In His Own Words: Newman’s Experience of Rejection
By Isaac Withers
John Henry Newman is one of history’s most famous converts, his conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism in 1845 is in many ways the turning point of his story. However, it is important for us to understand the context of this change – it would be a mistake for us to think that to convert from one denomination of Christianity to another then was what it is like now.
Catholics had been reviled and persecuted in England for centuries after the reformation, with it only becoming legal for Catholics to sit in the Parliament of Westminster with the passing of ‘The Roman Catholic Relief Act’ in 1829. Newman himself grew up with an Evangelical form of Anglicanism that gave him a strong bias against Catholics, writing once that, ‘Rome must change first of all her spirit, … if they (Catholics) want to convert England, let them go barefooted into our manufacturing towns, let them preach to the people’. Catholicism since the reformation was a foreign religion to the British, the Church of England being their Church. For Newman, the leader of the Oxford Movement, the most prominent Anglican in the country, to convert, was seismic. What came with this was almost total societal rejection, and this experience of rejection would truly test his character.
Worth the risk
Although the Oxford Movement was provoking the religious and political Establishment of Oxford and the Anglican Church, it was not formally condemned until the final letter that the movement published, Tract 90, in 1841. In this letter, Newman proposed that the foundations of the Anglican faith (the articles) were fundamentally Catholic, as all Protestant faiths broke first from the Church of Rome. It was this point that pushed the Establishment too far, but Newman saw it as worth the risk. He writes of this in his autobiography:
‘Man had done his worst to disfigure and to mutilate, the old Catholic Truth; but there it was, in spite of them, in the Articles still. It was there, - but this must be shown. It was a matter of life and death for us to show it. … And as it was a matter of life and death with us, all risks must be run to show it.’
Rejection from Oxford
The rejection that came after the publication of Tract 90 would come from all corners, from the University he loved, from society at large, from the media and from the Church he so wished to bring to renewal.
Even before it was published, Newman knew this letter would cause a commotion, but the extent of the uproar surprised him.
‘I am told that, even before the publication of the Tract, rumours of its contents had got into the hostile camp in an exaggerated form; and not a moment was lost in proceeding to action, when I was actually fallen into the hands of the Philistines. I was quite unprepared for the outbreak, and was startled at its violence. I do not think that I had any fear. Nay, I will add, I am not sure that it was not in one point of view a relief to me.’
Many of the senior tutors and heads of houses argued that this message was 'suggesting and opening a way by which men might violate their solemn engagements to the university’ as the university and the Church were so closely linked. The Bishop of Oxford then called for the Tracts to come to an end, leading Newman to leave Oxford for Littlemore, largely withdrawing from public life.
Rejection from Society
In a truly heart breaking part of his autobiography, Newman describes in detail just how total his humiliation was, as he was now considered by many to be a traitor.
‘I saw indeed clearly that my place in the Movement was lost; public confidence was at an end; my occupation was gone. … in every part of the country and every class of society, through every organ and opportunity of opinion, in newspapers, in periodicals, at meetings, in pulpits, at dinner-tables, in coffee-rooms, in railway carriages, I was denounced as a traitor who had laid his train and was detected in the very act of firing it against the time-honoured Establishment. … Confidence in me was lost; - but I had already lost full confidence in myself.’
This gives us today a clear sense of how Catholicism was regarded in Newman’s day, with extreme hostility.
Rejection from his Church
For Newman, perhaps the most painful rejection was from the hierarchy of the Church he so loved and had committed his life to. The Bishops of the Church of England at that time did not immediately condemn what he had written, although the Tracts of the Oxford Movement could no longer be published. However, over the years Newman lived quietly in Littlemore, struggling with his own doubts, more and more church leaders came out publicly against him.
‘The bishops one after another began to charge against me. It was a formal, determinate movement. This was the real ‘understanding;’ that, on which I had acted on the first appearance of Tract 90, had come to nought. … They went on this way, directing charges at me, for three whole years. I recognised it as a condemnation; it was the only one that was in their power. At first I intended to protest; but I gave up the thought in despair.’
And as they lead, so many members of their Church followed.
‘If there ever was a case, in which an individual teacher has been put aside and virtually put away by a community, mine is one. No decency has been observed in the attacks upon me from authority; no protests have been offered against them. It is felt – I am far from denying, justly felt, - that I am foreign material, and cannot assimilate with the Church of England.’
Rejection from the Media
However, Newman’s fame was so great at the point of his public condemnation that the media was also highly interested and would not let him simply retreat from the world. Newman describes this too in his autobiography, in a section that sounds strikingly similar to the paparazzi media and fake news of our modern day.
‘After Tract 90 the Protestant world would not let me alone; they pursued me in the public journals to Littlemore. Reports of all kinds were circulated about me. … “Why did you go up to Littlemore at all?” … it was hard that I should be obliged to say to the Editors of newspapers that I went up there to say my prayers. … Who would ever dream of making the world his confidant?’
“What was I doing at Littlemore?” Doing there! Have I not retreated from you? Have I not given up my position and my place? Am I alone, of Englishmen, not to have the privilege to go where I will, no questions asked? am I alone to be followed about by jealous prying eyes … I cannot walk into or out of my house, but curious eye are upon me. … I had thought an Englishman’s house was his castle; but the newspapers thought otherwise’.
So how did Newman respond to such a public and constant humiliation, over these years?
Firstly, he did not apologise or retract what he had said. In his resignation letter from the Oxford Movement to the Bishop of Oxford in 1841, he wrote powerfully:
‘I have nothing to be sorry for, except having made your Lordship anxious, and others whom I am bound to revere. I have nothing to be sorry for, but everything to rejoice in and be thankful for. … I have acted because others did not act, and have sacrificed a quiet which I prized. May God be with me in time to come, as He has been hitherto! And He will be if I can but keep my hands clean and my heart pure. I think I can bear, or at least will try to bear, any personal humiliation, so that I am preserved from betraying sacred interests, which the Lord of grace and power has given into my charge.’
He also kept an eternal perspective on this suffering, keeping his focus on pleasing God, not the world. While discussing this in his autobiography, he quotes his Sermon on Divine Calls.
‘O that we could take that simple view of things, as to feel that the one thing which lies before us is to please God! What gain is it to please the world, to please the great, nay even to please those whom we love, compared with this? What gain is it to be applauded, admired, courted, followed, - compared with this one aim, of not being disobedient to a heavenly vision? What can this world offer comparable with that insight into sanctity, that everlasting righteousness, that hope of glory, which they have, who in sincerity, love and follow our Lord Jesus Christ?’
This is not to say that he did not feel the pain immensely, however his friends helped him to bear it. He wrote to a friend in the midst of this struggle:
‘As you may suppose, I have nothing to write to you about, pleasant. I could tell you some very painful things; … You are always so kind, that sometimes when I part with you, I am nearly moved to tears, and it would be a relief to be so, at your kindness and at my hardness. I think no one ever had such kind friends as I have.’
Ultimately, Newman seemed to never lose his awareness that to bow to the pressures of the world was cowardly, but to stand on the side of the right in the pursuit of truth, was heroism.
‘Has not our misery, as a Church, arisen from people being afraid to look difficulties in the face? ... The truest friends of our Church are they, who say boldly when her rulers are going wrong’.
This willingness to suffer for the Church shows Newman’s true character, and his self-sacrificial love for the people of God. And through it all, he trusted in God.
‘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 the future from me—
still He knows what He is about.…
Let me be Thy blind instrument. I ask not to see—
I ask not to know—I ask simply to be used.’