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The Tractarian movement began about 1833 and ended in 1845 with John Henry Newman's conversion to Roman Catholicism. It was also called the Oxford Movement because Newman, a fellow of Oriel College (part of Oxford University) and vicar of St. Mary's, the University church, and others were based there when they began the Tracts for the Times in 1833. (Unlike Cambridge, which was more liberal both in politics and religion, Oxford University in the 1830s was politically conservative and identified with the Church of England.) Newman traced the movement to the Rev. John Keble's sermon "National Apostasy" (July 14, 1833; full text), which attacked Parliament's plan to disestablish -- that is do away with the official status of -- the Anglican Church of Ireland in that primarily Roman Catholic country. Liberals argued that since most Irishmen were Roman Catholics, their taxes should not support the Anglican Church. In contrast, Keble, Pusey, and the other Tractarians held that since the Christian religion was superior to government, secular powers had no right to interfere in spiritual matters whatever the cause.

There were exactly 90 Tracts, the majority written by Newman, arguing in general that the truth of the doctrines of the Church of England rested on the modern church's position as the direct descendant of the church established by the Apostles. Pretty obviously, such an argument was a conservative answer to the various contemporary challenges to the authority of religion in general, Christianity in particular, and specifically Anglicanism Catholicism, fueled by the same need for reassurance as was the Evangelical revival. Since the 16th century the Church of England had prided itself on being the via media, or middle road, between Roman Catholicism and a more radical Protestantism.

Newman broke off the Tracts in 1841 after Number 90, in which he argued that the Thirty-Nine Articles, by which the English Church distinguished itself from the Roman, did not necessarily conflict with Roman Catholic doctrine. Rather, he said, they had been framed with enough ambiguity to avoid such a conflict and still meet Henry VIII's temporary political needs. Newman's method (according to Richard Altick) was very similar to the sort of literary criticism that attempts to recreate the author's intent at the time the work in question was written. Many who had followed the Tracts inferred after Tract 90 that Newman would shortly become a Roman Catholic; cynics suggested that he already was one. His conversion in 1845 nevertheless came as a shock. Given the English antipathy to "Popery" (in spite of recent events like the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1828), Newman's conversion undercut the Oxford movement by suggesting that Tractarianism inevitably led one to Rome, and it also created a great deal of personal ill-will towards Newman. The suspicion that while at Oxford he had not been honest about his beliefs or at least not about the direction they were leading him came out into the open in 1864 and lead him to write his Apologia pro vita sua, a spiritual autobiography which, remarkably, reversed public opinion of him.

The Oxford Movement added a conservative option to the lively atmosphere of Victorian religious debate. The Victorians who abhorred the atheism of the Utilitarians and the agnosticism of the scientists, were put off by the enthusiasm of the Evangelicals, found the Broad Church too latitudinarian to have any meaning left to its doctrine, and yet could not stomach going over to Rome, found these High Church Anglicans a perfect conservative solution.

The Ecclesiological movement, which wanted more ritual and religious decoration in churches and which closely associated with the Gothic Revival, was a natural partner to Tractarianism, for both movements looked back to the Middle Ages as a time when the Church met the needs of its parishioners both religiously and aesthetically. These movements had some influence upon the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which also looked back to Raphael and his medieval precursors for their artistic inspiration. Of all those associated with the Pre- Raphaelite Brotherhood, Christina and Dante Gabriel Rossetti probably drew most upon the three associated movements involving Ecclesiology, Tractarianism, and the Gothic Revival. The Catholic Hopkins also drew upon these movements.

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Created 1988

Last modified 18 June 2018
Thanks to Josh Kupershmidt for pointing out a bad link, 2002