[Part Seven of "Religious Revival and the Transformation of English Sensibilities in the Early Ninteeenth Century" © Herbert Schlossberg]

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Although evangelical language and ideas increasingly dominated English society, even after the essential religious power of the movement had begun to fade, evangelicalism was not the only influential religious movement of the era. At Oxford a group of Anglican academics and clergymen were increasingly unhappy with the lack of seriousness with which the establishment regarded its religious duties, with the failure to appreciate the catholic heritage of the church, in particular its historical and theological insights predating the reformation, and with its erastianism — the willingness to subordinate the legitimate claims and prerogatives of the church to the requirements of state policy. Their best-known leaders were John Henry Newman, John Keble, and Edward Pusey, and their preferred method was a series of publications they began in 1833 called "tracts;" hence they were known as the Tractarians (also as the Oxford Movement). These argumentative pieces attacked what the high churchmen regarded as the prevailing weaknesses of the church, and in particular the assault by what they called "liberalism." By this they meant both the doctrinal laxity and inattention to many aspects of the church's rich heritage, and political trends which threatened the church's status as a national institution; this included the erastianism and the other side of that coin, which was the increasing agitation for disestablishment. (Severing of the church's favored position in the state was by no means the exclusive provenance of unbelief, as the Tractarians sometimes implied, but was mainly pushed by Dissent, which was under several very real handicaps in comparison with Anglicans, including its inability to participate fully in university life.) Richard Hurrell Froude, a young associate of Newman and Keble and fellow of Oxford who died at the age of thirty-three, struck hard at the notion that establishment had caused the church to be weak, and said that the true cause was the deception practiced by the clergy. The pretention that England was a Christian nation made it impossible to enforce church discipline, since that would strip away the false covering. [Froude, Remains, 1: 273. These volumes of Froude's miscellaneous writings were published posthumously by Newman.]

It is common in the literature to regard the Tractarians as antithetical to the Evangelicals, who are sometimes called the "low-church" party. There is an unfortunate combination of errors here. The Evangelicals originally were opposed to the low churchmen, who tended to be latitudinarian and antinomian, devotees of the doctrinal and moral laxity that the Evangelicals decried. Thus the Evangelicals were natural allies of the Tractarian movement, although by the time the Tracts began appearing in 1833, the Clapham generation was either dead or soon to be dead, and their successors were not as promising as colleagues. Keble's distrust of the Evangelicals stemmed mainly from what he thought was their reliance on feeling to the neglect of duty and character rather than from their positive positions. He was closer to them than to the latitudinarianism against which they were reacting [Lock, John Keble, 19f]. Henry Liddon, Pusey's sympathetic nineteenth-century biographer, argued that the Evangelical revival was a reaction against the Church's teaching of a loose natural morality which ignored Jesus Christ, and it took form both within and outside of the Anglican Church. Although critical of what he considered the "one-sided" nature of the movement, Liddon treated it almost as the salvation of Anglicanism, describing Pusey's attitude in similar terms: "...and to the last day of his life, Pusey retained that 'love of the Evangelicals' to which he often adverted, and which was roused by their efforts to make religion a living power in a cold and gloomy age" [Liddon, Life of Edward Bouverie Pusey, 1: 254]. The Swedish scholar Yngve Brilioth was so convinced about the natural affinities between evangelicalism and Tractarianism that he asked rhetorically: "Would it be untrue to call Pusey one of the great English Evangelicals?" Hymnody, he thought, suggested the same conclusion; the High Church movement helped bring a wide range of Evangelical hymns, including those of Dissent, into common use in the Church [Evangelicalism and the Oxford Movement, 35-38, 46ff]. Liddon portrayed the Tractarians as being concerned about the penetration into the Church of liberalism; they believed that the only defense against it was through the appropriation of aspects of the Church's traditions that the Evangelicals were content to ignore. [Liddon, Life of Pusey, 4:1].

There was a pronounced evangelical heritage in the Tractarians. Newman's conversion under the ministry of a Calvinist Oxford don, Walter Mayers of Pembroke College, was classically evangelical. Although by the time Newman wrote his memoirs he had long since abjured protestantism, he explicitly confirmed his conversion experience. He called Mayers an "excellent man," he affirmed "through God's mercy" that he had never repudiated the doctrine he learned at the time, and said of his conversion that he was more certain of it than that he had hands and feet. To be sure, he rejected the typical Calvinist doctrine of the "perseverence of the saints," and the conviction that conversion and justification were the same, as well as the whole Protestant ecclesiology, [Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, 24-27. By the time he wrote this work, of course, Newman regarded Lutheranism and Calvinism as heresies (148).] but that still left a good deal of common ground with the evangelicals, especially in the context of their common adversaries. Henry Manning was another high church Anglican who had a conversion story similar to Newman's. [There is a good account of Manning's evangelical conversion in Newsome, The Wilberforces and Henry Manning, 148f. Newsome includes a short testimony of Manning on the aftermath of his conversion: "All this made a new thought spring up in me — not to be a clergyman in the sense of my old destiny, but to give up the world and to live for God and for souls....I had long been praying much and going habitually to churches. It was a turning point in my life. . . . It was as surely a call from God as all that He has given me since...."] Three sons of William Wilberforce — Samuel, Robert and Henry — were closely allied with the Oxford Tractarians as students and afterwards. And high churchmen such as the future Prime Minister William Gladstone often had such strong evangelical convictions that they might as well be called Evangelicals. Such an undulating and fuzzy border between the two movements was natural, when it is considered that the main preoccupations of the Tractarians were not in the externals, as their accusers often charged, but in the inner religion of the heart — which is what the Evangelicals always emphasized. Keble's Christian Year was a book of devotional poetry with an extraordinary impact on people of all parties who had that kind of bent. As Newman put it, "Keble struck an original note and woke up in the hearts of thousands a new music, the music of a school long unknown in England" [Apologia. 38].

One might say it was the poetic version of the evangelical preachers in the heyday of their effectiveness, designed to wake up a sleeping church. That kind of inner fervor, and not nostalgia with medieval forms, is what motivated the Tractarians. [In saying that the Tractarians were not mere purveyors of medieval nostalgia, I do not deny their conscious admiration for that period. They were enthusiastic followers of Walter Scott's novels, and they openly acknowledged their debt to him. They mourned Scott's death, and every year on its anniversary held a memorial service, reading Keble's poem for that day from The Christian Year. Some of the opponents of the Tractarians denounced Scott as well because of this relationship. See Cruse, The Victorians and their Reading, 34f]. If the evangelicals were preoccupied with justification, the Tractarians were similarly preoccupied with sanctification, the striving for inner holiness and zeal. [This point is strongly argued by Reardon, From Coleridge to Gore, 118]. But this was a matter of emphasis, and neither side denied the other doctrine, whatever differences may have remained in the way they conceived them. In the early Tractarian days it was possible to make common cause with the Evangelicals, as when they combined to thwart the apppointment of a a non-orthodox Regius professor of divinity at Oxford.

But the alliance could not last. It foundered largely because Evangelicals and others suspected that the high-church Tractarians were, despite their protestations, stalking horses for Roman Catholicism. That suspicion became a near-certainty with the publication in 1840 of Newman's Tract number 90, which argued that the 39 Articles, the de facto constitution of the Anglican church, rightly understood, was compatible with the Roman Church. The storm raised by Tract 90, as Newman later wrote, put an end to his usefulness in the task of influencing the course of the Anglican Church:

I saw indeed clearly that my place in the Movement was lost; public confidence was at an end; my occupation was gone. It was simply an impossibility that I could say any thing henceforth to good effect, when I had been posted up by the marshal on the buttery-hatch of every College of my University, after the manner of discommoned pastry-cooks, and when 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. [Apologia, 100.]

When Newman converted to Roman Catholicism in 1845 the tattered remnants of the Tractarian movement came to an end. Those who had suspected Newman of smuggling the pope's legions within the walls of Anglicanism believed they had been vindicated, and great segments of the public agreed with them. The carnage in the Church of England was frightful. A number of Newman's disciples and many others as well came over with him or soon thereafter. Henry Manning, who was then a widower, became a Roman Catholic priest and later on Bishop of Westminster and then a Cardinal. Families were torn apart. David Newsome's book The Wilberforces and Henry Manning depicts the strife within the Wilberforce family as Robert and Henry, their father long dead, converted to Rome while Samuel became one of the most energetic and influential Anglican bishops of the century.

[I omit from the present study any consideration of the Ritualist Movement in the Church of England because it came after the period I am considering. Some scholars affirm and some deny that this movement was a continuation of the Tractarians. It hearkened back to the catholic tradition in the church, and its ancient rituals in particular. The enemies of all high church manifestations in the last two-thirds of the century tended to lump them together as "Puseyism," although Pusey never had much use for catholic rituals. In addition to Brilioth, Evangelicalism and the Oxford Movement see Voll, Catholic Evangelicalism. Voll is largely sympathetic with Brilioth's work, although he thinks the later ritualists exhibited evangelical characteristics to a greater extent than the Tractarians. He believes the ritualist movement was heavily influenced by Methodism, the link between them being Alexander Knox, a lay theologican in the Church of Ireland.]

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Last modified 4 April 2002; link added 10 June 2010