Almost every year for the past decade I have read Newman’s famous Apologia pro Vita Sua (1864), or at least the biographical core in the four chapters comprising the “History of My Religious Opinions.” To help put his memoir in context there are many books on the English cleric. It would be impossible to peruse them all, but recently I come across a hidden gem—E. E. Reynold’s 1958 comparative study, Three Cardinals, which details the careers of the nineteenth century English Catholic prelates Wiseman, Newman and Manning. It is good intellectual history as well as a sensitive treatment of these men’s characters and feelings.
Focusing specifically on Newman in this post, I want to quote two excerpts. The first is a passage from William Gladstone, English politician and prime minister, who was a contemporary of the Tractarian Movement. During Gladstone’s years at Oxford (1828-1831) Newman was an Anglican minister, already establishing himself through his insightful writings and oratory.
Now Dr Newman’s manner in the pulpit was one about which, if you considered it in its separate parts, you would arrive at very unsatisfactory conclusions. There was not very much change in the inflexion of the voice; action there was none. His sermons were read, and his eyes were always bent on his book; and all that, you will say, is against efficiency in preaching. Yes, but you must take the man as a whole, and there was a stamp and a seal upon him; there was a solemn sweetness and music in the tone; there was a completeness in the figure, taken together with the tone and with the manner, which made even his delivery, such as I have described it, and though exclusively from written sermons, singularly attractive.
Reynold’s follows this account with a quote from another important figure of the time, Richard William Church, Dean of St. Paul’s:
Every sermon had a purpose and an end which non one could misunderstand. Singularly devoid of anything like excitement—calm, even, self-controlled…. [T]here was no wavering, confused uncertain bungling in that powerful and steady hand.
Such force of personality and rhetorical power, from a man who was as reflective and retiring as he was morally courageous, is perhaps even more striking today than it was then.