John Henry Newman and the Oxford Movement

The British Catholic Authors collection of the John J. Burns Library spans a period of almost 200 years, stretching from the early years of British Catholic revival under figures such as Cardinal John Henry Newman, C.O. (1801-1890) to contemporary figures such as Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) and Graham Greene (1904-1991). Although the collection contains countless pieces from over seventy authors, this series of post will focus on some of the more notable figures and works.

One of the earliest figure of interest is Cardinal John Henry Newman, one of the leading members of the Oxford Movement and one of the first converts to Catholicism during its revival. Initially a devout Anglican, Newman’s beliefs shifted as he worked to move the Church of England to an older form of worship and devotion, ultimately leading him to convert and become a leading figure in the rebirth of Catholic thought and spirituality in the British Isles. However, in his youth, Newman began his religious life as an evangelical Calvinist. It was not until 1824, at the age of 23, that he became an Anglican priest. It was in these early years that  Newman found his calling to a life of ministry, celibacy, and theology. In many ways, his reaction to his own Calvinism would shape his later shift towards Catholicism.

In 1833 Newman, by then a fellow at Oriel College in Oxford, took a trip to Italy to reflect on the growing controversies at Oxford that would lead to the Oxford Movement. It was during this trip that Newman resolved to devote all his energy to the educational, religious, and political aspects of this conflict. Newman’s reflections on his role in the movement are shown by a poem he wrote during his voyage from Palermo to Marseilles: “The Pillar of the Cloud,” often referred to by the words of its first line, “Lead, Kindly Light.” These measured lines are a prayer for guidance combined with a certainty that the author will lead a controversial role in the Church of England.

Title Page from the 1883 Illustrated eddition of "Lead, Kindly Light"

Title page from the 1884 illustrated edition of Lead, Kindly Light, PR5107 .L4 1884, British Catholics Authors Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Soon after his return, the Oxford Movement began when Newman’s colleague, John Keble, gave a sermon called, “National Apostasy.” In it Keble called for a renewal of the English Church by reviving ancient Christian practices. For the next twelve years Newman, Keble, and others engaged in writing pamphlets, called tracts, which gave this movement its other name, the “Tractarian Movement.”  Concurrently, Newman and his friend Richard Hurrell Froude also published in the British Magazine the “Lyra Apostolica,” poems that reflected the practices of early Christianity.  Also printed in the same journal were papers published in 1840 as The Church of the Fathers.

Likewise, Newman published his parochial sermons, which sold well and provided their author with a steady income. In fact, many of the Oxford Movement’s publications, which concentrated on fine points of theology and church history, were bestsellers. There were ninety tracts total, all published anonymously, although the identities of the authors were widely known. The tracts were welcomed by some church members but opposed by others, because they seemed to encourage practices like those of the Roman Catholic Church. The tracts ended abruptly with Number 90, The Thirty-Nine Articles, published by Newman in 1841. In it he argues that a Catholic could in good conscience accept the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. This controversial statement caused a national uproar. At that time, subscribing to the Thirty-Nine Articles was considered the infallible test of a person’s membership in the Church of England, and people were required to sign them for entrance to Oxford and Cambridge Universities. By saying that Catholics could do the same, Newman effectively challenged the position of Catholics in society. The fallout from Tract 90 eventually stopped Newman’s tract writing and led him to concentrate on preaching, writing, and pastoral duties.

The Tittle Page from Tract 90, also know as The Thirty-Nine Articles.

The title page from an early edition of Tract 90, also know as The Thirty-Nine Articles. BX5137 .N4 1841, British Catholic Authors Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Newman’s activities in the 1830’s, though diverse, centered on a few major teachings: the Church of England is neither Protestant nor Catholic but is a middle way, a via media; the established Church of England inherits and displays the principal and necessary traits of the early Church; and the Church must call people to holiness. As early as 1839 Newman began to have doubts about his strong conviction that the Church of England and it alone properly embodies these points. In 1839 he read an article in Dublin Review by a Catholic priest, Nicholas Wiseman, which discussed the Donatist heresy in the time of St Augustine. According to Wiseman, Augustine believed that the truth in that dispute was found in the inherited doctrines of the Christian church. Newman began to wonder whether the Church of England or the Church of Rome was the true guardian of that truth. He struggled with these doubts for six years.

Seeing himself moving to Catholicism, Newman began to separate himself from his Anglican involvements. In 1843 he preached his last Oxford University sermon, on the development of Christian doctrine.  Later that year he resigned from his vicarage at St. Mary’s in Littlemore; his last sermon there was “The Parting of Friends.” While he considered his next step, Newman decided to write a book about the development of Christian doctrines over the centuries and the Church’s understanding of them.  The “Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine”was published in 1845, just after Newman’s decision to join the Catholic Church. Soon after his conversion he published a novel, Loss and Gain: the Story of a Convert that sheds some light on his path to Rome.

The Title page from one of the many letters written in support of the stance Cardinal Newman took in Tract 90.

Title page from one of the many letters written in support of the stance Cardinal Newman took in Tract 90. BX5137 .N4 1841, British Catholic Authors Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Newman’s conversion drew national attention. Catholics, who were generally as surprised by Newman’s move as the Anglicans, were just starting to revive their traditional intellectual pursuits. For over 150 years they had been unable to attend Oxford or Cambridge or to hold any government position, and although Parliament passed the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829, the return to full societal participation by English Catholics was a slow process. In fact, the Catholic hierarchy was not restored until 1850 when the Roman Catholic Church in England was permitted to establish its own dioceses and appoint bishops.

Nevertheless, the Catholic Church received Newman with great enthusiasm, and he was welcomed in Rome when he went there to prepare for the priesthood. There he joined a religious order, the Oratorians, and upon his return he established the first Oratory in England. He also opened a preparatory school for Catholic youth, and in the 1850’s Archbishop Cullen of Ireland asked him to start a Catholic university in Dublin. However, after several years of dealing with other unsupportive bishops, Newman withdrew from the project. The result of this frustrating effort was his book “Discourses on the Scope and Nature of University Education” (1852; later re-published as part of “The Idea of a University,” 1859).


Title page of Loss and Gain, stamped with the logos of Boston College, Boston College Highscool, and Immaculate Conception Boston

The title page from our 1854 edition of Loss and Gain reflects the organizations whose hands this book passed through before ending up in our archives. PR5107 .L6 1854, British Catholic Authors Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

In 1860 public controversy arose which brought Newman new fame and respect; still the most prominent Catholic in England, Newman became the subject of a strange remark by Charles Kingsley, a prominent Anglican clergy member. In a book review, Kingsley gratuitously insulted Newman, saying the latter did not think that Catholics should be told all the truths of their religion. An exchange of letters followed, which Newman summarized roughly as follows:  Newman: I never said that. Kingsley: I accept your apology. Newman: I did not apologize; I never said what you imputed to me. This public exchange played out in the pages of journals and newspapers, and brought to the fore some widely held views of Newman. Many people thought he had been deceitful about his religious views, not only just before he converted to Catholicism but also on several occasions earlier in his life.
In response, Newman rose to the challenge. He announced that he would write a full “History of My Religious Opinions.”  Taking advantage of the public interest generated by the exchange of letters, the publisher Burns & Oates insisted on one installment a week. Working against difficult deadlines, Newman exerted extraordinary effort. With help from both Catholic and Anglican friends, who supplied copies of letters he had written them, he finished the task. As soon as the work was completed, Burns & Oates bound the pamphlets for distribution and soon published other editions. Later titled Apologia pro Vita Sua, this extraordinarily frank intellectual autobiography brought respect to Newman and to other Catholics, and has influenced many people to join the Catholic Church.

At the end of his life, living in the shadow of complaints made to the authorities in Rome

Advertisment on the first page iof Loss and Gain which tells the reader that the aim of the text was not to stir up the controversy surrounding the recent string of high profile conversions

The advertisement on the first page of Loss and Gain shows the controversial nature of the text when it was released in 1848. PR5107 .L6 1854, British Catholic Authors Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston ColleDavid E. Horn, Burns Library, Boston Colleg

about his views on the role of lay people in the church and on infallibility, Newman nevertheless was named a cardinal. In 1879 Pope Leo XIII made Newman a cardinal, confirming his orthodoxy and assuring his stature in the Church. In 1991 Pope John Paul II honored Newman’s life-long commitment to holiness by designating him Venerable. He was declared Blessed  by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010.  Newman’s lasting influence on the lives of English Catholics was based on his role as a lightning rod for anti-Catholic protests, his clear views on contemporary subjects, his profound theological writing, and his excellent prose style.

All the books, sermons, essays, etc., mentioned above are in the British Catholic Authors collection in the Burns Library. In most instances there are first editions as well as other early editions and many later editions, revised by Newman or edited by others. We have a complete set of the 90 tracts, as originally published.  Our books are supplemented by long runs of nineteenth-century periodicals, including many on microfiche in the O’Neill Library, and many have been made available online.


  • David E. Horn, Burns Library, Boston College
  • Edited and revised by Chad M. Landrum, M.A. student in the History Department & former Burns Library Reading Room Assistant

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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