Originally known as Tractarianism after its series of Tracts for the Times, published from 1833 to 1841, its members began by arguing for reinstatement of older Christian beliefs and practices in Anglican liturgy and theology. Before 1845 their adversaries called them Newmanites, after John Henry Newman, later as Puseyites after Edward Bouverie Pusey.
At the time, the Church of England clergy was mostly evangelical, almost Methodist. The country was molded by Whigs such as Thomas Macauley who viewed Britain as moving inevitably toward greater liberty, enlightenment, liberal democracy and constitutional monarchy. English liberals of the era abhorred the violence of the Reformation and in 1828 repealed laws against Protestant Dissenters. In 1829 they approved Catholic Emancipation, effectively legalizing Catholicism for the first time since Queen Elizabeth.
The spark that set off the movement was an 1833 bill dealing with Irish ecclesiastical property. This was a bit of delayed housekeeping, but it reminded some of the closing and expropriation of monasteries. In 1801, when Ireland was incorporated into the new United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the United Church of England and Ireland was established under the Anglican see of Canterbury. Parliament was now merely dotting a few i’s and crossing t’s.
In a sermon preached by John Keble (1792-1866) on July 14, 1833, titled “The National Apostasy,” he called these moves Britain’s “apostasy.” In the controversy that followed several Oxford churchmen defended Keble.
That was how a series of tracts was launched, eventually 90 in total, monographs by Newman, Keble, Pusey and others. They also translated writings of the Church Fathers and collected them in 48 volumes.
Drawing on writings of the first three centuries of Christianity, these Tractarians criticized both evangelicals and liberal Protestants and proposed Anglicanism as one of three branches (along with Catholicism and Orthodoxy) of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church of the Nicene Creed—the so-called Branch Theory. The famous Via Media (or Middle Way) between Protestantism and Catholicism was born.
Via Media was the title of a series of the tracts that was written by Newman around 1834. He paid homage to the the Elizabethan Thirty-Nine Articles that defined Church of England doctrine, but proposed, along with his fellow Tractarians, that the Elizabethan Settlement of Anglicanism should be reinterpreted it as a compromise between Rome and Reform.
The Oxford Movement resulted in Anglican religious orders of men and of women and incorporated ideas and more powerful emotional symbolism in the liturgy. The Eucharist gradually became more central to worship, vestments became common and Catholic practices were reintroduced. Controversy followed and sometimes wound up in court.
Anglican bishops refused to post Tractarian priests to regular parishes, so many began working in slums. What they saw led them to criticize British social policy, both local and national. They launched the Christian Social Union, and many bishops eventually joined. Just wages, questions about the nobility’s income from rents, infant mortality and industrial working conditions were among their concerns.
John Henry Newman (1801-1890) was a popular Oxford priest. After writing his final tract, Tract 90, he came to see the Branch Theory as inadequate. He could not accept separation between Catholicism and Anglicanism. He was received into the Catholic Church in 1845. Several years later he was ordained a priest and then named a cardinal, although not a bishop. He was a prolific and eloquent writer, and his legacy is rich.
He wrote the poem “Lead, Kindly Light” while crossing the English Channel at night in a storm. He drew hope when he saw a light from the coast, which he interpreted as a divine beacon. This is the opening verse:
Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th'encircling gloom,Apologia Pro Vita Sua is Newman’s careful chronicle of the development of his religious thinking, published serially between 1865 and 1866, in response to public criticism by Church of England cleric Charles Kingsley after Newman’s resignation as Anglican vicar of St. Mary’s, Oxford. His 1870 Grammar of Assent, written for a nonbelieving friend, articulates the reasoning he thought could lead a person to belief.
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.
Newman influenced a vast legion of Anglicans to convert to Catholicism. Among the best known are the poet and eventual Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), the eventual Msgr. Ronald Knox (1888-1957), whose English version of the Vulgate Bible is exceedingly poetic, and poet, philosopher, dramatist, journalist and novelist Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936), popularly known for his Father Brown mysteries, which always feature within them a religious theme.
Edward Pusey (1800-1882), also an Anglican cleric at Oxford, carried on the movement after 1845. He remained a lifelong Anglican fighting to revive pre-Reformation teachings and practice. His sermon before the university in May 1843, “The Holy Eucharist, a Comfort to the Penitent,” got him suspended for two years from preaching, but the condemned sermon became an overnight bestseller.
Pusey engaged behind the scenes in several theological and academic controversies, through articles, letters, treatises and sermons. The Church of England was the established church, so these issues straddled the religious and political spheres. His most notable books, on the subject in which he was most influential are Eucharist, The Doctrine of the Real Presence (1855) and The Real Presence ... the Doctrine of the English Church (1857); he also wrote The Eirenicon, an effort to find a basis for union between the Church of England and the Catholic Church. He was accused of ritualism, but Pusey didn’t cotton much to lovers of bells and smells. He defended them, though, when they were accused of breaking the law; however they returned the favor by shutting the Puseyites out.
Perhaps the most notable figure influenced indirectly by Pusey was the 1948 Nobel Prize winner T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), who renounced his native-born U.S. citizenship to become a British subject in 1927, the year he also converted to Anglicanism from Unitarianism. He became a warden of his parish church, Saint Stephen's, Gloucester Road, London, and a lifetime member of the Society of King Charles the Martyr. He identified “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion” and 30 years later summarized his views as having “a Catholic cast of mind, a Calvinist heritage, and a Puritanical temperament.” His most noted work with a religious theme is his 1935 play Murder in the Cathedral, concerning the assassination of St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170.