The Personality of John Henry Newman

John Henry Newman







By Joyce Sugg

Paper presented at John Henry Newman: A Theologian for the Contemporary Church A Sarum College Conference in May 2011

John Henry Newman has, as we all know, been beatified recently. When there was some discussion about him on television on the great day, Bishop Geoffrey said with some pride that Newman’s name was already on the Anglican calendar as a person to be venerated for his holiness. Now, rather late in the day, Roman Catholics are bidden to honour him and ask his prayers. He is Blessed John Henry and no doubt will be proclaimed one day (soon I hope!) as St John Henry. The saints are there to help and inspire us and it is certainly helpful if we know their history, know what kind of people they were and how their holiness was manifested in their life time. We honour England’s patron, St George. However, we know very little about those people, so far back in history. In one sense they are not much use to us! Newman is not so far removed from us and his life is well documented. Also his story is a fascinating one and it is no wonder that the biographies multiply. It is a story that opens up many topics and Newman has much to say to us. When the Oratorian, Fr Stephen Pessain, was explaining the importance of publishing the thousands of Newman’s letters that are extant he said that there was matter in the letters to interest and inspire “the students of English literature, the historians…, the educationalists, the psychologists, the social scientists, those interested in the theory or the practise of politics, the philosophers and theologians, the men of religion and those concerned for the spiritual life and perfection, the controversialists and… not least, the general reader.”

The general reader will perhaps want to tackle Newman’s books as well as the letters (though some are hard going!) and there is endless material there to enrich our Christian lives, but since he is put before is as a holy man it is good to know, as well as his ideas, what kind of person he was. We do know what he looked like! It is interesting that Newman’s appearance during his long life is pictured in different ways: in hid earlier years he could be drawn or painted or sculpted in stone – but then photography came in. However, the grandeur of the Cardinalate meant painted portraits again including the famous one by Millais.

We have spy cartoons, caricatures, two pictures where he looks beautiful, some where (in later life) he looks sorrowful and almost grim – and they all capture one’s attention. We want to know what this thin, intelligent looking man was like. It is not easy to give an answer because Newman’s character was a complex one. However, he himself as a young man provided a very good clue to the mystery. He said himself that he was surprised to think that he both liked to be by himself and also enjoyed the company of others.

The solitary Newman is introduced to us in the Apologia when he is talking about childhood. “I thought life might be a dream, or I an Angel. And all this world a deception, my fellow angels by a playful device concealing themselves from me and deceiving me with the semblance of a material world.” This is solitariness indeed, a child distancing himself from the whole of the material world.

Years later it was said of him as a young man that he was never less alone than when he was alone and at this point we have to test the words “solitary” and “alone” and note another famous phrase in the early pages of the Apologia. He is describing his conversation to a real faith in God when he was fifteen and says that he “rested in the thought of two only supreme and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my Creator.”

From then on he was devoted to prayer – prayer in all its forms and when it came to the Oxford Movement he and its other leaders were of course insistent on the importance of liturgy, of communal prayer and the celebration of the sacraments. But the Christian needs quiet and solitude too, and we have plenty of evidence of this in Newman’s life. Active and busy as he as, he was always prayerful and there was something in his demeanour that showed it. The famous description of Newman’s preaching in St Mary’s. Oxford, written by Matthew Arnold gives this impression and Arnold is very clear that the style and the impact of the preaching was not attained by Newman’s giving a performance. Years later a certain Lady Lothian came to the Birmingham Oratory to consult Newman about some trouble and she attended his morning Mass. She wrote afterwards “He is a very striking looking person. His saying of Mass is most striking. I do not know what makes the difference, but one is conscious of a difference. It appeared to me very unearthly.”

Newman was constant in intercessory prayer and wrote many notes to remind himself that prayer was need for this or that person – he was often praying, in those days, for someone he knew who was stricken with T.B. or, as they said, consumption and he often has to pray for babies and young children whose lives were in danger. He composed prayers (the pen in use again!) sometimes creating a prose poem as in the prayer “Lord, support us all the day long…”

The pen (first a quill and later one with a steel nit) was of course in use for writing books – it is a symbol of the solitary Newman, the scholar and theologian, the great literacy mean. At the Birmingham Oratory you can see the desk in his room, and another tall one where the writer stood to write the “Apologia” and you can also see his great collection of books, including of course the volumes of the works of the early Church Fathers that were so important to him. He did not wish to take on a purely literacy ethos (saying once that he was not a saint for saints do not write tales, as though his writing two novels was not wholly acceptable.) He wrote under a kind of compulsion when there was a need – for example to write a defence for himself and other Catholic priests to answer Kingsley with the Irish University and so give us the splendid idea of a University.

Newman has something of the poet in him, though he was also a practical man good at managing money able to deal with the practical business involved in setting up his Oratory and his school. He wrote poetry – the greater part of it, to be honest not very good poetry – but in his prose his use of metaphor and rhythm proclaims a poetic talent. And like many poets, he was drawn to the beauties of the natural world. There is a letter, written in 1831, when he was visiting his friends, Hurrell Froude, in Devon, describing the scenes around him, the rich colours of the trees, of a beetle of a squirrel, the delicate scent and colour of sweet peas. When he went to Sicily with the Froudes, father and son, he felt compelled, though it was a rash decision, to go off to explore the wild beauty of Sicily. This was a rare indulgence – eventually he was content to spend half his life in smoky Birmingham where his work lay. It is a good thought that he rests now in a quiet graveyard near the Lickey hills where it was open country in his time and is still countrified. He had set up a modest country house there for his community to have rest and fresh air at times.

And what of the other side of Newman, the man who connected with other people? We have to remember that he was brought up in a close knit family with two brothers and three sisters. He enjoyed school life though he, quite properly, looked forward to holidays – announcing in one letter that he was looking forward to the mince pies and other good things of Christmas. This passage prompted Sheridan Gilley to say that the child/angel of the Apologia had an earthy side. After school, at Trinity College, Oxford, he began his first great friendship with his fellow student John Bowdon. They were so much together that later on, when married, Bowden sometimes addressed his wife as Newman.

When he chose to be ordained he did not see this (as many did) as the choice of a decent profession but as a dedication to be a pastor of souls. He was always the most pastoral of priests – first as curate in a humble parish in Oxford, where he visited assiduously and really got to know his people. He loved his parish in Littlemore and hated to lose it. In Birmingham he and his fellow Oratorians worked first in a converted gin distillery, learning what poverty was like in the great cities. They had to endure the stench of the place and the danger of catching fleas but they were happy because of the number flocking to their church. When their Oratory was built in Edgbaston they had both poor people and respectable middle-class parishioners and worked hard for them all. Newman himself divided his time between parochial work and his writing but he was careful for this local flock and had particular care for the poor. You will know the famous letter, when Monsignor Talbot had invited him to preach in Rome to respectable and educated Protestants he declined, for “Birmingham people have souls.” A concise and telling snub.

Newman had among his Oratorians his great friend, Ambrose St John, also a convert from the Anglican Church. Ambrose was very dear to him and this was the time when “particular friendships” were not encouraged in religious communities. Newman maintained, however, that they should follow the example of Christ, who had John as his special friend. He said in a sermon that “the best preparation for living the world at large and living it duly and wisely, is to cultivate an intimate friendships affection those who are immediately about us.” It is a pity that today so much is made of this one great friendship with Ambrose. There were others very dear to him – John Bowden, Hurrell Froude, and William Wilberforce. John Keble was a great friend as well as co-leader in the Oxford Movement.

Newman spent much of his life in religious communities – the group who lived together at Littlemore and the more formally recognised community pledged to the Oratorian Rule which he set up in Birmingham. Their founder was St Philip Neri, a great evangelist of the youth of Florence in the sixteenth century. He reminded Newman of Keble with his mixture of “extreme hatred of humbug, playfulness, nay oddity, tender love for others and severity.” His rule emphasised friendship rather than obedience to regulations In order to bind the community together. St Newman said, when his Oratory was about to come into being that they needed “companions who had a great deal of fun with them.” “If we have not spirit, it would be like bottles beer with the cork out.” Newman himself, we might note, had a lively sense of humour. He could use his skill with words to write a splendid satire, which was the best weapon against the excesses of the anti-Catholic propaganda if the 1850s and he could simply be entertainingly funny. When in Ireland he wrote accounts of his experiences in letters back to Birmingham and sometimes had some amusing tales to tell.

He was fierce with his Oratorians when they acted selfishly and against community spirit, though he said that he did not let them have the full force of his anger in case he “blew them out of the water.” One of them called Dalgarius, let rough boys into the house who set about trashing the place and another man, with some talent as a wood worker, promised the bookshelves for everyone in their new house and contented himself with making his own shelves. Newman – to use a modern phrase – tore a strip off them. It is unlikely that the friendship with Ambrose St John was allowed to damage community life – and both men were so busy that they cannot have had much time to be alone together.

In one way Newman did cause a little trouble amongst his fellows because he had fits of shyness. He apologised to one man for seeming to ignore him at their recreation time-he said he simply could not think what to say to him.

He had priest friends beside his Oratorians but a great many friends were lay people. Some were well-educated professional men who would help to make the small Catholic body in England more useful and more influential. Such was James Hope Scott, a noted lawyer and William Mansell who was a politician, holding office in various Liberal governments. Some friends with influential connections helped Newman set up the Oratory School and he brought in other laymen as teachers. There was much work to be done in and for the Catholic community and he wanted all to be done on an English model.

He had women friends too, but what they could do was limited: they could do charitable work and many did, and they could write religious novels or biographies or translate from French or Italian. The emancipation of women was on its way in the nineteenth century (a movement in which Newman had no great part to play) but he observed with satisfaction, in his old age that the century had brought about one excellent thing, the greater use of women’s talents by opening up the range of employments for them. Newman the prodigious worker, believed that talent and energy, God’s gifts should be used. He had many personal friends who were women, one especially called Emily Bowles, who was valuable to him as a confidante. It was a great sorrow to him that he lost two of his sisters: his dearest sister Mary died before she was twenty and Harriett had no more to do with him after he became a Catholic.Jemima was not wholly lost: she wrote and visited but would not have him in her house.

There were many estrangements after 1895 but some Anglican friendships were renewed, to Newman’s joy. He saw Keble again and his friendship with Richard Church (the Dean of St Pauls’) was renewed to be almost as before. Church’s daughters became friends too and introduced Newman to the Alice books. William Copeland, once Newman’s curate, also came back to his old friend.

Friendships were kept up mainly by letters but there were meetings too and it is amazing how widely Newman flung his net. The family of his men friends became his friends too. When John Bowden died, he looked after his wife and children as much as he could helping Mrs Bowden when she converted to Catholicism, taking the sons into his school, advising the elder daughter, Marianne , when she sought a religious vocation. His fiend Hurrell Froude died unmarried but Newman had a regard for all Froudes and a great affection for Hurrell’s brother, William and all his intelligent and lively family. This was not a Catholic family, William was an agnostic, never moved by Newman’s arguments. His wife became a Catholic and their sons followed her. One daughter Mary chose to remain an Anglican. Catholic Isy, the elder girl, was greatly attached to Father Newman. We have a vignette of Newman in old age, sitting for a portrait with Isy frolicking in to introduce her fiancé.

Newman’s voluminous correspondence was bulked out by the letters he sent to enquirers- people wanting spiritual counselling, those think of becoming Catholics, new Catholics who needed support. These letters were not generally to friends but they were written in a spirit of friendship. Certain maxims recur in Newman’s advice: for instance he always insisted that conversion must come about only when someone felt bound in conscience to take the step. However, he was insistent that advice must be tailored to each person and needed to know something of their character and circumstances. He was a kind counsellor-Lady Lothian, who was a little scared at something “unearthly” about him, found kindness when she talked to him. We rightly connect Newman with theology, ideas, books- but he is also predominantly a man for people. “Heart speaks to heart” was the motto he chose and it speaks volumes.

What were his faults? – for of course, he had them. I am greatly indebted to Mgr Roderick Strange for his analysis in his fairly recent book. He mentions the criticism sometimes made that in the Apologia, Newman was too slick in his arguments against Kingsley. This is a literary and scholarly fault , but his occasional lack of charity is a more serious moral matter. He could be oversensitive and sometimes tetchy. Perhaps he would have been less irritable if he had worked rather less and taken more holidays. In one matter he was both unkind and unreasonable – it shows in the many letters in his treatment of Mrs Keble. He held it against her that Keble had married and she needed to do penance for having kept him from being a Catholic. He was not however a misogynist or against marriage. In the early days of the Oxford Movement he disliked it when friends married – he wanted them as soldiers in the fight, single and thus free from other responsibilities. But his attitude generally was to respect marriage deeply – it shows in the many letters written later on to married friends.

His countless friendships with women show clearly that he was not a misogynist. He a has also been accused of being too introspective, obsessed with chronicling his own life. He certainly wrote many brief biographies. They do not read however as laudatory stories of John Henry’s actions but as little meditations on events and changes in his life, often making him bless God’s providence. He was the sort of person who liked to remember dates and then look back.

And what were his virtues? He did respond to God who spoke to his heart and he grew in holiness. As he emphasised development – from the emphasised development in the life of the Church so his life shows a steady development – from the earnest, over-strict young clergyman still affected by the Calvinist mentor he had when he was fifteen and undergoing his first conversion to the old Cardinal, kindly and affable to all and inspiring a great deal of affection in people who generally viewed Roman cardinals with deep suspicion.

Also, he had splendid tenacity and courage. He worked for the Anglican Church but his hopes were dashed. He then gave himself tirelessly to work in and for the Catholic Church and found one scheme after another crumbling under his hand. He was not valued by those in authority and “got into scrapes” with Rome. He was active, devoted, and really saw what was needed for the Catholic Church, especially for the Church in England and was thwarted again and again. This was his cross. He might easily have lost the Cardinalate though it had been offered to him but that time justice was done and he acknowledged to be a faithful son of the Church. It was this, which he spoke of as an acquittal which he valued, not the grandeur of his new rank.

At the end of the briefest biography he wrote (a page of headlines) he put obviously in surprise, “And now a Cardinal.” One feels that now an angelic hand should write one more entry: “and now Blessed John Henry Newman”.

Joyce Sugg, formerly of Newman University College, Birmingham, has written and edited a number of books and articles, including John Henry Newman’s letters and has also broadcast and lectured widely on him.

The conference was organised by Dr Mervyn Davies of Sarum College. It celebrated the widely acknowledged importance of Newman as a pastor, preacher, theologian, educationalist and spiritual writer who has much to say to all Christians today.

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