The Roman Church’s response to Modernism in the mid to late 19th Century.
Pius IX’s development of Papal Infallibility.

The title of this 146th episode is Push-Back

As we move to wind up this season of CS, we’ve entered into the modern era in our review of Church history and the emergence of Theological Liberalism. Many historians view The French Revolution as a turning point in the social development of Europe and the Western Civilization. The French Revolution was in many ways, the result of the Enlightenment, and a harbinger of things to come in the Modern & Post Modern Eras.

For convenience sake, but in what is probably a gross simplifying, let’s chop up the history Western Civilization into these eras, in regards to Church History.

First is the Roman Era, when Christianity was officially opposed & persecuted. That was followed by Constantinian Era, when it was at first tolerated, then institutionalized. With the Fall of the Roman Empire, Europe entered the Middle Ages and the Church was led from Rome in the West and Constantinople in the East.

The Middle Ages ended in the Renaissance which swiftly split into two streams, the Reformation and the Enlightenment. While many Europeans broke from the hegemony of the Roman Church to launch Protestant movements, others went further & broke from religious faith altogether in an exaltation of reason. They purposefully stepped away from spirituality toward a hard-boiled materialism.

This then gave birth to the Modern Era, marked by an on-going tension between Materialistic Rationalism and Philosophical Theism that birthed an entire rainbow of intellectual & faith options.

Carrying on this over-simplified review a bit from where our CS episodes have been, the Modern Era then turned into the Post-Modern Era with its full-flowering & widespread academic acceptance of the radical skepticism birthed during the Enlightenment. The promises of the perfection of the human race through technology suggested by the Modern Era were shattered by two World Wars and the repeated cases of genocide in the 20th & 21st Cs. Post-Moderns traded in the bright Modernist expectation of an emerging Golden Age for a dystopian vision of technology run amuck, controlled by mad men and tyrants. In a classic post-modern rant, the author George Orwell said, “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”

In our last episode, we embarked on our foray into the roots of Theological Liberalism. The themes of the new era were found in the motto of the French Revolution: “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.”

Liberty was conceived as individual freedom in both the political & economic realms. As Al Mohler aptly identified recently in his excellent weekday The Briefing podcast, “liberalism” originally referred to this idea of personal liberty in regard to economics and politics. It’s come to mean something very different today. Libertarian connects better with the original idea of liberalism than the modern term liberalism.

In the early 19th C, liberals promoted the political rights of the middle class. They advocated suffrage and middle class influence through representative government. In economic terms, liberals agitated for a laissez faire marketplace where individual enterprise determined one’s wealth, rather than class.

Equality, 2nd term in the French Revolution’s trio, stood for individual rights regardless of legacy. If liberty was a predominantly middle class virtue, equality appealed to rural peasants, the urban working class, & the universally disenfranchised. While the middle class & hold-over nobility advocated a laissez faire economy, the working class began to agitate for equality through a rival philosophy called socialism. Workers inveighed for equality either through the long route via evolution within a democratic system or the shorter path of revolution via Marxism.

Fraternity, the 3rd idea in the trinity, was the Enlightenment reaction against all the war & turmoil that marked history till then; especially the trauma that had rocked Europe due to endless political, economic and religious struggle. Fraternity represented a strong sense of brotherhood that rolled across Europe in the 19th C. And while it held the promise of uniting people in the concept of the universal brotherhood of man under the universal Fatherhood of God, it quickly devolved into Nationalism that would opnly lead to even bloodier conflicts since they were now accompanied by modern weapons and their blood-letting devices. unleashed in the nineteenth century.

These social currents swirled around the Christian Faith during the first decades of the Age of Progress, but no one predicted the ruination they’d bring to the Church of Rome, steeped as it was in an inviolable tradition. For over a thousand years she’d presided over feudal Europe. She enthroned dozens of monarchs and ensconced countless nobles. And like them, the Church gave little thought to the power of peasants and the growing middle class. In regards to social standing, in 18th C European society, noble birth and holy calling were everything. Intelligence or achievement meant little.

Things began to heat up in Europe when Enlightenment thinkers began to question the old order. In the 1760s, several places around the world began to feel the heat of political unrest. There had always been Radicals who challenged the status quo. But it usually ended badly for them; being forced to drink hemlock or such. But in the mid & late 18th C, they became popular advocates for the middle-class & poor. Their demands were similar: The right to participate in politics, the right to vote, the right to greater freedom of expression.

The success of the American Revolution inspired European radicals. They regarded Americans as true heirs of Enlightenment ideals. They were passionate about equality; & desired peace, yet ready to fight for freedom. In gaining independence from the world’s most formidable power, Americans proved Enlightenment ideals worked.

Then, in the last decade of the 18th C, France executed its king, became a republic, formed a revolutionary regime, & crawled through a period of brutality into the Imperialism of Napoleon Bonaparte.

As we saw in an earlier episode, the Roman Catholic church was so much a part of the old order that revolutionaries often made it an object of their wrath. In the early 1790s the French National Assembly sought to reform the Church along rationalist lines. But when it eliminated the Pope’s control & required an oath of loyalty on the clergy, it split the Church. The 2 camps faced off against each other in every village. Between 30 & 40,000 priests were forced into exile or hiding. Atheists recognized that the cultural wind was at their back now and pressed for more. Why stop at reforming the Church when you could pry its grip from all society? Radicals moved to remove any and all traces of Christianity’s influence. They adopted a new calendar & elevated the cult of “Reason.” Some churches were converted to “Temples of Reason.”

But by 1794 this farce had spent itself. The following year a statute was passed affirming the free exercise of religion. & loyal Catholics, who’d kept a low profile during the silliness, returned. But Rome never forgot. For now, Liberty meant the worship of the goddess of Reason.

When Napoleon took control he struck an agreement with the pope; the 1801 Concordat. It restored Roman Catholicism as the quasi-official religion of France. But the Church had lost much of its prestige and power. Europe would never again be a society held together by an alliance of throne and altar. On the other side of things, Rome never welcomed liberalism.

But then, as Bruce Shelley aptly remarks, Jesus and the apostles spent little time talking about political freedom, personal liberty, or a person’s right to their opinions. Valuable and important as those things are, they simply do not come into view as values in the appeal of the Gospel. The freedom Christ offers comes through salvation, which places a necessary safeguard on liberty to keep it from becoming a dangerous license.

But during the 19th C, it became popular to think of liberty ITSELF as being free! Free of any and all restraint. Any restriction on freedom was met with a knee-jerk opposition. Everyone ought to be as free as possible. The question then became; just what does that mean. How far does “possible” go?

John Stuart Mill suggested this guideline, “The liberty of each, limited by the like liberty of all.” Liberty meant the right to your opinions, the freedom to express & act upon them, but not to the degree that in doing so, you impinge other’s ability to do so with theirs. Politically & civilly, this was best made possible by a constitutional government that guaranteed universal civil liberty, including the freedom to worship according to one’s choice. The Popes didn’t like that.

After Napoleon, in the political and economic vacuum that followed, several monarchs tried to re-establish the old systems of Europe. They were resisted by a new and empowered wave of liberals. The first of these liberal uprisings were quickly suppressed in Spain & Italy. But the liberals kept at it & in 1848, revolution temporarily triumphed in most European capitals.

The mid 18th C papacies of Leo XII, Pius VIII, & Gregory XVI were held by decent men. The problem is that they steadfastly refused to join the 19th C by clinging to the past. They simply failed to engage the time by ignoring what was taking place around them.

This early form of Liberalism wanted to address historic evils that have plagued humanity. But it refused to allow the Catholic Church a role in that work as it related to morality and public life. Liberals said politics ought to be independent from Christian ethics. Catholics had rights as private citizens, but their Faith wasn’t welcome in the public arena. This is part of the creeping secularism we talked about in the last episode.

One of the lingering symbols of papal ties to the Medieval world were the Papal States where the Pope was both spiritual leader & civil ruler. In the mid 19th C, a movement for Italian unity began that aimed to turn the entire peninsula into a single nation. Such a revolution wouldn’t tolerate the Papal States. Liberals welcomed Pope Pius IX, who ruled frm 1846–78, because he seemed to be a reforming Pope who’d listen to their counsel. And indeed, in 1848, he installed a new constitution for the Papal States granting moderate participation in government. This movement toward liberal ideals moved some to even suggest the Pope as leader over a unified Italy. But when Pius’ appointed Prime Minister of the Papal States was assassinated by revolutionaries, Pius rescinded the new constitution. Instead of putting the revolution out, it simply broke out in Rome itself and Pius had to flee. With French assistance, he returned & returned the Papal states to an absolutist regime. Opposition grew under the leadership of King Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia. In 1859&60 large sections of the Papal States were carved away by nationalists. Then in March of 1861,  Victor Emmanuel was proclaimed King of Italy in Florence.

But the city of Rome was protected by a French garrison. When the Franco-Prussian War forced the withdrawal of French troops, Italian nationalists invaded. After a short engagement in September of 1870, Rome surrendered. After lasting for a millennium, the Papal States were no more.

Pius IX holed up in the Vatican. Then in June, 1871, King Victor Emmanuel transferred his residence to Rome, ignoring the protests and threatened excommunications by the pope. The new government offered Pius an annual salary together with the free and unhindered exercise of his religious roles. But the Pope rejected the offer and continued his protests. He forbade Italy’s Catholics to participate in political affairs. That just left the field open to more radicals. The result was an growing anticlerical course in Italian civil affairs. This condition, became known as the “Roman Question.” It had no resolution until Benito Mussolini concluded the Lateran Treaty in February 1929. The treaty stipulated that the pope must renounce all claim to the Papal States, but received full sovereignty in the tiny Vatican State. This condition exists to this day.

1870 not only marks the end of the rule of the pope of civil affairs in Italy, it also saw the declaration of his supreme authority as the Bishop of Rome in a doctrine called “Papal Infallibility.” The First Vatican Council, which hammered out the doctrine, represented the culmination of a movement called “ultramontanism.” The word means “across the mountains” meaning the Alps. Ultramontanism refers to devotion to Rome.

It came about thus . . .

Following the French Revolution (and here we are yet again, recognizing the importance of that revolution in European and world affairs) an especially storng sense of loyalty to the Pope developed there. After the nightmare of the guillotine & the cultural trauma of Napoleon’s reign, many Catholics came to regard the papacy as the only source of civil order and public morality. They believed only popes were capable of restoring society to sanity. Only the papacy had the power to guide the clergy to protect religion form political coercion.

Infallibility, was suggested as a necessary prerequisite for an effective papacy. The Church had to become a monarchy adjudicating God’s will. As Shelley says it, as sovereignty was to secular kings, infallibility would be to popes. Infallibility was Church’s version of sovereignty.

By the mid-19th C this thinking attracted a many Catholics. Popes encouraged it in every possible way. One publication said when the pope meditated, God was thinking in him. Hymns appeared that were addressed, not to God, but to Pius IX.  Some even spoke of the Pope as the vice-God of humanity.

In December 1854, Pius IX declared as dogma of The Immaculate Conception; a belief that had been traditional but not official; that Mary was conceived without original sin. Now, the subject of the decision wasn’t new. What was, was the way it was announced. This wasn’t dogma defined by a creed produced by a council.  It was an ex cathedra proclamation by the Pope. Ex Cathedra means “from the chair,” & defines an official doctrine issued by the teaching magisterium of the Holy Church.

Ten years after unilaterally announcing the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, Pius sent out an encyclical to all bishops of the Church. He attached a Syllabus of Errors, a compilation of 80 evils then in place in society. He declared war on socialism, rationalism, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, public schools, Bible societies, separation of church and state, and a host of other errors of the Modern Era. He ended by denying that “the Roman pontiff can and ought to reconcile himself and reach agreement with progress, liberalism, and modern civilization.”

It was a hunker down and rally round an infallible pope mentality that aimed to enter a kind of spiritual hibernation, only emerging when Modernity had impaled itself on its own deadly horns and bled to death.

Pius saw the need for a massive council in order to address the Church’s posture toward Modernity & its philosophical partner, Liberalism. He began planning in 1865, & called the First Vatican Council to convene at the end of 1869.

The question of the definition of papal infallibility was all the buzz. Catholics had little doubt that as successor of Peter the Pope possessed a special authority. The only question was how far that authority went. Could it be exercised independently from councils or the college of bishops?

After some discussion & politicking, 55 bishops who couldn’t agree to the doctrine as stated were given permission by the Pope to leave Rome, so as not to create dissension. The final vote was 533 for the doctrine of infallibility. Only 2 voted against it. The Council asserted 2 fundamentals: 1) The primacy of the pope and 2) His infallibility.

First, as successor of Peter, vicar of Christ, & supreme head of the Church, the pope exercises full authority over the whole Church and over individual bishops. That authority extends to all matters of faith and morals as well as to discipline and church administration. Consequently, bishops owe the pope obedience.

Second, when the pope in his official capacity, that is ex cathedra, makes a final decision concerning the entire Church in a matter of faith and morals, that decision is infallible and immutable, and does not require the prior consent by a Council.

The strategy of the ultramontanists, led by Pius IX, shaped the lives of Roman Catholics for generations. Surrounded by the hostile forces of modernity; liberalism & socialism, Rome withdrew for behind the walls of an infallible papacy.  // [tour]

A New Social Frontier

Lead, kindly Light, amid th’ encircling gloom,

Lead Thou me on!

The night is dark, and I am far from home!

Lead Thou me on!

these lines, today sung by millions, were written in 1833 by John Henry Newman, while traveling home to England from Sicily. The somber mood reminds us of the many troubled souls in nineteenth-century England. A decade later Newman fled to the Church of Rome for safety, but the same sense of impending gloom appears in the evangelical Henry Francis Lyte’s popular hymn “Abide with Me”:

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;

Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away;

Change and decay in all around I see:

O Thou who changest not, abide with me!

No one in nineteenth-century England could ignore the pace of change. But two outstanding Christian movements helped literally millions of their fellow believers adjust to “life’s little day” and in the process won for themselves a respected place in Christian memory.

I speak of the Clapham Sect of evangelicals, and the Oxford movement of Anglican high-churchmen. Neither was, at first, numerically large. They remind us of Professor Gilbert Murray’s observation that “the uplifting of man has been the work of a chosen few.” Yet, to this day evangelical Christians regard the Clapham Sect as a model of Christian social concern, and “High Church” Anglicans look back to the Oxford movement as a well-spring of devout churchmanship.

A comparison of the two movements creates some interesting insights into the continuing questions about Christianity’s place in society. How, after all, are Christians to view the world?

Evangelicals in the World

We know that the church is under a twofold commission: God has sent his people into the world to proclaim salvation and to serve the needy. But he has also called his own from the world to worship and learn of him. Mission without worship can produce empty service, just as worship without mission can lead to careless religion. Thus, the church’s life in the world involves a constant conversation, a “yes” here and a “no” there. Protestants in nineteenth-century England found society changing so rapidly that they were not always sure whether they were talking to friends or to enemies.

In many ways the nineteenth century belonged to Britain. England was the cradle of the Industrial Revolution. London became the largest city and the financial center of the world. British commerce circled the globe; the British navy dominated the seas. By 1914 Britannia ruled the largest empire in extent and in population ever fashioned by man.

This rapid industrial and commercial growth, however, left many Britains breathless. Every hallowed institution seemed to be cracking at the foundation. Some men, remembering the terrifying days of the French Revolution, feared the future. Other men sang the praises of change and called it progress. To them England was the vanguard of a new day of prosperity and liberty for all. Thus, fear and hope were curiously mingled.

The dawning of the Age of Progress found English Protestants either in the Established Church, Anglicanism, or in the Nonconforming denominations, Methodist, Baptists, Congregationalists, and a few smaller bodies. The striking movements of the nineteenth century, however, did not surge along traditional denominational lines. The increasing liberties of the age allowed Christians to form a host of religious societies to minister to English life in some vital way or to spread the gospel overseas. These societies were not churches in the traditional sense of sacraments, creeds, and ordained ministers. They were groups of individual Christians working for some specific objective, the distribution of Bibles, for example, or the relief of the poor.

At the opening of the Age of Progress, the greatest power in English religious life was the evangelical movement, sparked and spread by John Wesley and George Whitefield. The chief marks of the movement were its intense personal piety, usually springing from a conversion experience, and its aggressive concern for Christian service in the world. Both of these were nourished by devotion to the Bible, and both were directed by the central themes of the eighteenth-century revival: Gods love revealed in Christ, the necessity of salvation through faith, and the new birth experience wrought by the Holy Spirit. This evangelical message echoed from a significant minority of pulpits in the Church of England and from a majority in the Nonconforming denominations.

The Evangelicals of the Church of England were thoroughly loyal to their church and approved of its episcopal government. But they were willing to work with Nonconformist ministers and churches, because their chief interest was not the church and its rites. They considered the preaching of the gospel more important than the performance of sacraments or the styles of ritual. Such a position was called “Low Church.”

Impelled by the enthusiasm of the Methodist revival, the Evangelicals viewed the social ills of British society as a call to dedicated service. They threw themselves into reform causes for the neglected and the oppressed.

The Clapham Community

The general headquarters for Evangelical crusades was a hamlet then three miles from London called Clapham. The village was the country residence of a group of wealthy and ardent Evangelicals who knew what it was to practice “saintliness in daily life” and to live with eternity in view. A number of them owned their own magnificent houses in the village, while others in the group visited Clapham often and lived with their co-laborers. Historians have come to speak of them as the “Clapham Sect,” but they were no sect, they were more like a closely knit family.

The group found a spiritual guide in the minister of the parish church, John Venn, a man of culture and sanctified good sense. They often met for Bible study, conversation, and prayer in the oval library of a wealthy banker, Henry Thornton.

The unquestioned leader of the Sect was William Wilberforce (1759–1833), the parliamentary statesman. But Wilberforce found a galaxy of talent for Evangelical causes in his circle of friends: John Shore (Lord Teignmouth), the Governor General of India; Charles Grant, Chairman of the East India Company; James Stephens, Sr., Under-Secretary for the Colonies; Zachary Macauley, editor of the Christian Observer; Thomas Clarkson, an abolitionist leader; and others.

At twenty-five Wilberforce had experienced a striking conversion after reading Philip Doddridge’s Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul; but he also possessed all the natural qualities for outstanding leadership: ample wealth, a liberal education, and unusual talents. Prime Minister William Pitt once said he had the greatest natural eloquence he had ever known. Some called him “the nightingale of the House of Commons.” Many testified to his overflowing capacity for friendship and his high moral principles. For many reasons Wilberforce seemed providentially prepared for the task and the time.

“My walk,” he once said, “is a public one: my business is in the world, and I must mix in the assemblies of men or quit the part which Providence seems to have assigned me.”

Under Wilberforce’s leadership the Clapham friends were gradually knit together in intimacy and solidarity. At the Clapham mansions they held what they chose to call their “Cabinet Councils.” They discussed the wrongs and injustices of their country, and the battles they would need to fight to establish righteousness. And thereafter, in Parliament and out, they moved as one body, delegating to each man the work he could do best to accomplish their common purposes.

“It was a remarkable fraternity,” says Reginald Coupland, the biographer of Wilberforce. “There has never been anything like it since in British public life.”

Evangelicals and Social Issues

A host of evangelical causes sallied forth from quiet little Clapham: The Church Missionary Society (1799), the British and Foreign Bible Society (1804), The Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor (1796), The Society for the Reformation of Prison Discipline and many more.

The greatest labor of all, however, centered on the campaign against slavery. The first battle was for the abolition of the slave trade, that is, the capturing of Negroes in Africa, and shipping them for sale to the West Indies.

The English had entered this trade in 1562 when Sir John Hawkins took a cargo of slaves from Sierra Leone and sold them in St. Domingo. Then, after the monarchy was restored in 1660 King Charles II gave a charter to a company that took 3,000 slaves a year to the West Indies. From that time the trade grew to enormous proportions. In 1770 out of a total of 100,000 slaves a year from West Africa, British ships transported more than half. Many Englishmen considered the slave trade inseparably linked with the commerce and national security of Great Britain.

In 1789 Wilberforce made his first speech in the House of Commons on the traffic in slaves. He recognized immediately that eloquence alone would never overthrow the commercial interests in the sale of human beings. He needed reliable information, so he called upon his Clapham colleagues for assistance.

Two years later, after exhaustive preparation, Wilberforce delivered another speech to Commons seeking to introduce a bill to prevent further importing of slaves into the West Indies. “Never, never,” he said, “will we desist till we have wiped away this scandal from the Christian name, released ourselves from the load of guilt, and extinguished every trace of this bloody traffic.”

Once again oratory was inadequate, but support was growing. The workers for abolition came to see that hopes of success lay in appealing not only to Parliament but to the English people. “It is on the feeling of the nation we must rely,” said Wilberforce. “So let the flame be fanned.”

Stage by stage the Clapham Sect learned two basics of politics in a democracy: first, how to create public opinion; and, second, how to bring the pressure of that opinion on the government.

The Evangelicals secured petitions; they published quality abolitionist literature; they lectured on public platforms; they campaigned on billboards. They used all the modern means of publicity. Nonconformists rallied in support, and for the first time in history women participated in a political contest. The Evangelicals “fanned the flame,” then they carried the fire to Parliament where Wilberforce and four colleagues from Clapham—the “Saints” in Commons—tried to arouse complacent leaders to put a stop to the inhumane slave trade.

The End Of Slave Trade

Finally, victory crowned their labors. On 23 February 1807, the back of the opposition was broken. Enthusiasm in the House mounted with the impassioned speeches of supporters of abolition. When one member reached a brilliant contrast of Wilberforce and Napoleon, the staid old House cast off its traditional conventions, rose to its feet, burst into cheers, and made the roof echo to an ovation seldom heard in Parliament. Wilberforce, overcome with emotion, sat bent in his chair, his head in his hands, and the tears streaming down his face.

That halted the legal traffic in human lives, but the slaves were still in chains. Wilberforce continued the battle for complete emancipation until age and poor health forced him from Parliament. He enlisted the skills, however, of a young evangelical, Thomas Fowell Buxton, to assume leadership of the “holy enterprise.” Buxton was a wise choice. The certainty of the passage of the Emancipation Act, freeing the slaves in the sprawling British Empire, came on 25 July 1833, four days before Wilberforce died.

The significance of this action before the European colonial powers partitioned Africa is enormous. No one has described the impact better than Professor G. M. Trevelyan in his British History in the Nineteenth Century: “On the last night of slavery, the negroes in our West Indian islands went up on the hill-tops to watch the sun rise, bringing them freedom as its first rays struck the waters. But far away in the forests of Central Africa, in the heart of darkness yet unexplored, none understood or regarded the day. Yet it was the dark continent which was most deeply affected of all. Before its exploitation by Europe had well begun, the most powerful of the nations that were to control its destiny had decided that slavery should not be the relation of the black man to the white.”

For this reason above all others, the Clapham Sect remains the shining example of how a society—perhaps the world itself—can be influenced by a few men of ability and devotion.

The Oxford Movement

The second Christian movement, the Oxford movement, represents a contrasting response to the social crisis of nineteenth-century England. Like its predecessor, the Evangelical movement, it was more a movement of the heart than of the head. But unlike the Clapham group the Oxford men were deeply troubled by the direction of English society. They saw the reforms of the government as attacks upon the sanctity of the Church of England, and they determined to resist the intrusions of the world.

“We live in a novel era,” John Henry Newman wrote to his mother in March 1829. “Men have hitherto depended on others, and especially on the clergy, for religious truth; now each man attempts to judge for himself.… The talent of the day is against the Church.”

For generations the strength of the Church of England had rested with landed aristocrats who were strong in Parliament. The Industrial Revolution created rapidly growing industrial towns, such as Manchester and Birmingham, but these had no representatives in Parliament. The cry for reform mounted.

The Reform Act of 1832 shifted the balance of power from the landed gentry to the middle class and signified a new sensitivity to democratic forces. This action meant that many of the new members of Parliament, though not members of the Church of England, wielded significant power over the Church. Some devout churchmen recoiled in horror. Dare profane politicians lay hands on the holy things of God?

One group of gifted and deeply religious men at Oxford University raised a cry against the thought. John Keble, Fellow of Oriel College, preached in the University Pulpit, 14 July 1833, a sermon titled “National Apostasy.” A nation stands convicted of the denial of God’s sovereignty, he said, when it shows disrespect for the successors of the apostles, the bishops of the Church, and appeals only to reasons based on popularity or expediency.

Keble found a staunch supporter in John Henry Newman (1801–1890), vicar of the University Church and a commanding figure in the academic community. Before long an older man joined them, Edward Pusey, professor of Hebrew. By their preaching and writing these three influential men turned their protest into a movement.

The Oxford men felt that the Church of England needed to affirm that its authority did not rest on authority from the state. It came from God. Bishops of the Church were not empowered by social position but by an apostolic commission. Even if the Church were completely separated from the state, the Church of England could still claim the allegiance of Englishmen because it rested on divine authority.

To spread their views the Oxford men launched, in 1833, a series of “Tracts for the Times,” a move that gave rise to the label “Tractarians.” In these writings the Oxford leaders published their convictions on a single article of the creed: belief in “one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church.” They emphasized the apostolic succession of bishops through history and the Church’s God-given authority to teach the truth and rule men’s lives. They magnified the place of the sacraments, ascribing to them an actual saving power. As an ideal for the Church of England, they held up the church of the first five Christian centuries. Then, they said, the Christian church was undivided and truly catholic.

While some of these historical ideas were fanciful, the Tractarians believed them enthusiastically. They called themselves Catholics, on the ground that they were in agreement with this early catholic Christianity, and they shunned the name Protestant, because it referred to a division in the church.

Public worship was vital to the Oxford men. They believed strongly in the religious value of symbolic actions in worship, such as turning toward the altar, bending the knee and elevating the cross. The worship of God, they said, demands the total response of man, so ritual should appeal to the senses: rich clerical garments, incense on the altar, music by trained voices. In short, Tractarian Christianity was a zealous version of “High Church” Christianity.

Step by step the Oxford men moved toward the Church of Rome. Then came the thunderclap. In 1841 John Henry Newman wrote Tract 90 and asserted that the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England were not necessarily Protestant. They could be interpreted in the spirit of the Catholic church. Did Newman really believe that a person could be a Roman Catholic and remain in the Church of England?

A storm of protest fell upon the Oxford movement. The Bishop of Oxford forbade Newman to publish other tracts. Newman concluded that the only way to be truly Catholic was to enter the Roman Catholic church. He converted to Rome in 1845 and during the next six years hundreds of Anglican clergymen followed him. In time Newman became rector of the new Catholic University in Dublin, and in 1877 he was made a cardinal in the Church of Rome.

The great majority of the Tractarians, however, stayed in the Church of England and saw an increasing number of clergymen adopt their “High Church” views. Religion for many focused on ritual, priests, and sacraments. The concern for beauty brought improvements in architecture, music, and art in the churches. Gradually the names “Oxford movement” and “Tractarian” gave way to “Anglo-Catholic,” which meant Anglicans who valued their unity with the catholic tradition in Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, but who refused to accept the supremacy of patriarch or pope.

The Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic views of Christianity’s role in society are alive, though not always well, in our time. Few generations can claim a Wilberforce or a Newman. Their convictions survive, however, because they are so basic to Christianity in any age: mission and worship. Early Christians believed that, amid his encircling gloom, the Lord Jesus himself prayed for his disciples: “Father,… My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world” (John 17:15–19, niv).[1]


[1] Shelley, B. L. (1995). Church history in plain language (Updated 2nd ed., pp. 364–372). Dallas, TX: Word Pub.