In His Own Words: Newman on Friendship

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 By Isaac Withers

From 1828 to 1843, John Henry Newman was the Vicar at St. Mary’s University Church, Oxford, where he preached regularly between those years. The sermons he preached sparked the Oxford Movement and caused a sensation throughout the university and the nation. They remain some of the most influential sermons ever to be heard in the English-speaking world. Thankfully, the full texts of these sermons remain and we can continue to be guided by Newman’s advice on many of the key questions of morality and spirituality. All of the extracts in this article are taken from his ‘Sermon on Love of Relations and Friends’ and his ‘Sermon on Personal Influence, the Means of Propagating the Truth’, along with extracts from his spiritual autobiography ‘Apologia Pro Vita Sua’.


Our early friendships shape all others

John Henry Newman reflected, wrote and preached about friendship and personal influence often, but importantly, he also lived out these values, maintaining many meaningful friendships throughout his life. He begins his, ‘Sermon on Love of Relations and Friends’ by discussing how our early friendships go on to form our relationship with God and those around us.

‘What we are towards our earthly friends in the instincts and wishes of our infancy, such we are to become at length towards God and man … To honour our parents is the first step towards honouring God; to love our brethren according to the flesh, the first step towards considering all men our brethren. Hence our Lord says, we must become as little children, if we would be saved; we must become in His Church, as men, what we were once in the small circle of our youthful homes.’


It’s natural to have best friends

Addressing the idea that Christians must extend friendship to everyone, Newman makes the case for allowing intimate friendships, arguing that best friends are natural. He points to St. John the beloved disciple and the special friendship that Jesus extended to him as an example.

 ‘ … it might be supposed that the Son of God Most High could not have loved one man more than another ... Yet we find our Saviour had a private friend; and this shows us, first, how entirely He was a man, as much as any of us, in His wants and feelings; and next, that there is nothing contrary to the spirit of the Gospel, nothing inconsistent with the fulness of Christian love, in having our affections directed in an especial way towards certain objects, towards those whom the circumstances of our past life, or some peculiarities of character, have endeared to us.’

 Referring to this model of having intimate friends as ‘our saviours pattern’, Newman disagrees with the idea that, ‘the love of many is something superior to the love of one or two’. He believes in fact that, ‘the best preparation for loving the world at large, and loving it duly and wisely, is to cultivate an intimate friendship and affection towards those who are immediately about us … I have hitherto considered the cultivation of domestic affections as the source of more extended Christian love.’


Love is a habit, we have to practise it

Newman identifies that at the heart of friendship is love for the other, and that love is not an abstract feeling towards people but something that has to be put into practice.

 ‘ … love, besides, is a habit, and cannot be attained without actual practice … We see then how absurd it is, when writers … talk magnificently about loving the whole human race with a comprehensive affection … Such vaunting professions, what do they come to? feelings and nothing more. … This is not to love men, it is but to talk about love. —The real love of man must depend on practice, and therefore, must begin by exercising itself on our friends around us, otherwise it will have no existence.’

 So what does this love look like put into practice?  Newman’s answer here is that the test of love is self-sacrifice.

 ‘By trying to love our relations and friends, by submitting to their wishes, though contrary to our own, by bearing with their infirmities, by overcoming their occasional waywardness by kindness, by dwelling on their excellences, and trying to copy them, thus it is that we form in our hearts that root of charity, which, though small at first, may, like the mustard seed, at last even overshadow the earth.’


Keep God at the heart of your friendship

Newman does then go on to address perhaps the most difficult thing about friendships in the long term – that people change. His antidote to this is to keep faith at the centre of friendship.

 ‘Young people, indeed, readily love each other, for they are cheerful and innocent … But this happiness does not last; their tastes change … what is it that can bind two friends together in intimate converse for a course of years, but the participation in something that is Unchangeable and essentially Good, and what is this but religion? Religious tastes alone are unalterable. The Saints of God continue in one way, while the fashions of the world change; and a faithful indestructible friendship may thus be a test of the parties, so loving each other, having the love of God seated deep in their hearts.’

Here, Newman cleverly suggests uniting our changing hearts in the unchanging nature of God and his love to resist the external changes of the world that cause difficulties in friendships. By ordering our friendships around our relationship with God and motivating each other towards the common goal of sainthood, Newman believes that our friendships will be protected from the potential for division.


The power of witness in friendship

 In his sermon on personal influence, Newman poses the question: how was it that the faith successfully spread in the early days, when Jesus had warned his followers, ‘Behold, I send you forth as lambs among wolves.’? His answer again is friendship, personal influence, journeying together, one to one.

 ‘I answer, that it (Christianity) has been upheld in the world not as a system, not by books, not by argument, nor by temporal power, but by the personal influence of such men … who are at once the teachers and the patterns of it … we shall find it difficult to estimate the moral power which a single individual, trained to practise what he teaches, may acquire in his own circle, in the course of years. … the attraction, exerted by unconscious holiness, is of an urgent and irresistible nature; it persuades the weak, the timid, the wavering, and the inquiring; it draws forth the affection and loyalty of all who are in a measure like-minded.’

Here Newman makes that point that before Christianity was ever an institution or books, it was transmitted person to person, through ripples of personal influence generated from witnesses who lived the faith with integrity. He goes as far as to that even scripture is less powerful if not explained in friendship.

 ‘ … While the Scriptures are thrown upon the world, as if the common property of any who choose to appropriate them, he is, in fact, the legitimate interpreter of them, and none other; the Inspired Word being but a dead letter (ordinarily considered), except as transmitted from one mind to another … Men persuade themselves, with little difficulty, to scoff at principles, to ridicule books, to make sport of the names of good men; but they cannot bear their presence: it is holiness embodied in personal form, which they cannot steadily confront and bear down.’


Newman, the Apostle of Friendship

 What makes Newman’s words on friendship all the more powerful is the extent to which we can see them lived out in his own life. Take for example the power of a friend as a witness, Newman’s journey to Catholicism is marked by so many friends who journeyed with him, closer to the truth they were seeking together. To name but one, Newman says this of his friendship with Hurrell Froude at Oxford:

 ‘Hurrell Froude was a pupil of Keble’s, formed by him, and in turn reacting upon him. I knew him first in 1826, and was in the closest and most affectionate friendship with him … It is difficult to enumerate the precise additions to my theological creed which I derived from a friend whom I owe so much. He taught me to look with admiration towards the Church of Rome, and in the same degree to dislike the Reformation. He fixed deep in me the idea of devotion to the Blessed Virgin, and he led me gradually to believe in the Real Presence.’

 What a friend! Here we see the ripples of personal influence in motion, John Keble forming Hurrell Froude, and Froude in turn forming Newman. In Newman’s own words, this friend helped him to think positively about Rome, to dislike the reformation, to grow in love towards Mary and to believe in Jesus present in the Eucharist – what a huge impact this friend had on him! And then of course, Newman’s eventual conversion to Catholicism would create a wave of conversions as so many others made the same journey. But without these friends, these influencers, it is fair to ask where would Newman have arrived?

 It is in terms of friendship that Newman also describes the Oxford Movement, his great movement for the renewal of the Church to its original mission.

‘As is the custom of a University, I had lived with my … pupils, and with the junior fellows of my College, without form of distance, on a footing of equality. Thus it was through friends, younger, for the most part, than myself, that my principles were spreading. They heard what I said in conversation, and told it to others. Under-graduates in due time took their degree, and became private tutors themselves. In their new status, they in turn preached the opinions … Others went down to the country, and became curates of parishes. Then they had down from London parcels, of the Tracts, and other publications. They placed them in shops of local booksellers, got them into the newspapers, introduced them to clerical meetings, and converted more or less their Rectors and their brother curates.  Thus the Movement, viewed with relation to myself, was but a floating opinion; it was not a power. It never would have been a power, if it had remained in my hands.

This principle of friendship and personal influence would forever guide Newman’s life. When he retreated to Littlemore he created an almost monastic community with friends, it is also why he loved the Oratorian way of life when he became Catholic, because they minister to the local area and evangelise ‘with a line not a net’ – one at a time. When he was made a cardinal, his one condition was that he did not live in Rome but that he remained in Birmingham, with his people. This lifelong principle of friendship was never clearer than when tens of thousands of people lined the streets of Birmingham for his funeral in 1890.


For all these reasons, when we interviewed Dr Scott Hahn about Newman, he referred to him as ‘The Apostle of Friendship.’ Speaking of the tens of thousands of letters that Newman wrote to friends and correspondents in his lifetime, Dr Hahn said, ‘these aren’t just perfunctory, these are personal. … He had a gift of friendship, and it was through the apostolate of friendship, through all of these letters, through all of these years, that he ended up wielding an influence of love.’

Through all of this, we see that friendship has always been the heart of the Christian faith, something Newman understood well. As Dr Hahn puts it eloquently:

Friendship is not only the message of the gospel, it is also the best medium for conveying it. As our Lord says ‘I no longer call you servant I now call you friends.’ Friendship with God is almost unthinkable apart from the fact that He became man in order to extend friendship to us and then He calls his apostles to do the same.’

 In an age of virtual connections and isolation, Newman’s example calls the Church today to be different, to extend real meaningful friendship to those around us, and to draw them to the truth.

‘I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.’ John 15:15

Isaac Withers