John Henry Newman is one of the most fascinating figures of nineteenth-century England. He is known as a theologian who made several highly original contributions to Christian thinking, a philosopher, a novelist, a man of letters, a controversionalist – someone who entered into public debates – and an educationalist. He was a pastor of souls and lived such an exemplary life of holiness that he was declared Blessed by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. His main writings are published in 40 books and his letters occupy another 32 volumes. Currently, around 200,000 documents in the Newman archive in Birmingham are being digitised.
Born in London on 21 February 1801, the eldest of six children, he attended a boarding school in Ealing before entering Trinity College Oxford. Despite doing badly in his final exams, he became a Fellow at Oriel College, then the leading college, and soon became a tutor and took Anglican orders. Rather than parish or missionary work, he saw his calling to a life in teaching, and he threw himself into his tutorial and preaching duties. After his attempts to reform the Oxford tutorial system were thwarted, he soon became the leading personality in what became known as the Oxford Movement, a revival within the Anglican Church that sought to bring it closer to the Church of the first millennium and as a result undid many of the changes carried out at the Reformation. His preaching at the University Church of St Mary’s in Oxford made him known throughout the country.
Doubts about the Anglican Church led him to resign his Oriel fellowship in 1845 and become a Catholic. After studies in Rome, he was ordained as a priest and returned to England to set up the first Oratory of St Philip Neri in 1848, in Edgbaston, near Birmingham. He remained there for the rest of his life, i.e. until he died on 10 August 1890, though he split his time between Birmingham and Dublin when founding and running the Catholic University, 1854–58. On leaving Dublin, he was deeply involved in another educational adventure, the founding of the Oratory School at Edgbaston in 1859.
His reputation among his Protestant countrymen, who saw his move to Rome as a betrayal, was largely restored on the publication of the Apologia pro vita sua (1865); and his reputation among Catholics, many of whom regarded his writings and actions with suspicion, was restored with the publication of his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (1875), which defended Catholics against William Gladstone’s charge that papal infallibility, as defined in 1870 at the First Vatican Council, meant that Catholics had lost their freedom and owed their allegiance to the Pope not the Queen.
Scholarly interest in Newman, as well as popular devotion to him, has ebbed and flowed over the decades since his death in 1890, but his reputation and influence have grown of late – and show every sign of growing further with the prospect of his canonisation and even being named a Doctor of the Church.