ewman’s attitude towards the kind of sudden conversions beloved of evangelical protestants is one of a piece with his Tractarian beliefs in which emotional and other forms of reserve play a major part. Like Jonathan Swift in A Tale of a Tub, that classic of religious satire, his deep suspicion of emotions and emotionalism pervades everything from his idea of the gentleman to his beliefs about the proper sermon and conversion. As Lawrence Poston points out, in an 1829 sermon Newman argues that "preaching carries with it the temptation to curry the favor of one's auditors, to enhance one's reputation and character for 'ability or pre-eminent holiness'" (411). Newman, Poston explains, believed that preaching must be subordinate to "the ministration of the sacraments and the personal ministrations of the clergyman to his flock. At the heart of his argument is the Tractarian idea of personal holiness" (412). Citing Isaac Williams — author of both Tract 90 on reserve and The Cathedral, a volume of poems in emulation of George Herbert — Poston mentions the three marks of "holiness in life": "a modest retiring into the shade, an equal modesty in expression, and 'a self-denying and consistent performance of religious duties in secret'" (413).
Looked at the from vantage point of style, Newman’s religious attitudes seem consistent with neoclassicism while those of Evangelical preachers like Charles Spurgeon, who emphasize both emotion and individuality, appear the epitome of romantic religion. Newman looked at the Evangelical emphasis upon emotional conversion with especial distaste, and therefore the dramatic conversion of St. Paul (which many of evangelical persuasion considered an ideal) presented him with a problem. His sermon “Sudden Conversions” (text) opens by remarking upon what he terms “the wonderful mode of St. Paul's conversion” before turning to “one or two kinds of what may be called sudden conversions.” Newman’s description of the first reads like an editor’s note to A Tale of a Tub:
Some men turn to religion all at once from some sudden impulse of mind, some powerful excitement, or some strong persuasion. It is a sudden resolve that comes upon them. Now such cases occur very frequently where religion has nothing to do with the matter, and then we think little about it, merely calling the persons who thus change all at once volatile and light-minded. Thus there are persons who all of a sudden give up some pursuit which they have been eagerly set upon, or change from one trade or calling to another, or change their opinions as regards the world's affairs.
Admitting that people who make these kind of changes in their lives may well be “amiable, kind, and pleasant, as companions; but we cannot depend on them; and we pity them.” We also pity those, who love variety for its own sake, and those, says Newman, who dramatically change their “particular course of life,” such people who were “actually was unbelieving or profligate” — in other words, all those principals of famous evangelical conversion narratives. Newman concludes, “when men change at once either from open sin, or again from the zealous partizanship of a certain creed, to some novel form of faith or worship, their light-mindedness is detected by their frequent changing — their changing again and again, so that one can never be certain of them. This is the test of their unsoundness; — having no root in themselves, their convictions and earnestness quickly wither away.”
Turning to the second form of supposed conversion, Newman describes one “in which a man perseveres to the end, consistent in the new form he adopts, and which may be right or wrong, as it happens, but which he cannot be said to recommend or confirm to us by his own change. I mean when a man, for some reason or other, whether in religion or not, takes a great disgust to his present course of life, and suddenly abandons it for another. This is the case of those who rush from one to the other extreme” — as, for example, when a spendthrift becomes a miser or when “heathens, Jews, infidels, or heretics” think they have changed their religions but do so only outwardly and superficially.
At this point Newman has denied the validity of virtually every conversion, so what distinguished Paul’s from those he dismisses? In the opening sentences of his sermon, he mentions the “wonderful mode of St. Paul's conversion, and the singular privilege granted him, the only one of men of whom is clearly recorded the privilege of seeing Christ with his bodily eyes after His ascension” (emphasis added). St. Paul’s experience was unique, and the rest of us should not yearn after it. Near the close of this sermon Newman explains,
there was much in St. Paul's character which was not changed on his conversion, but merely directed to other and higher objects, and purified; it was his creed that was changed, and his soul by regeneration; and though he was sinning most grievously and awfully when Christ appeared to him from heaven, he evidenced then, as afterwards, a most burning energetic zeal for God, a most scrupulous strictness of life, an abstinence from all self-indulgence, much more from all approach to sensuality or sloth, and an implicit obedience to what he considered God's will. It was pride which was his inward enemy—pride which needed an overthrow. . . . But how great was the change in these respects when he became a servant of Him whom he had persecuted!
Newman concludes, “And if such be the effect of a momentary vision of the glorious Presence of Christ, what think you, my brethren, will be their bliss, to whom it shall be given, this life ended, to see that Face eternally?” That’s powerful close, to be sure. Still, Newman really hasn’t answered the fundamental question, how do believers know that they have experienced (what Newman would accept as) a genuine religious conversion? Newman, who at this point in his life remained deeply suspicious of any change of religion, really has no answer except on grounds of personal taste — or rather his distaste for evangelical emotionalism. Although this early sermon provides no real answer, the Apologia Pro Vita Sua makes clear that Newman accepts, at least in his own case, a slow, supposedly unemotional change of heart as permissible — well, at least defensible.
Newman, John Henry. “Sudden Conversions” [complete text]. Parochial and Plain Sermons. Vol 8. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1891. Project Gutenberg online transcription which Al Haines produced.
Poston, Lawrence. "Newman's Tractarian Homiletics." Anglican Theological Review. 87 (2005): 399-421.
Turner, Frank. John Henry Newman: The Challenge to Evangelical Religion. New Haven: Yale UP, 2002.
Last modified 21 June 2018