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The Oxford Movement

Religion in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

This movement grew out of the Whig reforms of the early 1830s, particularly the 1832 Reform Act and the alliance of the Whigs with the Dissenters in the cause of religious freedom. The Whigs clearly disliked the attitude of a majority of bishops in the House of Lords during the Reform Bill debates, and their tampering with the Irish Church made many staunch supporters of the Anglican Church fear that a reformed parliament would end by reforming not only the State but the Church. Many High Churchmen were alarmed at the Whig attitude towards the Anglican Church - which explains why Gladstone was a member of the Oxford Movement.

The ideas of the Oxford Movement were confined largely to the intellectual elite of Oxford University which concerned itself hardly at all with the problems of industrial Britain. All those involved in the movement agreed that the Anglican Church was in danger of final spiritual decay because it had forgotten the doctrines of the apostolic succession, the priesthood and the sacramental system.

John Henry Newman led the way by publishing Tracts for the Times, starting in 1833. [1] This was the same year that John Keble delivered his sermon on 'National Apostasy'. The tracts were always short; [2] the first one was on the apostolic succession. By the end of 1834, some 46 tracts had been written and distributed. Newman converted to Roman Catholicism in 1845 because he found that all his arguments defending the Anglican Church were more appropriate to the Roman Catholic claim to be the true Church.

Edward Pusey then joined the Tractarians [3] (as they were now called) — he was a professor and Canon of Christ Church, Oxford. He taught that the Anglican Church belonged to the wider Catholic [universal] church, and encouraged a greater care for external order and ceremonial in services. The revival of interest in church architecture and ritual was part of the broader revival of historical studies. The Anglican Church returned to its original roots, concentrating much more on the 'beauty of holiness'. As a result of the work of the Oxford Movement, the Church of England became much more sacramental; ritual returned; vestments were used once more.

The Oxford Movement brought a new interest in the Catholic Church but in 1850, when Pope Pius IX decided to abolish the long-standing regime of apostolic vicariates in England and establish a regular diocesan hierarchy, a great outcry ensued. The upshot was that Roman Catholic dioceses were established anyway, but took their names from places other than those used by Anglican bishoprics (e.g. Hallam, not Sheffield; Westminster, not Canterbury).
This web site, about John Henry, Cardinal Newman has links to other sites concerned with the Oxford Movement.

I am grateful to Benjamin Amundgaard for sending me these corrections to my information.

[1] While it is true that Newman wrote the first Tract,  Newman himself attributes the beginning of the Movement to Keble's Assize Sermon "National Apostasy.  In his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Newman says "The following Sunday, July 14th, Mr. Keble preached the Assize Sermon in the University Pulpit.  It was published under the title of 'National Apostasy.'  I have ever considered and kept the day, as the start of the religious movement of 1833."  While scholars might debate over whether Newman was correct in his estimation of Keble's sermon or not, I think most scholars would think it misleading to say Newman started the whole movement with Tract 1. [back]

[2] While the first Tracts were definitely short, after about Tract 66 they get a lot longer.  Tract 78, e.g., is 118 pages and Tract 89 is 186 pages.  Even some of the earlier Tracts wouldn't have been 'short.'  Tract 18, e.g. is 28 pages.[back]

[3] Edward Pusey joined the Oxford Movement after Newman's conversion to Rome. However, Pusey was there since the beginning; he authored Tract 18 written in 1833. In fact, it was because he put his initials on a tract (which were previously anonymous) that the movement was nicknamed 'Puseyism.' Another leader of the Movement, there since the beginning, was Hurrell Froude.  Most scholars would say Newman, Pusey, Keble and Froude were the four leaders of the Movement until Newman's defection. [back]


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