The Oxford Tractarians, Renewers of the Church

18 September 1882
Edward B Pusey (18 Sep 1882)
Richard Hurrell Froude (28 Feb 1836)
John Keble (29 March 1866)
John Henry Newman (11 Aug 1890)

In the early Church, it was the normal practice for every baptised Christian to receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion at least once a week. But gradually the practice changed. It was still understood that a Christian would attend a celebration of the Liturgy every Sunday, but attending the Liturgy did not necessarily mean receiving the Sacrament. By the early 1500's, most Christians in Western Europe other than clergy or monastics received the Sacrament once a year, at Easter. The rest of the year, a typical devout Christian would attend the Liturgy every Sunday, but, not understanding Latin, would spend most of his time praying silently or in an undertone in his pew, while the priest read the Liturgy in Latin in an undertone at the altar some distance away. Partway through the service, a bell would ring and the priest would hold up the consecrated bread and wine, and the private prayers would stop for a moment as all eyes focused on what Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself had appointed as the vehicle of His abiding presence among His people. Then the private prayers would resume.

It was the hope of the sixteenth-century Reformers to restore the ancient practice of the Church by celebrating the Liturgy in the language of the people, and encouraging the people to participate, not only by listening to the readings and joining in the prayers, but also by reverently receiving the Sacrament at every Liturgy they attended. In England, at least, they only partly achieved their goals.

The English Reformers provided that, at every celebration of the Liturgy, after the prayers and Bible readings and the sermon and Creed, there would be a general confession of sins, and that those intending to receive the Sacrament would come forward and kneel at the altar rail to repeat the Prayer of Confession, while the rest of the congregation would remain in their pews, and recite the prayer along with them. The priest would turn around and see how many worshippers were at the rail. If there were at least three, he would place the bread and wine on the altar and proceed to consecrate them. Unless there were at least three, he was to close the service at that point with a Blessing and Dismissal. The theory was that when the people were thus dramatically reminded that receiving the Sacrament was the reason for having the service, they would flock to receive. Instead, they simply got used to the idea that the Liturgy would be celebrated only a few times a year. On most Sundays, the Sunday morning service in most parishes consisted of Morning Prayer (one Reading from the Psalms, one Old Testament Reading, one New Testament Reading, interspersed with Prayers and Hymns, taking about fifteen minutes), Litany (prayer with responses, taking about eight minutes), and Ante-Communion (first part of the Liturgy, with the Ten Commandments, a reading from an Epistle and another from a Gospel, the Creed, plus a few hymns and prayers, lasting about fifteen minutes). As the years passed, this was reduced in many parishes to Morning Prayer with Hymns and Sermon.

Then, in the 1830's, several lecturers at Oxford University, reading their copies of the Book of Common Prayer, noticed that this was not the intended state of affairs. The Prayer Book provided for a sermon at the Liturgy, but not at Morning Prayer, for the taking of a collection at the Liturgy, but not at Morning Prayer. In every way it was clear that the compilers of the Prayer Book had intended the Liturgy to be the principal service on every Sunday and Feast Day. So the lecturers got busy and wrote a series of pamphlets explaining this and various related points to their readers. They called the pamphlets Tracts For the Times, By Residents in Oxford, and the public referred to them as The Oxford Tracts.

The immediate result was a total washout. The majority of their readers, both clergy and laity, responded in effect by saying: "Yes, you have shown that the universal custom of the Church from apostolic times down to the sixteenth century was for every Christian congregation to celebrate the Lord's Supper every Sunday. You have shown that it was the clear intent of the reformers here in England to continue this practice. And I suppose that in theory it would be a good thing if we did continue it. But, well, you know...."

The problem was that Englishmen had forgotten what it was like to celebrate the Liturgy every Sunday. Because they had no experience of such a thing, they simply could not imagine its actually being done. And when an occasional priest who had been convinced by the Tracts tried to abolish ten o'clock Morning Prayer on Sundays in favor of a ten o'clock Liturgy instead, his congregation simply refused to have anything to do with it.

Eventually the leaders of the Tractarian Movement (as it came to be called) saw their mistake and began advising priests as follows. "Don't try to change the ten o'clock service. Leave it as Morning Prayer. Start another service at eight o'clock. Make it Holy Communion. Get anyone you can to come to it. But be there every Sunday at eight and celebrate the Liturgy even if there is only one person present besides yourself. And keep it up for Years!" And they did. Eventually the generation of Anglicans who said, "But we have never had the Liturgy except at Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. That's the way it has always been!" was replaced by a new generation who said: "Every Sunday we have Holy Communion at eight and Morning Prayer at ten, and Evening Prayer at six. That's the way it has always been!" At first, it was understood that the Early Service was only for the exceptionally devout, perhaps ten per cent of a typical congregation. But the numbers grew, and gradually the ten o'clock service became Holy Communion on the first Sunday of each month, and the rest of the time Morning Prayer, and then the first and third Sundays of each month, and every Sunday in Lent, and then.... It is perhaps worth mentioning that, while the Tractarians were recovering for the Anglican Church the practice of celebrating the Liturgy every Sunday and every major Feast Day (and, in the larger parishes, every day), other Churches that had lost that practice in the sixteenth century were also recovering it (partly because their theologians were paying some attention to the Tractarians), and the Roman Catholic Church was gradually encouraging its people to receive the Holy Communion every Sunday, and more generally to be participants in the Liturgy and not mere spectators. Indeed, I understand that in the East Orthodox Churches, the receiving of the Holy Communion by the ordinary layperson every Sunday is far commoner now than it was a century ago.

[Note: a correspondent reminds me that, almost a century before the Tractarians, the Wesleys were receiving the Holy Communion daily at Oxford. He suggests that the picture of a pre-Tractarian England in which frequent celebrations of the Eucharist were unheard-of smacks of Puseyite propaganda. Point taken. It was wrong of me to state that frequent celebrations were unheard-of. On the other hand, there were many parishes in which celebrations were rare, and the Tractarian movement greatly reduced the number of such parishes.]

Back to the subject of the Oxford Tracts. There were ninety Tracts in all, written over the eight years from 1833 to 1841 -- about one Tract per month. They created a school of thought and action in the Anglican Communion that came to be called the Tractarian Movement, or Puseyism, or the Oxford Movement. (Kindly note that the Oxford Group, or Moral Re-Armament, or Buchmanism, was founded in the 1920's or 1930's by Frank Buchman, and is not at all the same thing). The Tractarians defended what is sometimes called High Anglicanism, or High Churchmanship, which involves emphasis on the continuity of the Anglican Church from earliest times (in the third century or earlier) through the sixteenth century, and down to the present. Part of what is meant by continuity is illustrated by something I have heard from a friend who teaches English history of the Tudor and Stuart period. He has researched the history of a certain small monastery. In the early 1500's, the monks chanted the Psalms in Latin every day from the book called the Breviary, as a part of the monastic routine. When their monastery was abolished by Henry VIII, they were not simply set adrift, but were attached to the choir of a cathedral, where they continued to chant the Psalms in Latin. When King Henry died and Edward succeeded him, they chanted the Psalms in English as part of Morning and Evening Prayer, as found in the Book of Common Prayer. When Mary came to the throne, they switched back to Latin and the Breviary. When Mary died and Elizabeth came to the throne, they returned to chanting the Psalms in English from the Book of Common Prayer. And through all these years, they never missed a day. There is no reason to suppose that they thought of themselves as having turned their backs on one Church or religion and adopted another. (The change from Latin to English was doubtless a jolt for some of them, but no more so than the same change for Roman Catholic monks in our own time.)

It must not be supposed that the Tractarians were concerned only with a renewed emphasis on the sacraments. They were instumental in stirring up the Church's concern for the welfare, both spiritual and material, of the working classes. The building of factories had flooded many areas with workers who were without churches to minister to them. The Tractarians built churches in these areas, and in slum areas, and staffed them with dedicated priests. The influence of their work was widespread. For example:

One disciple of Pusey was R M Benson, the founder of the Society of St John the Evangelist. One of Benson's disciples was Fr C N Field, who came to America and became deeply interested in the housing conditions of the poor in Boston. One of his disciples was Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch. She says that it was Fr Field and the other priests of the Ssje who first taught her to visit the poor. Mrs Simkhovitch is accounted one of the founders of social work. she founded Greenwich House in New York City. One of her disciples was Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor in the New Deal. She and Mrs Simkhovitch went to Harold Ickes and persuaded him to put public housing on the agenda of the New Deal. Thus the American public housing program of the 1930's and after was indirectly a result of the Tractarian movemento [I owe this point to Mr. Robert Rea.]

The leaders of the Tractarian Movement were Froude, Keble, Pusey, and Newman, all fellows of Oriel College, Oxford.

Richard Hurrell Froude (1803--28 Feb 1836) was a scholar whose conversation did much to encourage the other tractarians. He died while the movement was still young. In 1838-9, shortly after his death, his friends published his diary and some papers he had written. One of the papers was called, "On Reserve in Communicating Religious Doctrine," and pointed out that in the early years of the Church, when being a Christian was an offence punishable by death, Christian church services were not open to the general public, and Christians were sometime evasive when asked about their beliefs by outsiders. Froude thought that this might justify Christians today in not volunteering information about their beliefs to those who would only misunderstand and sneer at them. The paper caused a public uproar. Many persons already suspected that the Tractarians were secret agents of the Pope, and Froude's paper looked like an explicit admission that they were up to something crooked.

John Keble (1792--29 March 1866), ordained in 1816, tutor at Oxford from 1818 to 1823, published in 1827 a book called The Christian Year, containing poems for the Sundays and Feast Days of the Church Year. The book sold many copies, and was highly effective in spreading Keble's devotional and theological views. Keble was professor of poetry at Oxford from 1831 to 1841. In 1833, Parliament voted to combine several dioceses and reduce the number of bishops, and on 14 July 1833, in the University Chapel, Keble responded with a sermon entitled "On National Apostacy," which is generally accounted as the beginning of the Oxford Movement. (It is also called the Assizes Sermon. "Assizes" is the English word for a term of the law courts, and at the beginning of each term the judges hear a sermon called the Assizes Sermon.) Keble wrote 9 of the 90 Tracts. The Tractarians urged the study of the early Christian writers, and arranged for their translation and publication. Keble translated the works of Irenaeus of Lyons (second century). and produced an edition of the works of Richard Hooker, a distinguished Anglican theologian who died in 1600. He also wrote more books of poems, and numerous hymn lyrics. Three years after his death, his friends and admirers established Keble College at Oxford.

Edward Bouverie Pusey (1800--16 September 1882) was competent in Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic, and was Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, from 1828 until his death. He wrote two of the Oxford Tracts (on Fasting and on Baptism), and preached a sermon on the Eucharist that got him suspended from university preaching for two years. This episode gained publicity for the Tractarian Movement, and greatly increased the sales of the Tracts. In 1845 he helped to found a convent in London, the first Anglican convent since the 1500's. His best-known books defend the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and the inerrancy of Scripture (see his Daniel the Prophet, and The Minor Prophets). In the great cholera epidemic of 1866, he did outstanding work in caring for the sick. Two years after his death, his friends and admirers established Pusey House at Oxford, a library and study center.

John Henry Newman (1801--11 August 1890) became a Calvinist in his teens, and moved thence to religious liberalism, and thence, under the influence of Froude at Oriel College, to High Anglicanism. He edited the entire series of the Oxford Tracts, and wrote 24 of them himself (including Tract Ninety, which brought the series to an abrupt end), but his books had a more profound influence, particularly his Lectures On the Prophetical Office of the Church (1837), his University Sermons (1843), and his Parochial and Plain Sermons (1834-1842). He also wrote extensively on the theologians and theological issues of the first few centuries of the Church, as in his Arians of the Fourth Century (1833) and his translation, with notes and commentary, of Selected Treatises of St. Athanasius (1842-1844). It was his conviction, based on historical studies, that the Anglican Church was in its teaching and organization closer to the early Church than the Roman Church was, and that consequently the Anglican Church had a better right than the Roman to be called Catholic and the spiritual heir of the apostles. However, his writings were taken by many readers to be a defense of Romanist or semi-Romanist beliefs.

Matters came to a head in 1841 with the publication of Tract Ninety, written by Newman. This tract dealt with the Thirty-Nine Articles, adopted by the Church of England in the sixteenth century. Anglican clergy in Newman's day were required to subscribe them. Opponents of the Tractarians often complained that the Tractarian position was too close to that of Rome, and included beliefs condemned by the Articles. To this, Newman replied by asserting that the Articles had been drawn up (like a modern party platform) in an attempt to include as many persons as possible, and that they therefore were worded in such a way that someone could hold a position not very different from the Roman one and nevertheless be able to sign the Articles with a clear conscience. For example,

Article 25 (Of the Sacraments) reads, in part:

The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, Or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them.

The first reaction of the reader will be that this condemns the practice of holding up the consecrated Elements at the Liturgy so that the worshippers might reverently behold them. But a Roman Catholic, though he would insist that this is a proper thing to do, would, after a moment's thought, agree that this is not the purpose for which the Sacrament was instituted. He would therefore find no difficulty in signing this particular Article, or at least this portion of the Article.

Article 22 (On Purgatory) reads, in part:

The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons,...
IS... repugnant to the Word of God.

Here, Newman says that he repudiates the Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, but not the doctrine that there is a Purgatory. This may seem like an obviously dishonest play on words, but in fact there is a distinction between the ideas of Purgatory as Purification and Purgatory as Punishment. In the writings of (for example) Dante in the fourteenth century, Purgatory is a place where Christians are cleansed after death from any lingering affection for sin, and are sanctified so that they may enter with pure hearts and minds into the joy of heaven. That the process of being made better is sometimes painful is incidental. On the other hand, in the writings of Roman Catholics in the sixteenth century (see More and Fisher among those writing in English), Purgatory is treated almost entirely as a place where one is tortured as punishment and payment for one's misdeeds. One can repudiate the latter notion (which both in the time of Fisher and More and in the later time of Newman could not unreasonably be called "the Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory") without repudiating the former one -- the one expressed in Dante. And Newman, in his poem The Dream of Gerontius, does in fact magnificently reassert the Dantean understanding of Purgatory.

Tract Ninety had a very different effect on the British public from the one that Newman had hoped for. It was taken as proof that the Tractarians were undercover agents for the Pope, dishonest men who cleverly twisted the words of creeds around to mean something quite different from their plain meaning. (The publication two years earlier of Froude's "On Reserve in Communicating Religious Doctrine," referred to above, helped to re-enforce the suspicion that the Tractarians had a hidden agenda.) The Bishop of Oxford asked the Tractarians to discontinue the series, and they did. Newman was crushed and bewildered by the fury that descended on him from all sides. He was a gentle man, not relishing the rough-and-tumble of controversy, and being called a Jesuitical scoundrel and hypocrite by men whose good will and good opinion of him meant a great deal to him was a shattering experience. In 1843 he resigned his post at Oxford, and his position as vicar of St Mary's in Oxford, and went into retirement, where he devoted himself to writing a book called An Essay On the Development of Christian Doctrine. In October of 1845 he was received into the Roman Catholic Church, and a few weeks later published the Essay. It argued that doctrinal positions could grow, and develop, and change, and that, although the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church in modern times differed from the teachings of earlier times (as he had pointed out in his historical studies while still an Anglican), this was an instance of legitimate development of ideas. The Roman Church was uncertain how to make use of his talents. He was ordained as a priest, and it was proposed to establish a Roman Catholic University in Ireland and to put him in charge of it, but the plan fell through. He was also asked to prepare a new translation of the Scriptures into English for Roman Catholic use, but this project also was cancelled. Suspected of Romanism when an Anglican, he was suspected of Anglicanism when a Roman, and his essay, "On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine" narrowly escaped condemnation as heretical.

In 1864, Newman was publicly attacked by an Anglican priest, Charles Kingsley, who suggested that Newman, even when supposedly an Anglican, had been secretly an agent of Rome, serving one side while wearing the uniform of the other. Newman replied in a book called Apologia Pro Vita Sua (A Defense of the Author's Life), in which he explained the mental processes by which he came to hold the Roman Catholic position. The result of this controversy was to win for Newman a great deal of public sympathy and affection. In 1870 (the year in which the first Vatican Council proclaimed the dogma of Papal infallibility), he published An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (usually called The Grammar of Assent), in which he considers the process by which one decides to commit oneself to a certain intellectual position. In 1879 he was summoned to Rome and made a cardinal-deacon by Pope Leo XIII. (He was never a bishop. The College of Cardinals is the group of men who elect a new Bishop of Rome (that is, a new Pope) when the old one dies. It is the ancient custom that a bishop should be elected by the clergy of his diocese, and to be a cardinal is to be an honorary clergyman of the city of Rome and vicinity. There are cardinal-bishops, cardinal-priests, and cardinal-deacons. Although most cardinals are bishops, one need only be a priest in order to be a cardinal-priest, and a priest or deacon in order to be a cardinal-deacon. In this century, the Vatican has adopted a policy of appointing only bishops to the College of Cardinals.) After becoming a cardinal-deacon, Newman spent the remainder of his life quietly in Birmingham, at a religious house which he had established there called the Oratory of St Philip Neri. He died 11 August 1890.

Although the Tractarians were Anglicans, there is perhaps no Christian group that has not been in some degree influenced, directly or indirectly, by their work.

PRAYER (traditional language)

Grant unto us, O God, that in all time of our testing we may Know thy presence and obey thy will; that, following the example of thy servants Edward Pusey, Richard Froude, John Keble, and John Newman, we may with integrity and courage accomplish what thou givest us to do, and endure what thou givest us to bear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

PRAYER (contemporary language)

Grant, O God, that in all time of our testing we may know your Presence and obey your will; that, following the examples of your servants Edward Pusey, Richard Froude, John Keble, and John Newman, we may with integrity and courage accomplish what you give us to do, and endure what you give us to bear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
   Psalm 106:1-5 or 84:7-12
   1 Peter 2:19-23
   Matthew 13:44-52  (St2)

Unless otherwise indicated, this biographical sketch was written by James E. Kiefer and any comments about its content should be directed to him. The Biographical Sketches home page has more information.