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Newman the Preacher1

Paul Chavasse

Résumé

This article illustrates the remarkable impact which Newman’s preaching had upon his hearers and his extraordinary ability to enter into the minds and hearts of both hearers and readers. But emphasis is placed above all on the underlying aim of all his preaching, summed up in the formula of Fr Henry Tristram, one time superior of the Birmingham Oratory which Newman founded: for Newman, preaching must constitute an incentive not only to ‘living better’ but also to ‘praying better’. However stern a moralist he may appear to be at times, he never indulges in mere moralising, any more than he simply expounds doctrine for its own sake. Both are, on the contrary, placed in the service of helping hearers and readers to deepen progressively a lived relationship with the God whom Newman himself discovered in the depths of his own consciousness. Thus his rediscovery, through his reading of the Church Fathers, of the central role in Christianity of the doctrines of the Incarnation, the Resurrection and the Trinity, led him to explore the implications for the Christian of the theme of the ‘indwelling’ of the Holy Spirit and to suggest that the ‘true Christian’ may ‘almost be defined’ as ‘one who has a ruling sense of God’s presence within him’. It is above all in his exploration of the intricate relationship existing between dogma, ethics and spirituality, combined with his keen psychological penetration, that Newman’s greatness as a preacher lies.

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  • 1 This article was first published in John Henry Newman in his Time, edited by Philippe Lefebvre & Co (...)
  • 2 Archives of the Archbishop of Westminster; Ullathorne correspondence; Ullathorne to Manning, 15 May (...)

1Our Victorian forebears, whether Anglican, Catholic or Nonconformist, were all of them used to experiencing sermons the length of which is virtually unheard of nowadays. A famous example concerns William Bernard Ullathorne, the Benedictine Bishop of Birmingham. Called upon at very short notice to preach at the funeral of Mother Margaret Hallahan, foundress of the Dominican Sisters at Stone in Staffordshire, he managed to talk for an hour and three-quarters!2 Many preachers had their collected sermons published, so that people could read them at greater leisure; nowadays we can mostly find these volumes in the unvisited corners of libraries or in the shops of second-hand booksellers.

  • 3 John Henry Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1987); Fifteen Sermo (...)

2There is one notable exception to this: the sermons of John Henry Newman. Constantly in demand in his own lifetime, his published sermons appeared in several editions. Since his death in 1890, selections of them have appeared at regular intervals; some have been included in anthologies; in 1987 eight volumes were republished under one cover and in 2006 fifteen University sermons of his appeared in a critical edition.3 What is the abiding appeal of these sermons, and others of his, many of them now over a hundred and fifty years old?

  • 4 This was the title given by Fr H. J. Coleridge to his appreciation of Cardinal Newman. See «A Fathe (...)

3It is recorded of the late Fr Henry Tristram of the Birmingham Oratory that he would tell scholars always to think of John Henry Newman under the title ‘Father of Souls’4. That would give them the key to understanding his whole life and mission. As a ‘Father of Souls’, as a pastor of God’s people, therefore, we approach Newman the preacher.

4Newman preached his very first sermon in the little church at Over Worton, near Banbury, on 23 June 1824. His ministry of preaching became continuous after that, always preaching on Sundays and feast days, sometimes both morning and evening, whether at St Clement’s or St Mary’s in Oxford, or at Littlemore, as well as, on occasion, preaching for friends or others elsewhere. All in all, in these nineteen Anglican years, Newman entered the pulpit around 1,270 times. Meticulous as ever, each of his sermons was given a number—his last Anglican sermon, preached at Littlemore and entitled ‘The Parting of Friends’, was numbered 604. Many of these sermons were used on more than one occasion, in some instances as many as seven or eight times over a span of up to seventeen years. It is interesting to note that, in re-using a sermon on later occasions, Newman made many revisions and alterations, so much so that the sermon was virtually re-written. These changes also help map for us his theological development. In this regard, it is interesting to note Newman’s own comments on his earliest sermons. In the Archives at the Birmingham Oratory there is a collection headed: ‘Packet of Sermons, St Clement’s, 1824—1826’, on which Newman has written: ‘May 17th 1881. None of these sermons are worth anything in themselves, but those preached at St Clement’s 1824–6 will show how far I was an Evangelical when I went into Anglican Orders.’

  • 5 John Henry Newman, Sermons 1824—1843, Volume 1 (Placid Murray ed., Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1991) p (...)
  • 6 R. D. Middleton, ‘The Vicar of St Mary’s’, Newman Centenary Essays (Burns, Oates & Washbourne, Lond (...)

5From this large number of pastoral sermons about one third have been published and they are established as one of the great classics of Christian spirituality. In sermon 290, called ‘On the objects and effects of Preaching’, and dating from March 1831, Newman told his hearers: ‘In Scripture to preach is to do the work of an evangelist, is to teach, instruct, advise, encourage in all things pertaining to religion, in any way whatever.’5 Preaching for Newman was the means to an end, it was meant to be an incentive to praying better and to living better. When Newman was appointed as Vicar of St Mary’s, Oxford in 1828, he was able to use the pulpit of the University church to build up in a new and far-reaching manner the faith of those who came to him. Until then the Sunday sermon was delivered in the morning by the clergyman whose turn it was to preach that particular day. The method of selecting these preachers need not concern us here, but more often than not what they offered was dry and remote from the few who bothered to hear them. Newman felt that the needs of his own parishioners were not being met, and so he instituted an afternoon service, which was held at 4 p.m., and at which he would preach. To start with the numbers attending this afternoon service remained small, but as news of the quality of Newman’s sermons spread, so numbers increased, so that eventually the congregation numbered five or six hundred, drawn from the parish and the university. As Bishop Wilberforce recalled: ‘From that pulpit he reached the heart of young Oxford. Man after man, in whom was the receptive faculty, received the living force of his words, and reproduced so far as he was able, the Master’s spirit in himself.’6

  • 7 Ian Ker, John Henry Newman, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1990), p. 91.
  • 8 Middleton, ‘The Vicar of St Mary’s’, p. 133–4.

6On average these sermons covered some fourteen pages and would have taken about 45 minutes to deliver. The way he preached them was thought to be the antithesis of normal oratory, and yet it had a power all its own. We will examine the effects of his preaching below, but for now we should note that, apart from the use of long pauses, which perhaps revealed the intensity of his thoughts, he contented himself with reading the sermons ‘with hardly any change in the inflexion of his voice and without any gesture on the part of the preacher, whose eyes remained fixed on the text in front of him.’7 By the time he began to give these sermons Newman’s study of the Fathers of the Church had led him to a deeper grasp of the sacramental principle in Christianity, in particular the regenerating force of Baptism, the mystery of the Resurrection and the significance of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. These elements, distilled from the teaching of the Fathers and from his own musings on the Scriptures, gave an extraordinary force to his sermons. Their dogmatic, patristic origins, coupled with their liturgical setting—they arose out of a particular celebration, with a particular congregation in view—meant that they were unlike anything most of his hearers had ever heard before. His use of the Scriptures was fresh and showed no evidence of a debt to any one school or system of interpretation; Newman brings to bear his own native intelligence, and this, coupled with his deepening theological insights, resulted in a quality and quantity of preaching unsurpassed by any other preacher at that time. The method he used in his preaching also distinguished him from his contemporaries. He explores themes and harmonies in a new way, uses the Old Testament (especially the Prophets) to explain the New, and applies the lessons drawn not in any vague way, but to the needs of the church and the individual hearer in particular. His call was one to greater holiness, coupled with a realisation that people sin, and sin because they want to. What he taught of prayer was realistic; a combination of shrewdly practical psychology and highly idealistic spirituality. He called on his hearers to practice self-examination of their consciences—not in an introverted way, but in an attempt to open themselves more and more to the workings of Christ. ‘His aim was to speak to each individual soul, to open to each the secrets and needs of the heart, to reason of righteousness, of temperance and of the judgement to come. No one could have attended St Mary’s regularly for any length of time without learning the teaching of the Church given in as clear a manner as the preacher was able to present it.’8

  • 9 John Henry Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons (Rivington, London, 1868) Volume 6, no. 6, p. 69–82.
  • 10 J. A. Froude, Short Studies on Great Subjects (Longman, Green & Co., London, 1894), vol. 4, p. 286.
  • 11 G. Tracey (ed.) The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1995), vol.  (...)
  • 12 John Henry Newman, Sermons on Subjects of the Day (Rivington, London, 1868), sermon no. 3 «Our Lord (...)
  • 13 Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. 3, no. 24, p. 362.
  • 14 Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. 2, no. 25, p. 309.

7Some found the realism of the sermons disconcerting, even shocking, especially when Newman preached on the Crucifixion. James Anthony Froude, the historian, recalled the delivery of the sermon ‘The Incarnate Son, a Sufferer and a Sacrifice’, given on 1 April 1836.9 ‘Newman had described closely some of the incidents of our Lord’s Passion; he then paused. For a few moments there was a breathless silence. Then in a low, clear voice, of which the faintest vibration was audible in the farthest corner of St Mary’s, he said, ‘Now I bid you recollect that He to whom these things were done was Almighty God.’ It was as if an electric stroke had gone through the church, as if every person present understood for the first time the meaning of what he had all his life been saying. I suppose it was an epoch in the mental history of more than one of my Oxford contemporaries.’10 It is no wonder that the 4 p.m. sermons at St Mary’s came to be seen as the most powerful spiritual force of the Oxford Movement. On 26 October 1840 Newman wrote to Keble describing what his aim was: ‘my sermons are calculated to undermine things established. . .I am leading my hearers to the Primitive church if you will, but not to the Church of England.’11 It is no wonder that the Heads of the Oxford Colleges became alarmed at the influence these sermons were having and took steps—like changing the time of dinner in their halls—in order to prevent their undergraduates attending. Of course, such measures had little effect. Week by week and month by month, Newman’s hearers imbibed an important doctrinal message, centred in and around the mystery of the Incarnation of God’s Son. This fact led on to considerations in many sermons on the Church as a divinely constituted society, founded by our Lord as a visible entity, with its government vested in the Apostles and maintained by the Bishops in apostolic succession, which enables the Church of today to be linked with the whole Church spread throughout the world. His study of the Fathers led him to teach without hesitation the Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist—“our Lord began His ministry by a miracle, the turning of water into wine; He closed it by a greater miracle, the gift of His Body and His Blood in Holy Communion”.12 Newman also teaches the doctrine of the sacrament of Penance, saying that the Christian ‘has his original debt cancelled in Baptism, and all subsequent penalties put aside by Absolution.’13 The priest has the power to do this as a result of a ‘plain divine commission to do so.’14 No wonder his words were regarded as revolutionary, serving to wake the Church of England from what has been described as its ‘long sleep.’ Just as revolutionary was the practice of a daily service and a weekly celebration of the Eucharist, even though numbers at the former tended to be low and Newman often found these smaller services dreary.

8In March 1834 the first volume of his sermons appeared in print and more followed in the years up to 1842. In 1843 he contributed a volume to the Tractarian series Plain Sermons. Two further volumes appeared that same year. Sermons on Subjects of the Day, as the title indicates, brought together in one volume a number of sermons, edited for publication, which dealt with religious issues which preoccupied the Church of the day. The other volume, Sermons preached before the University of Oxford, Newman was to regard as collecting together some of the best things he had written. The majority of these sermons concern the theory of religious belief and the relationship between faith and reason, and can be viewed as partly an autobiographical description of Newman’s own theological and philosophical development.

  • 15 Charles Stephen Dessain, The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman (Thomas Nelson & Sons, London (...)
  • 16 The Catholic Sermons of Cardinal Newman, ed. at the Birmingham Oratory (Burns & Oates, London, 1957 (...)

9Newman’s last sermon as an Anglican was preached at Littlemore on 25 September 1843. He called it ‘The Parting of Friends’ and most of the large congregation that packed into the church knew that they were listening to him for the last time. People were in tears, including Edward Pusey, Newman’s friend and fellow Tractarian, who was the celebrant. After that sermon a great silence fell, and then two years later Newman became a Catholic. Another year passed before Newman, the great preacher, spoke again. The contrast could hardly have been greater. It was 4 December 1846 and Newman, now in minor orders and a student at the College of Propaganda in Rome, was asked to deliver the funeral oration for a niece of the Countess of Shrewsbury, who had died suddenly. Somewhat reluctantly, Newman did as he was asked, preached extempore, and spoke quite strongly on the need we all have for conversion, presumably hoping to influence some of the Protestants present. Afterwards he said: ‘I assure you I did not like it at all’15 and certainly some present took offence at what seemed his lack of tact. The Pope himself was said to have been displeased. This first Catholic sermon has not been preserved, and there is no record either of the sermon he gave to the students at Propaganda on 31 October 1847. Newman’s real Catholic preaching begins with his return to England at the end of that year, when the Oratory was set up at Maryvale. He began by writing out and numbering his sermons, just as he had done when an Anglican. The very first was given at St Chad’s Cathedral on 23 January 1848; the text has not survived. Seven subsequent ones, all given in St Chad’s, the last on 26 March, have all come down to us.16 Although the series is incomplete (Newman went to preach at Southwark Cathedral at the end of Lent), they are revealing insofar as they show that Newman was preaching much in the style he had used in St Mary’s—the concrete illustrations, the psychological insight, the use of Scripture, the stress on moral preparation in order to receive the truth—all is authentic Newman, but all is given with humility and docility and all is entirely Catholic. The big departure from his Anglican days came with his decision, after the second sermon had been given, to conform himself to Catholic custom and not read his sermons. He noted on the manuscript: ‘preached, not read at St Chad’s’. One of Newman’s great gifts as a preacher was that of being able to enter into the minds of others, and the simplicity of these early Catholic sermons shows him striving to do this for a congregation in a large industrial town, with many ordinary Irish folk listening to him and following him with ease. A world so different to that of St Mary’s in Oxford, and yet one that once again reveals Newman as a true ‘Father of Souls.’

  • 17 Dessain, Letters and Diaries, vol. 12, p. 198.
  • 18 Dessain, Letters and Diaries, vol. 20, p. 255.

10This simple style would have marked the sermons preached at the Oratorians’ chapel on Alcester Street and later on at Edgbaston. There are very few of the Catholic sermons that have a full text, and these are ones which were given on very special occasions, such as ‘The Second Spring’, preached at the Synod of Bishops at Oscott College in 1852, or ‘The Infidelity of the Future’ given for the opening of St Bernard’s Seminary at Olton in 1873. Newman was always very cautious about accepting invitations to preach to groups with whom he was unfamiliar. He did not like these ‘set-piece’ events, and he made his thoughts plain when he wrote: ‘I can preach to people I know, but anything like a display is quite out of my line.’17 Indeed, he must have felt anxiety about the giving of such sermons, given that he wrote on one occasion of having had ‘my usual dream about having to preach before the University of Oxford without a notion what I was to preach about.’18

  • 19 Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. 8, p. 164.
  • 20 Newman, Sermons 1824–1843, vol. 1, p. 67–74.
  • 21 Dessain, Letters and Diaries, vol. 24, p. 44.
  • 22 Dessain, Letters and Diaries, vol. 24, p. 45.
  • 23 Dessain, Letters and Diaries, vol. 24, p. 44.

11As a Catholic, therefore, Newman preached without a text. This does not mean, however, that he preached extempore. He was always extremely wary of such seeming eloquence, and had told his congregation at St Mary’s that he would not ‘dishonour this service by any strangeness or extravagance of conduct or constraint of manner.’19 He considered public extempore prayer ‘plainly irreverent’ and maintained that ‘for the sake of decency, and reverence, all public prayer, the whole of the priest’s liturgy, should be settled beforehand and known.’20 This is the principle he applied to his Catholic sermons. On 2 March 1868 he wrote to an unnamed student at Maynooth College, that a great deal of prior preparation was necessary before entering the pulpit to preach. He told the seminarian ‘to have your subject distinctly before you; to think it over till you have got it perfectly in your head.’21 This was not to be just a mental process—the thoughts should be put down on paper even in note form. The sermon should be known by heart, and the preacher should take care to efface himself and let the truth he wished to convey speak. To his enquirer from Maynooth he wrote: ‘Humility, which is a great Christian virtue, has a place in literary composition—he who is ambitious will never write well. But he who tries to say simply and exactly what he feels and thinks, what religion demands, what Faith teaches, what the Gospel promises, will be eloquent without intending it, and will write better English than if he made a study of English literature.’22 As he exemplified it in his own preaching, so Newman advises the student ‘to take care that it should be one subject, not several; to sacrifice every thought, however good or clever, which does not tend to bring out your one point, and to aim earnestly and supremely to bring home that one point to the minds of your hearers.’23

  • 24 Fathers of the Birmingham Oratory (ed.), Sermon Notes of John Henry Cardinal Newman, 1849–1878 (Lon (...)

12A collection of Newman’s sermon notes exists for the period 1849 to 1878. These were first published in 1913 and in the preface, written for the book by Fr Joseph Bacchus of the Birmingham Oratory, we discover that the notes were almost without exception written down by Newman after he had preached the sermon, thus preserving in note form what he had said in church. He did this until about 1884, when his memory beginning to fail, he took to reading some of his old Parochial Sermons, but ‘touched up a little bit’ for his Birmingham congregations.24

13With Newman being regarded for so many years as foremost amongst England’s preachers, it is hardly surprising that there are a great many recollections in print recording the impression that his preaching made.

  • 25 Matthew Arnold, Discourses in America, (Macmillan, London, 1885), p. 139–40.

14Matthew Arnold wrote: ‘Who could resist the charm of that spiritual apparition, gliding in the dim afternoon light through the aisles of St Mary’s, rising into the pulpit, and then in the most entrancing of voices, breaking the silence with words and thoughts which were religious music—subtle, sweet, mournful?’25 It was the effect of Newman’s voice which left an indelible impression on the hearers; low and soft, it was at the same time both piercing and thrilling.

  • 26 Birmingham Oratory Archives, Furse Papers. Charles Wellington Furse (1821–1900) was Vicar of Staine (...)

15The same points were made by Charles Wellington Furse, who was an undergraduate at Balliol College, and who began to frequent the afternoon service at St Mary’s in 1839. Many years later he began making visits to Newman at the Oratory in Birmingham and attended the Cardinal’s funeral in 1890. Furse left a forty-nine-page memorandum of his recollections of Newman and remembered very clearly what it was like to hear him preach. Newman, he wrote, had ‘a look of concentration and strong will in every gesture. The only sweetness was in his voice and even that was rather clear and fine, and thrilling with vibrations of metallic force, than soft, with a penetrative and steely vibrating power which I have never known equalled.’ The immediate effect on this particular hearer was extraordinary: ‘it was vivisection practised by him on me. He began at the less vital organs, sometimes at the extremes and worked upward and inward. The practical application of the sermon was made in successive paragraphs. The first paragraph stuck you and fastened you to your seat with a nail. The second clinched it. The third seized another link and another nail was driven. And when you thought he could not possibly come closer to you, he took up a finer drill and a sharper point and absolutely impaled you, till you became, not paralysed, but quickened in every fibre into more vivid sensibility, but fixed invincibly to your seat with neither power nor will to move.’ Furse remembered that there was ‘nothing hard-hitting, no exaggeration, no transcendentalism—you never resented a word, nor evaded it, nor appealed from his judgement to a higher court.’26

  • 27 Katharine Lake (ed.), Memorials of William Charles Lake, Dean of Durham 1869–94 (Edward Arnold, Lon (...)

16Along similar lines were the recollections of Dean Lake. He regarded Newman as the greatest moral and intellectual force in the University of Oxford and thought his sermons unequalled. ‘There was first the style, always simple, refined and unpretending. . . marked by a depth of feeling which evidently sprang from the heart and experience of the speaker. His language had the perfect grace which comes from uttering deep and affecting truths in the most natural and appropriate words. Then, as he entered his subject more fully, the preacher seemed to enter into the very minds of his hearers, and, as it were, to reveal them to themselves, and to tell them their very innermost thoughts. There was rarely, or never, anything which could be called a burst of feeling; but both of thought and of suppressed feeling there was every variety, and you were always conscious that you were in the hands of a man who was a perfect master of your heart, and was equally powerful to comfort and to warn you. Is it too much to say of such addresses that they were unlike anything that we had ever heard before, and that we have never heard or read anything similar to them in our after-life.’27

  • 28 A. C. Benson, The Life of Edward White Benson, sometime Archbishop of Canterbury (Macmillan, London (...)

17That Newman lost none of this force in later years is also attested by different witnesses. One such was Edward White Benson, who heard him after Newman had become a Catholic, and was both attracted and repelled by what he experienced: ‘He is a wonderful man truly, and spoke with a sort of Angelic eloquence . . . sweet, flowing, unlaboured language in short, very short, and very pithy and touching sentences. . .he was very much emaciated, and when he began his voice was very feeble, and he spoke with great difficulty, nay sometimes he gasped for breath; but his voice was very sweet . . . it was awful—the terrible lines deeply ploughed all over his face, and the craft that sat upon his retreating forehead and sunken eyes.’28

  • 29 C. H. P. Mayo, ‘Memories of Birmingham Forty and Fifty Years Ago’, The Cornhill Magazine, March 193 (...)

18Another impression of hearing the elderly Newman preach was left by C. H. P. Mayo, who wrote: ‘Only once did I hear him preach, and the memory of the scene is imperishable. It was an evening service, in the semi-darkened church all faces were upturned to the small frail figure which stood in the pulpit high above their heads. On the steps behind him stood a priest: but the Cardinal, though over 80 and very thin and worn, almost ethereal, needed no help; nor was his eyesight dimmed; he read without glasses a small Bible in which the type must have been minute. In that quiet beautiful voice which had stirred England to its very depths 40 and more years ago, whose echoes had not yet ceased to reverberate in the bitter religious controversies of the day, he said nothing that could not (except for the way of saying it) have been spoken in any professedly Christian place of worship.’29

  • 30 Froude, Short Studies, vol. 4, p. 278–84.

19James Anthony Froude recalled that ‘I had then never seen so impressive a person . . . He told us what he believed to be true. No one who heard his sermons in those days can ever forget them. Newman, taking some Scripture character for a text spoke to us about ourselves, our temptations, our experiences. His illustrations were inexhaustible. He seemed to be addressing the most secret consciousness of each of us, as the eyes of a portrait appear to look at every person in a room. He never exaggerated; he was never unreal. A sermon from him was a poem, formed on a distinct idea, fascinating by its subtlety, welcome—how welcome!—from its sincerity, interesting from its originality, even to those who were careless of religion: and to others who wished to be religious, but had found religion dry and wearisome, it was like the springing of a fountain out of the rock.’30

  • 31 J. C. Shairp, Studies in Poetry and Philosophy (Edmonton & Douglas, Edinburgh, 1876) p. 17.
  • 32 W. Lockhart, Reminiscences of Fifty Years Since (Burns & Oates, London, 1891), p. 26–7.
  • 33 Sermon Notes, Introduction, p. 8.

20There are other testimonies equally as powerful. Professor Shairp, who remembered Newman’s voice as being like a bell tolling, said that ‘He laid the finger how gently, yet how powerfully, on some inner place in the hearer’s heart, and told him things about himself he had never known till then.’31 William Lockhart wrote that Newman had the power of ‘so impressing your soul as to efface himself, and you thought only of that majestic soul that saw God.’32 This view was confirmed by the Oratorian, Fr Joseph Bacchus, who wrote that ‘it was only afterwards, if something had struck home and kept coming back to the mind, that one realised that it was not the words only, but something in the tone of the voice, in which they were said, that haunted the memory.’33

  • 34 Birmingham Oratory Archives, Furse Papers.
  • 35 G. E. Phillips, «Early Reminiscences of Cardinal Newman and of his First Fellow Oratorians’, The Us (...)
  • 36 Frederick Oakeley, Historical Notes on the Tractarian Movement 1833–1845, (Longman & Green, London, (...)

21The inexpressible quality of Newman’s voice was referred to not just in the context of his sermons alone, but also for the reading of the Scriptures on which his own words were to be based. Canon Furse remembered that ‘his reading [of the Scriptures] was a commentary.’34 Another hearer recalled that ‘it is hardly necessary to mention the wonderful charm of Newman’s voice and manner as a reader. I once heard him read the Gospel of the lilies of the field before preaching on it. So impressive and suggestive was his modulation of the words that it rang in my ears for days, and seemed to suffice for a sermon by itself.’35 Another testimony speaks of ‘an indescribable charm of touching beauty’ which surrounded his reading of the Anglican service. ‘His delivery of scripture was a sermon in which you forgot the human preacher; a drama in which the vividness of the representation was marred by no effort and degraded by no art. He stood before the sacred volume as if penetrating its contents to their very centre, so that his manner alone, his pathetic changes of voice, or his thrilling pauses, seemed to convey the commentary in the simple enunciation of the text. He brought out meanings where none had ever been suspected. . . .’36 Regular worshippers at St Mary’s found their attention riveted and looked forward to hearing their favourite passages, especially some of the Old Testament lessons. There were some who, in years to come, could never listen to the reading of the prophet Isaiah and other passages of scripture without hearing Newman’s voice reading them.

  • 37 Sermon Notes, Introduction, p. 11–12.

22This marvellous reading voice continued in his Catholic days as well. At the Sunday High Mass at the Oratory, so Fr Joseph Bacchus recalled, the Church notices would be read by one of the other Fathers. Then ‘when these were disposed of, [Newman’s] voice was heard like a soft piece of music from a distance reading the Epistle. He read it, so far as can be remembered, with very little variation in his voice, except perhaps a barely perceptible lingering over the last words, in which they seemed to die away. His manner of reading the Gospel was different. There were of course the pauses required to mark off the purely narrative portions from the words of different speakers, accompanied by slight changes in the voice. But the marked thing, which cannot be described, was the increased reverence in the reader’s voice which culminated when he came to the words of our Saviour. Before and after these there was a kind of hush. A most wonderful thing about it all was the complete elimination of the personality of the reader. He seemed to be listening as much as reading. The words were the living agent, he but their instrument.’37

  • 38 Sermon Notes, Introduction, p. 12.
  • 39 Shairp, Studies, p. 256.

23Fr Bacchus tells us that for Newman ‘every sermon [was] a sermon on the objectivity of Revealed Truth.’38 Throughout his long life in the service of the Gospel that was surely his aim as a preacher: to prepare people for conversion, for the acceptance into their lives of the saving truths of revelation. His consummate English style, the extraordinary gift of his voice, his psychological insights, made the legacy of his sermons one treasured by people all over the world. When he ceased preaching in 1843 many felt utterly bereft and ‘these withdrew into themselves [and] on Sunday forenoons and evenings, in the retirement of their rooms, the printed words of those marvellous sermons would thrill them till they wept ‘abundant and most sweet tears.’ Since then many voices of powerful teachers they may have heard, but none that ever penetrated the soul like his.’39 Canon Furse recounts in his memorandum that one of his daughters could think of nothing she wanted more as a wedding present than all the volumes of Newman’s sermons. The influence he wielded from his Anglican and Catholic pulpits was truly extraordinary and has lasted from his own day to this and has helped to reveal him as that sure guide for Christian men and women in their efforts to lead holier and more prayerful lives. His sermons and the ample spiritual riches they contain reveal John Henry Newman to be a supreme Father of Souls.

  • 40 Birmingham Oratory Archives, unpublished sermon no. 150, ref. A.17.1.

24It would be difficult to find a more explicit statement of his dedication to this God-given work which Newman had taken up than some words from his last sermon as a curate at St Clement’s in Oxford, preached on 23 April 1826: ‘For this at least I can thank God that from the first I have looked upon myself solely as an instrument in His hand, and have looked up to Him for all the blessing and all the grace by which any good could be effected. For I have felt and feel now that it is only as He makes use of me that I can be useful—only as I put myself entirely into His hands that I can promote His glory, and that to attempt even the slightest work in my own strength is an absurdity too great for words to express. He has been pleased to bring me into His ministry and to lay the weight of an high office upon me—and wherever His good providence may lead me I trust I shall never forget that I am dedicated and made over entirely to Him as the minister of Christ, and that the grand and blessed object of my life must be to promote the interest of His cause, and to serve His church, and contribute to the strength of His Kingdom, and make use of all my powers of mind and body, external and acquired, to bring sinners to Him, and to help in purifying a corrupt world—In this good work I willingly would be spent; and I pray God to give me grace to keep me from falling, and ever true to that vow by which I have bound myself to Him that I may at length finish my course with joy and the ministry which I have received of the Lord Jesus to testify the gospel of the grace of God. . . .40

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Notes

1 This article was first published in John Henry Newman in his Time, edited by Philippe Lefebvre & Colin Mason, Oxford, Family Publications, 2007, p. 117–29.

2 Archives of the Archbishop of Westminster; Ullathorne correspondence; Ullathorne to Manning, 15 May 1868.

3 John Henry Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1987); Fifteen Sermons Preached Before the University of Oxford (James David Earnest and Gerard Tracey, ed., Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006).

4 This was the title given by Fr H. J. Coleridge to his appreciation of Cardinal Newman. See «A Father of Souls’, The Month, vol. 70, no. 316, October 1890, p. 153–164.

5 John Henry Newman, Sermons 1824—1843, Volume 1 (Placid Murray ed., Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1991) p. 25.

6 R. D. Middleton, ‘The Vicar of St Mary’s’, Newman Centenary Essays (Burns, Oates & Washbourne, London, 1945), p. 130. The quotation originally appeared in The Quarterly Review, 1864.

7 Ian Ker, John Henry Newman, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1990), p. 91.

8 Middleton, ‘The Vicar of St Mary’s’, p. 133–4.

9 John Henry Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons (Rivington, London, 1868) Volume 6, no. 6, p. 69–82.

10 J. A. Froude, Short Studies on Great Subjects (Longman, Green & Co., London, 1894), vol. 4, p. 286.

11 G. Tracey (ed.) The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1995), vol. 7, p. 417.

12 John Henry Newman, Sermons on Subjects of the Day (Rivington, London, 1868), sermon no. 3 «Our Lord’s Last Supper and His First’, p. 38.

13 Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. 3, no. 24, p. 362.

14 Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. 2, no. 25, p. 309.

15 Charles Stephen Dessain, The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman (Thomas Nelson & Sons, London, 1961), vol. 11, p. 290.

16 The Catholic Sermons of Cardinal Newman, ed. at the Birmingham Oratory (Burns & Oates, London, 1957), p. 19–104.

17 Dessain, Letters and Diaries, vol. 12, p. 198.

18 Dessain, Letters and Diaries, vol. 20, p. 255.

19 Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. 8, p. 164.

20 Newman, Sermons 1824–1843, vol. 1, p. 67–74.

21 Dessain, Letters and Diaries, vol. 24, p. 44.

22 Dessain, Letters and Diaries, vol. 24, p. 45.

23 Dessain, Letters and Diaries, vol. 24, p. 44.

24 Fathers of the Birmingham Oratory (ed.), Sermon Notes of John Henry Cardinal Newman, 1849–1878 (Longman, Green & Co, London, 1913), Introduction, p. 6.

25 Matthew Arnold, Discourses in America, (Macmillan, London, 1885), p. 139–40.

26 Birmingham Oratory Archives, Furse Papers. Charles Wellington Furse (1821–1900) was Vicar of Staines, Principal of Cuddesdon Theological College (1873–83) and Archdeacon of Westminster. His first wife was Jane Monsell, a cousin of William Monsell, Lord Emly, Newman’s friend and fellow convert. The memorandum will appear as an appendix in the forthcoming volume 32 of the Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman.

27 Katharine Lake (ed.), Memorials of William Charles Lake, Dean of Durham 1869–94 (Edward Arnold, London, 1901) p. 41–2.

28 A. C. Benson, The Life of Edward White Benson, sometime Archbishop of Canterbury (Macmillan, London, 1899), vol. 1, p. 62.

29 C. H. P. Mayo, ‘Memories of Birmingham Forty and Fifty Years Ago’, The Cornhill Magazine, March 1930. p. 352–62.

30 Froude, Short Studies, vol. 4, p. 278–84.

31 J. C. Shairp, Studies in Poetry and Philosophy (Edmonton & Douglas, Edinburgh, 1876) p. 17.

32 W. Lockhart, Reminiscences of Fifty Years Since (Burns & Oates, London, 1891), p. 26–7.

33 Sermon Notes, Introduction, p. 8.

34 Birmingham Oratory Archives, Furse Papers.

35 G. E. Phillips, «Early Reminiscences of Cardinal Newman and of his First Fellow Oratorians’, The Ushaw Magazine (date?) p. 16–38.

36 Frederick Oakeley, Historical Notes on the Tractarian Movement 1833–1845, (Longman & Green, London, 1865) p. 25–6.

37 Sermon Notes, Introduction, p. 11–12.

38 Sermon Notes, Introduction, p. 12.

39 Shairp, Studies, p. 256.

40 Birmingham Oratory Archives, unpublished sermon no. 150, ref. A.17.1.

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Paul Chavasse, « Newman the Preacher », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 70 automne | 2009, mis en ligne le 12 décembre 2018, consulté le 14 décembre 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/cve/4798 ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.4798

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Paul Chavasse

Prêtre de l’Oratoire
Paul CHAVASSE is a member of the Congregation of the Oratory of St Philip Neri. Born in 1954, he studied for the priesthood in Rome and was ordained in 1978. In 1980 he entered the Congregation of the Oratory in Birmingham (founded by Newman), and has been its Superior since 1992. In 2000 he was elected Postulator-General of the Oratorian Confederation, responsible for promoting the Cause of the beatification and canonisation of Newman. He has lectured widely and published numerous articles on Newman.

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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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