John Henry Newman (1801-1890)

John Henry Newman is among the most famous figures associated with Oriel College. He is remembered as a preacher, pastor, controversialist, educational visionary, and one of the most significant modern theologians of the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches.

Newman was born in London in 1801, the son of a banker. In 1816 he experienced a religious conversion to evangelical Calvinism, after which he felt that God was calling him to lifelong service. In 1817 he was admitted to Trinity College, Oxford, as an undergraduate and in 1822 he was elected to a fellowship by examination at Oriel. In 1824 he was ordained and became a curate at St Clement’s church. The liberal theological atmosphere of Oriel, together with pastoral work in his parish, began increasingly to challenge his Calvinist views.

In 1832-3 Newman was deeply impressed by journey to Corfu, where he visited Orthodox churches, and to Rome. Shortly after his return, John Keble preached the sermon which is often regarded as launching the Oxford or Tractarian Movement. This movement argued for the protection of churches from control by the state and for the preservation of ‘apostolic faith’. It sought to reestablish some early Christian doctrines and practices in Anglican theology and liturgy and defended Anglicanism as one of the three branches of the Catholic church (together with Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy), which offered a via media between Catholicism and evangelism.

Together with Keble and Edward Pusey, Newman became one of the Movement’s driving forces. From 1833 he published a series of articles, sermons, and ‘Tracts for the Times’. Some of these were criticized as undermining the Protestant nature of the Church of England, and by 1835 Newman was in dispute with both theological liberals and evangelicals.

Newman served as Chaplain of Oriel (1826-31, 1833-35) and as Vicar of the University Church (1828-1843). In 1836, discovering that the people of the nearby village of Littlemore, nominally part of his parish, had never had their own church, he built a chapel and a school in the village and served as its vicar until 1843.

In 1839, Newman’s reading of the Church Fathers began to undermine his confidence in Anglicanism as a legitimate branch of the Church and a via media. A period of doubt and intense study followed. In 1843 Newman resigned as vicar of the University Church. In 1845 he resigned his Fellowship of Oriel and was received into the Roman Catholic church.

Newman travelled to Rome to study for the priesthood. On his return in 1848 he founded and became the superior of the Birmingham Oratory, where priests who were not monks or friars could share a religious life. In 1852 he travelled to Dublin to advise the Irish Catholic Church on the establishment of a university. He became the first Rector of the Catholic University of Ireland and there delivered the lectures which became the first part of The Idea of a University (1873), now regarded as a classic argument for the benefits of a liberal education.

Newman’s conversion was far from the end of his involvement in controversy. The late 1840s and 1850s saw him involved in disputes within the Irish Catholic Church, between the Birmingham and London oratories, and between Catholic bishops and laity. In 1861 he wrote a series of pamphlets defending his conversion and theological development which were published in 1864 as the spiritual autobiography, Apologia pro vita sua (‘A Defence of My Life’). The Apologia gained Newman sympathy and popularity and, encouraged by this change in his fortunes, in 1865 he wrote the devotional poem The Dream of Gerontius.

Newman continued to be involved in theological and ecclesiastical disputes until his death, but also became a more establishment figure. In 1877 he was elected the first honorary fellow of Trinity College and in 1879 was made a cardinal.

Newman died in 1890 in Birmingham. In 1991 Newman was declared by Pope John Paul II to be ‘Venerable’, the first formal step towards canonization. In 2010 he was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI.

More about John Henry Newman: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography