II. The Oxford Movement and the Tractarians



It is not surprising that Keble’s Sermon would come out of Oxford. The University of Oxford was the centre of Anglican theological thought and study and Oriel College was the most progressive of the colleges. It contained among its fellows, some of the most interesting thinkers of that generation. It is here where church reform would begin.


Keble’s sermon's asserted the spiritual independence of the Church of England from the interference of Parliament and it became a rallying-cry for a group of Oriel College clerical dons and Churchmen.

Among them was a group, known as the ‘Noetics’. Though, not historians or philosophers, they were heavily influenced by the French Revolution and regarded authority, as it related to intellectual matters, as non-influential. They treated every question as an open ended question and endeavoured “to settle it by reference to fundamental principles.”1


They were considered liberal in their outlook, and were very quick to challenge authority. They were critical of ‘Party Men’, whether ‘High-Church’ or ‘Evangelical’. They were confident, confrontational and very thought-provoking. There leaders were the Provost, Edward Copleston (1776-1849); a Spanish Priest in the Roman Catholic Church, Blanco White (1775-1841); and Richard Whately (1787–1863), who was noisy, overly assertive and dogmatic.

There was also a second tier of leaders amongst the Noetics and they would prove to play a vital role in the movement for church reform. The first was John Keble (1792-1866). He was a true child of the Caroline Divines and a disciple of Richard Hooker. Keble was a Professor of poetry who eventually served as curate to his father in Cotswold village.

Another young man was Richard Hurrell Froude (1803-1836), a dashing aristocrat who also belonged to the world of poetry. His main interest was French thought and he died from tuberculosis, at the age of thirty-three. Thirdly, there was Edward Bouverie Pusey (1800-1882). He was the Regis Professor of Hebrew and was a great scholar. He was a recluse and opposite in character to Froude in every way.


Finally, there was John Henry Newman (1801-1890). He was considered the most able of them all. He had a dynamic personality, which would dominate church reform for next twelve years. He was brought up an Evangelical and at the age of fifteen had experienced a sudden conversion. After a rather unimpressive undergraduate career, he won a fellowship to Oriel College. Newman flourished as a ‘Noetic’ and became a close friend and associate of Richard Whately, their most potent spokesman. By 1825, he apparently was developing himself into becoming a theological liberal.


In 1826, Richard Hurrell Froude became a Fellow of Oriel College. Immediately, he was not impressed with Newman’s religious opinions. In September of 1828 he wrote that he “would give a few odd pence” if Newman “were not a heritic.”2


Newman, however, was impressed with Froude. He began to be influenced by him and his “admiration for the Church of Rome”. 3 Newman was slowly converting to the strict High Churchmanship of Froude. It should be noted that in reality, Newman’s theological liberalism was quite shallow and in his time of deep personal stress, he had turned toward Anglo-Catholicism for comfort. Certainly, his nervous breakdown in November of 1827 and the unexpected death of his nineteen year old sister Mary in January of 1828 brought him closer to Catholic spirituality. Catholicism seemed to offer him a sounder theological foundation, compared to the rather thin theology of the Evangelicals.

Newman’s Sermon on The Usurpations of Reason, preached before the University on December 11th1831, clearly expressed the beliefs of the future Movement. All its themes were Tractarian in nature. They possessed a consistent faith in the self-disclosure of the Transcendent God; the authority of the Church as translator of divine revelation; the inability of human reason to define the mysterious truth given in revelation and the necessity of a moral acceptance to the message of Judgement and Grace.

This sermon also clearly articulated Newman’s longing for the dogmatic religion of his childhood. In his own words: “From the age of fifteen, dogma has been the fundamental principle of my religion: …religion as a mere sentiment is to me a dream and a mockery. As well can there be filial love without the fact of a Father, as devotion without the fact of a Supreme Being… Even when I was under Dr. Whately’s influence, I had no temptation to be less zealous for the great dogmas of the Faith and at various times, I used to resist such trains of thought… Such was the fundamental principle of the movement of 1833.”4


The ‘Assize Sermon’ of 1833 created two lines of thought among those anxious for reform. The ‘Noetics’ subdivided into two groups, the ‘Static Group’ and the ‘Radical Group’. The Static group was, for the most part, defensive. It took the church of the Caroline Divines as its model for reform. It wanted to rally the country to a greater understanding of Churchmanship. This was the party of R.H. Froude, H.J.Rose (1795-1838) and William Palmer (1811-1879). They had planned on forming a league for the defence of the church and considered drawing up a Churchmen’s Manuel. This Manuel would present to the laity a set of standards for Christian living.

The Radicals waged a much more aggressive campaign, the chief weapon of which was to be a series of pamphlets collectively known as the Tracts for the Times, which were to rally all loyal churchmen and infuse new life into the church. “The members of the movement thus became known as the Tractarians.”5.

The first tract was entitled, Thoughts on Ministerial Commission Respectfully Addressed To Clergy. It was a passionate plea for the clergy to unite in defence of their holy office in the apostolic succession. Tract number two was entitled, The Catholic Church and the third was, Thoughts on the Alterations in Liturgy.


These three tracts all appeared in September 1833, and were all written by John Henry Newman. The tracts were printed inexpensively and distributed in large numbers to the parochial clergy throughout the nation. In dramatic fashion, Newman and his fellow Tractarians rode the country-side “with a bundle of tracts in front of their saddles,”6 and delivered them to each clergyman’s house.


In 1834, thirty more tracts were produced of which the most important of these were two by Newman (numbers 38 and 41) On the Church of England and the Via Media. Earlier, in Tract Twenty, Newman had written, ‘Popery must be destroyed: it can not be reformed’. At this time he was still very much Anti-Roman in his thought.

However, in his tracts about the Church of England, Newman claimed that the church was Catholic in every way, and he based this on the traditions of the Apostolic Church and the teachings of the Early Church Fathers. Over time the tracts became more adept and extensive, which provided a deeper understanding of Catholic thought for both the authors and their readers.


Without John Henry Newman, the Oxford Movement would have been much less impressive and much less energetic. Between 1833 and 1845, a critical period, he was the most dominant and articulate personality; twenty-eight of the ninety Tracts for the Times were written and edited by him. Each Sunday his sermons, at St. Mary’s church, Oxford, defined the Movements essential messages. He stood in one of England’s most influential pulpits. It was Newman’s homilies and theological essays that became the first comprehensive statement by the Tractarians.

At this point the idea of the Church of England as a branch of the Catholic Church pursuing the Via Media between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism was becoming a proposed theory. The idea was to “distinguish between Catholicism and Roman Catholicism, and to place the English Church side by side with the Eastern Orthodox and Rome as part of the one universal Church.”7

This theory had made many supporters. However, there was a small minority, led by Froude, who did not accept this in any form. To him, this theory appeared to be a position of compromise and caution, leading ultimately a capitulation to Rome. Newman and Keble published Froude’s writings, Remains, posthumously in 1838-39; which split the Static group into two. Had Froude lived, it would have been difficult for him to even remain in a Church of England that accepted the Via Media. His model of the church was primarily medieval and he had the utmost dislike for any advance toward Rome.


Remains caused something of a sensation. It supported the tradition of the Protestant Reformation and was truly competent in the defence of its opinions. Even Newman began to lose faith in the Via Media, and W.G. Ward (1812-1882), an outspoken leader of the Radical group began to lose outright faith in Anglican Church. Unlike Froude, however, their leanings, with the help of Roman Catholic clergymen, Nicholas Patrick Wiseman (1802-1865) and Blanco White were to look across the Tiber to Rome.

Meanwhile, The Tracts For The Times continued to make a great stir in England. Some welcomed them, while yet many others were horrified. The strict Evangelicals were appalled at the Tractarians and their alleged Romanism, not to mention their attitude toward the Reformation. The tracts by Edward Bouverie Pusey on ‘fasting’, offended the so-called ‘sophisticated thinkers’, and the notion of exhorting the church to a greater sense of responsibility seemed foreign.


Feelings ran high at Oxford. Along with the Evangelicals and the Secularists, a powerful movement of Liberal thought under the leadership of R.D. Hampden (1793-1868) was present. In 1834, Hampden wrote Observation on Religious Dissent. The paper was the antithesis of even the mildest Tractarian thinking and it caused great turmoil. Additional controversy arose at Oxford, when in 1837 the Evangelicals proposed to erect a memorial to the three Reformers, Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley, who had suffered martyrdom there in 1555-1556.


While the opponents of the Tractarians were busy gathering their forces, the High-Church party was becoming energized. For the most part, the High-Church party was more sympathetic to the Oxford Movement and the Tractarians. They quietly promoted the information that the Tractarians were putting out and shared the catholic tradition that they saw as most desired for a church seeking reform. With the assistance of the High-Church party, “Articles from the Tractarians were appearing regularly in the British Magazine and the British Critic and… In 1839, a College for training ordination candidates in the principles of the movement was opened at Chichester.”8

In spite of this general kinship between the High-Church party and the Oxford Movement, the Tractarians were still considered too radical. In Tract One, Newman declared that people would eventually have to take a side with regard to the direction of the Church of England, and that even by being neutral, was indeed taking a stance. This seemed to give the impression of no middle ground.

The Tracts For The Times was an appeal for real change amongst radicals and reformers, and it appeared that the positions that it presented to the Church of England and the larger Anglican world was creating a fissure. The issues that separated the older High-Church party and the Tractarians became clearer and the possibility of compromise became less likely, as the Oxford Movement began to develop outside the confines of its birthplace.


Sources for this Article

  1. A History of the Modern Church - Chapter XVII - The Oxford Movement - Page 208

  2. The Oxford Movement; John Henry Newman - Chapter I - pages 19 & 20

  3. Readings in the History of Christian Theology Vol.2 - The Nineteenth Century - Chapter VI - Page 146

  4. Apologia Pro Vita Sua - My Religious Opinions from 1833 to 1839 - page 61

  5. What is Anglo-Catholicism? Part One - The Oxford Movement The Tractarians - Project Canterbury

  6. Snapdragon - The Story of John Henry Newman - Home Again to the Oxford Movement - Chapter VIII - Page 67

  7. A History of the Modern Church; Chapter XVII - The Oxford Movement - Page 214

  8. A History of the Church in England; Chapter XIX -The Oxford Movement and After - I. Tract for the Times - page 343


Next Article: Doctrinal Development and Tract Ninety


© 2005 Article taken from Master's thesis The Oxford Movement: Anglo-Catholicism and the Birth of Anglican Catholic Identity.

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