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Pauline Adams, English Catholic Converts and the Oxford Movement in Mid 19th Century Britain: The Cost of Conversion

Bethesda, Dublin, Palo Alto, Academica Press, 2010, 204 p. ISBN 978-1933146843
Claire Masurel-Murray
Bibliographical reference

Pauline Adams, English Catholic Converts and the Oxford Movement in Mid 19th Century Britain: The Cost of Conversion, Bethesda, Dublin, Palo Alto, Academica Press, 2010, 204 p. ISBN 978-1933146843

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1English Catholic Converts and the Oxford Movement in Mid 19th Century Britain: The Cost of Conversion is an unusual work in several ways. First, because of its publication history: it was written in the late 1970s and was published over thirty years later. In the foreword, Kenneth L. Parker explains how he came across Pauline Adams’ 1977 BLitt thesis in the Bodleian Library in 2007 while working on his book Authority, Dogma and History: The Role of Oxford Movement Converts in the Papal Infallibility Debates (2009). He was immediately impressed by the quality of the research and managed to convince the author—who at that stage was about to retire from her career as Librarian of Somerville College, Oxford—to have the work published. In spite of being three decades old, it is very modern in its focus, and advancement in historical research during the intervening years has not made it obsolete, far from it. Ms Adams actually devotes her 2010 Postscript to recent publications on her topic, thus bridging the gap between her own work and current developments in the field of Oxford Movement studies, and usefully providing up-to-date and detailed bibliographical references.

2The other great originality of this book is its subject matter and its approach. Much has been written about the religious, spiritual, intellectual and psychological reasons behind conversions to Catholicism in 19th–century Britain. Pauline Adams’ outlook is different, though. She is primarily concerned not with the causes—which she considers as virtually impossible to circumscribe—but with the consequences. Her starting point is the reception of these men and women into the Roman Catholic Church, and its aftermath. She focuses on the ways in which the converts’ lives were affected by their change of religion, giving special attention to the social, economic and emotional cost of conversion.

3She explores in particular the many difficulties encountered at every level by the new converts. After a chapter about the popular Catholic myth of the imminent ‘conversion of England’, and another one on the process of reception into the Church, she devotes the next sections of her book to the consequences of their decision on the converts’ relationships, status, and welfare. She shows for example how conversions could take their toll on family life, when remarried divorcés applied to join a Church which refused to recognise their present union, when children converted against their parents’ wishes, or when they wanted to follow in one of their parents’ steps (in instances when only one of the spouses became a Catholic) (Chapter 3). Particularly problematic was the case of convert clergymen, to which Adams devotes two full chapters (Chapters 4 and 5). They were more often than not completely ignorant of the realities of Catholic life in England, and those who became Catholic priests frequently found it difficult to integrate into the Catholic clergy. The situation was even worse for those who had been married as Anglican ministers, and hence could not be ordained as Catholic priests because of their inability to meet the Roman demand for celibacy. They were thus forced against their inclinations to live as ‘reluctant laymen’ and were often doomed with their families to a life of poverty. For those married clergy converts, as well as for many lay converts, conversion resulted in a dramatic drop in status. Ministers who could not become Catholic priests because of their marital situation were at times reduced to run advertisements in the Catholic press in the hope of finding positions as teachers and private tutors—jobs for which they were generally patently overqualified. Adams even gives examples of ex-ministers trying their hand at interior design or farming in order to be able to maintain their families (Chapter 5). The prospects were no less bleak for lay converts, who were barred from entering academic employment, were likely to lose customers, clients and patients as a consequence of their conversion (this was a time when anti-Catholic sentiment was rife), and were sometimes compelled to move to the continent, where it was easier for Catholics to find employment (Chapter 6). The converts were also insufficiently prepared for the demands that the Roman Church would make on them, especially in terms of obedience and religious discipline. The traditional language of Catholic devotion was foreign to them, and it was not rare for them to find Catholic forms of worship dry and unappealing. Points of doctrine such as the place of Mary and papal infallibility (which was proclaimed a dogma in 1870) were often hard to accept for these ex-Anglicans imbued with the Protestant tradition. Education was another source of worries. Catholic parents were strongly discouraged (and, from 1867 onwards, banned) by the hierarchy from sending their children to Protestant schools and universities, and there was a serious lack of adequate Catholic secondary education for boys—girls were comparatively better catered for, thanks to the proliferation of teaching orders of nuns at the time but, as Adams points out, ‘the education of girls was a low priority in most Victorian families’ (195). Many convert children, whose fathers had attended Oxford or Cambridge in their Anglican past, had to give up hope of a university education (Chapter 7). To these inextricable problems, one must add the violent prejudice and hostility that converts could encounter among Catholics themselves, who were often profoundly attached to the Recusant tradition of a low-key, discreet, non-proselytising form of religion and found it difficult to accept in their midst these passionate converts, with their ultramontane tastes, enthusiastic positions on religious matters, and missionary zeal. The difficulties involved in the process of conversion actually led to a number of apostasies—a phenomenon that Adams touches upon in her concluding chapter (Chapter 8), giving fascinating examples of men who converted back and forth several times—one of them even dying a Catholic, but with the Book of Common Prayer at his side, and having left instructions that he should be buried both in the Catholic and Anglican rites.

4There is some looseness in the methodology adopted by Ms Adams. The time frame is not explicitly defined: most of her sources date from the 1840s and 1850s, but she never clearly states nor justifies that choice. Similarly the connection of the converts with the Oxford Movement is not really expatiated upon, and in that sense the title of the book is misleading. She does not really explain either why she chose to write on those specific figures, why some names appear while others do not (she loosely defines the object of her analysis as ‘a network of men and women, more or less influenced by the Oxford Movement, who in the middle years of the nineteenth century joined the Church of Rome’ (xii) and who all belonged to the ‘educated, articulate and well-connected’ classes)—though she does state that she deliberately excluded the most famous converts, like Manning and Newman, whose lives have been the focus of many other books. These weaknesses are probably related to the history of the work, which started off as a study of George Ryder and the married clergy converts, and then evolved to encompass lay converts when Ms Adams realised that the issues which had first sparked her interest also applied to non-clerical ‘new’ Catholics. And in no way should this overshadow the main quality of the book, which is its extensive and thoughtful use of archival material.

5This thoroughly researched work is based on an impressive range of primary sources: private correspondences, diocesan archives, Church documents (from the Propaganda of Faith, the Provincial Synods of Westminster and the Venerable English College in Rome), the Vatican’s Secret Archives, baptismal registers and parish censuses, as well as contemporary newspapers and journals (the analysis of advertisements run by converts in The Tablet is especially fascinating). The many anecdotes drawn from these documents give the substantial and vivid quality of real experience to those converts’ lives. At times, the numerous examples and quotations may overwhelm the reader, who can lose track of the overall argument, but they also make the reading of this book extremely lively and stimulating. This is not, however, a study of personal lives. Pauline Adams is interested not in the footnotes of history, but in the pattern that emerges from these individual cases. The private stories that she brings to life have indeed much to say about the Roman Church which these converts joined, but also about the Church of England that they left (most of them were originally Anglicans). The reader is left with a sense of awe before the courage of these men and women who braved the prejudices of their time to live in adequacy with their deepest spiritual convictions, but also with a sense of waste on discovering that the outstanding gifts and qualities of these converts were neither fully appreciated nor made use of by the Catholic Church. What Pauline Adams writes about the married clergy converts applies to most of the convert figures that her work focuses on: ‘It was the Church’s misfortune as well as theirs that she did not know what to do with them’ (108).

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Electronic reference

Claire Masurel-Murray, « Pauline Adams, English Catholic Converts and the Oxford Movement in Mid 19th Century Britain: The Cost of Conversion », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [Online], 79 Printemps | 2014, Online since 01 March 2014, connection on 14 October 2019. URL :

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About the author

Claire Masurel-Murray

Université Paris-Sorbonne

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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