty-nine Articles, was consistent with Catholicism. His classic text ‘Apologia pro vita sua’ of 1864 is our main source of information about his earlier religious thinking.
Newman was not yet 16 when he went up to Trinity College, Oxford, to read Classics and Mathematics. Here he overworked, and despite his obvious intellect was awarded only a third class degree in 1821. But his abilities were clear for all to see, and the next year he was elected a fellow of Oriel, Oxford’s most prestigious college at that time, where he came in contact with Keble and Pusey, and later with R.H. Froude. By now he had given up his ambition of studying for the Bar, and resolved to take Holy Orders. He was ordained in 1824, becoming curate of St. Clement’s, Oxford, at the suggestion of Pusey. In 1828 he was appointed vicar of the University Church of St Mary, under the patronage of Oriel College. His sermons there were thought to be among the finest of his century, and were fondly recalled by Oxonians many decades later.
The neglected village of Littlemore was a distant part of his parish, and Newman determined to provide it with its own ‘chapel’ and school. In 1832 he resigned his tutorial post at Oriel, and the following year made a tour of the Mediterranean with his friend Froude, during which he met Cardinal Wiseman at the English College in Rome – a formative encounter. And it was in Rome that he wrote many of his sacred poems, published in 1836 as Lyra Apolostolica. It was in 1833 that he wrote the famous hymn ‘Lead, Kindly Light’, a heartfelt plea for guidance. A manuscript text of this hymn (right) and another listing the original donors who paid for the church are kept at Littlemore. The foundation stone of St Mary and St Nicholas’ church was laid in 1835 by his mother, Jemima, who did not live to see its consecration on 22nd September 1836; the school opened in 1838 (below, Littlemore Church and school in Newman’s time. ‘The College’ can be seen in the distance on the left).
Newman enjoyed catechizing in the church and teaching in the school. A keen violinist, he composed string trios at Littlemore, which he played here together with Messrs. Walker and Bowles. Dissatisfied with the lack of radicalism in Oxford theological circles, in 1842 he withdrew to Littlemore and started a small religious community (below), converting a stable block into a group of cells with kitchen and library to be a place of retreat. This gave rise to newspaper reports that he was building an Anglo-Catholic monastery. He had had doubts about the claims of the Anglican Church from 1839 onwards, expressing his new views in Tract Ninety of 1841, which was censured by the church authorities. He subsequently gave up his responsibilities in Oxford and resigned his position at St. Mary’s.
On the morning of September 25th 1843 he preached in this church his famous valedictory sermon ‘The Parting of Friends’. At this symbolic and emotional event ‘Dr. Pusey, [John Brande] Morris of Exeter and some others sobbed aloud, and the sound of their weeping resounded throughout the church’. Quoting from Isaiah xxxiii, Newman voiced his despair at what he had come to see as the weakness of Anglicanism: ‘O my mother, whence is this unto thee, that thou hast good things poured upon thee and canst not keep them, and bearest children, yet darest not own them? why hast thou not the skill to use their services, nor the heart to rejoice in their love? how is it that whatever is generous in purpose, and tender or deep in devotion, thy flower and thy promise, falls from thy bosom and finds no home within thine arms?’
Newman was received into the Catholic Church at Littlemore in 1845 by the Italian Passionist friar Dominic Barberi, and was ordained into the Roman Catholic priesthood the following year. He left Littlemore, ‘kissing my bed, my mantelpiece, and other parts of the house’. Leaving Littlemore evoked in him more regrets than leaving Oxford.
The tale of a sad Newman returning to visit Littlemore many years later is told in the poem At Littlemore –
He leant upon a stile, noble, unkempt,
old and so weary, in a coat shabby and black-green,
he leant and wept, and I think he dreamt
of what had been
Then from the valley afar, yonder, a bell
sounded. He looked. There Oxford lay and slept:
Saint Mary’s spire and Trinity and Oriel:
his own, so dear,
so much his own, so intimately dear;
so far, so near.
And he leant there and wept,
He had sought a perfect peace on earth,
and for its sake abandoned the old home;
Church, friends and pulpit, all he had held of worth,
exchanging Oxford’s mirage for the gleam of Rome.
The gleam was spent,
and now he weeping leant
upon a stile,
remembering the past a little while
at Littlemore –
so here the old man wept and prayed,
beside the church which he himself had made
long years before.
He wept with white head bared.
Here he had stood vested before the altar then,
here had christened children now grown men;
here had at last despaired,
and seeking elsewhere peace, found war.
And now he wept and prayed alone,
ungreeted and unknown,
leaning upon a stile,
weeping for faces, loved, but lost awhile,
[from They Shine Like Stars, Desmond Morse-Boycott, chapter VII: The Parting of Friends. Skeffington & Son, London 1947]
The legacy of John Henry Newman remains with both the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches. As a priest in the Church of England, he had a huge impact on the development of Anglicanism over the next 150 years. Together with Pusey and Keble he initiated what later became known as ‘The Oxford Movement’. Through the writing of tracts and scholarly books he reminded Anglicans that they were part of an apostolic catholic and universal church, which had its roots in the early Church Fathers. The nature of purity, continuity and the development of the Christian faith occupied Newman’s writings. He defended the centrality of Christ and the doctrines associated with his person against the powerful onslaught of 19th century liberalism.
John Henry Newman is now commemorated on 11th August in the Anglican calendar, and this is acknowledged at Littlemore by a new icon (below). To mark the bicentenary in 2001 of his birth the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has composed a ‘Littlemore Tractus’, setting his words: May He support us all the day long, till the shades lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done! Then in his mercy may He give us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last.
Newman as a young Anglican priest, after an illness during a visit to Italy
Lead, kindly Light, amid th’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
The distant scene; one step enough for me.
I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
Shouldst 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 me, sure it still
Will lead me 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!
John Henry Newman – The Pillar of the Cloud (Lead kindly light), June 16, 1833
Newman at Littlemore in 1839, writing on different Christian traditions
“We say that the Apostles considered episcopacy an indifferent matter, though Ignatius says it is essential. We say that the table is not an altar, though Ignatius says it is. We say there is no priest’s office under the Gospel, though Clement affirms it. We say that Baptism is not an enlightening, though Justin takes it for granted. We say that heresy is scarcely a misfortune, though Ignatius accounts it a deadly sin; and all this, because it is our right, and our duty, to interpret Scripture in our own way. We uphold the pure unmutilated Scripture; the Bible, and the Bible only, is the religion of Protestants; the Bible and our sense of the Bible. We claim a sort of parliamentary privilege to interpret laws in our own way, and not to suffer an appeal to any court beyond ourselves.
We know, and we view it with consternation, that all antiquity runs counter to our interpretation; and therefore, alas, the Church was corrupt from very early times indeed. But mind, we hold all this in a truly Catholic spirit, not in bigotry. We allow in others the right to private judgment, and confess that we, as others, are fallible men. We confess facts are against us; we do but claim the liberty of theorizing in spite of them. Far be it from us to say that we are certainly right; we only say that the whole early Church was certainly wrong. We do not impose our belief on anyone; we only say that those who take the contrary side are Papists, firebrands, persecutors, madmen, zealots, bigots . . .”
John Henry Newman – Historical Sketches, London: 1872, vol. 1
the “Newman prayer”
God has created me
to do him some definite service;
He has committed some work to me
which He has not committed to another.
I have my mission –
I may never know it in this life,
but I shall be told of it in the next.
I am a link in a chain,
a bond of connection between persons.
He has not created me for naught,
I shall do good,
I shall do his work.
I shall be an angel of peace,
a preacher of truth
in my own place
while not intending it –
if I do but keep
Therefore, I will trust Him.
Whatever, wherever I am,
I can never be thrown away.
If I am in sickness,
my sickness may serve Him;
my perplexity may serve Him;
if I am in sorrow,
my sorrow may serve Him.
He does nothing in vain.
He knows what He is about.
He may take away my friends.
He may throw me among strangers.
He may make me feel desolate,
make my spirits sink,
hide my future from me –
still He knows
what He is about.
John Henry Newman, Meditations and Devotions, III, 1855
Newman on religion and intellectual freedom
“I wish the intellect to range with the utmost freedom, and religion to enjoy an equal freedom; but what I am stipulating for is, that they should be found in one and the same place, and exemplified in the same persons…. It will not satisfy me, what satisfies so many, to have two independent systems, intellectual and religious, going at once side by side, by a sort of division of labour, and only accidentally brought together…. I want the intellectual layman to be religious, and the devout ecclesiastic to be intellectual.”
John Henry Newman – preaching at University Church, Dublin, Sunday after Ascension, 1856