Newman's Detractors ... at NINS?

By Christopher Cimorelli
June 08, 2022
13 min read
Newman's Detractors ... at NINS?


It is a privilege to work each day at the Gailliot Center for Newman Studies and its library, which houses the ever-increasing collections—physical and digital—of the National Institute for Newman Studies (NINS). The mission of promoting the life and thought of St. John Henry Newman is tangibly present here, somehow permeating the very atmosphere. So, it was all the more remarkable when I discovered a collection of “Newman detractors” on the premises, a collection indicating the conflict between Newman, the champion of Roman Catholicism in England, and mainly evangelical Free Church academics around the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century.

As part of my editorial duties for the Newman Studies Journal, I had been tracking down a direct quote from Newman’s 1843 edition of the University Sermons. Initially, I was able to find this edition via the NINS Digital Collections. The material surrounding the quote was interesting enough that I walked to the collection of Newman’s primary writings on the second-floor mezzanine of the Gailliot Center to pull the volume for perusal. The volume I selected, however, was in fact the second edition of the University Sermons, from 1844. It was a well-worn copy that contained quite a few handwritten notes prior to the front matter; I quickly scanned these notes.

Their subject was John Henry Newman, and the tone was decidedly negative, piquing my interest further; so, I began to transcribe the cursive text. In fact, there are five handwritten quotes at the front of the volume, most of which appear, after some digging, to have been slightly misquoted or reordered from the likely originals. This suggests that a previous owner of the 1844 edition was hearing such criticisms of Newman secondhand and was jotting them down. Another possibility, particularly given the original source material of these passages, is that they were being recalled from prior reading. In what follows, I will transcribe and comment upon these handwritten quotes to provide some contextual backdrop wherever possible. Then, I will provide the original, full quotation from which the transcriptions were made. Finally, I will offer a few concluding remarks.



The first quote is the following, attributed to Dr. P. T. Forsyth (1848–1921), who was a Scottish theologian and pastor who had studied with A. Ritschl and was influenced by Adolf von Harnack’s theology.

“Newman’s brilliancy, his critical acumen, his ethereal haze—and his jungle of ignorance, crossed by streaks of insight.”

Dr P. T. Forsyth.[1]

The actual quote by Forsyth occurred in the Evangelical Magazine in May 1893, and it referenced a larger controversy between Andrew Martin Fairbairn (1838–1912) and Newman regarding the theoretical and historical underpinnings of Roman Catholic thought, particularly in England. The approximations of the handwritten, transcribed material above appear in bold font, and the same will hold true for the other quotes to come.

“Without Newman’s ethereal haze, it [i.e., Fairbairn’s work[2]] has more than Newman’s brilliancy, more than his critical acumen, much more than his philosophical power, and a light work wealth of knowledge, both philosophic and historic, which makes the father of modern Anglicanism by comparison a jungle of ignorance crossed by streaks of insight and prickled with spots of light.”

Fairbairn was the principal of Mansfield College at Oxford University, and had attacked Newman and Roman Catholic apologetics and epistemology in the May 1885 issue of The Contemporary Review.[3] Newman replied, as did Fairbairn in turn.[4] This entire fascinating affair, which looks at perhaps Newman’s last great bout of public controversy, was treated in the Fall 2010 issue of the Newman Studies Journal.[5] Newman and the Oxford Movement were targets of Free Church thinkers who believed that the Movement had been reintroducing elements of Roman Catholicism into the Church of England in the attempt to revitalize it beginning in the 1830s.


Continuing in this vein, the second handwritten transcription is from Principal Fairbairn himself, and it is transcribed as follows:

“Newman’s passionate sincerity and matchless style. He has, more than other teachers of our age, made us feel the evil of sin, the dignity of obedience, the beauty of holiness; and his words, even where sublimest, have been but the dim and imperfect mirror of his own exalted spirit.”

Principal A. M. Fairbairn

The above quoted material occurred in the Fairbairn’s reply to Newman in the December 1885 issue of The Contemporary Review. Specifically, it was in the opening paragraph and rhetorically served to credit Newman’s strengths and contributions prior to maintaining the original thesis and charges from May of 1885. The order of the quoted material is incorrect in the handwritten version, and so I quote the original paragraph at length, and would also note that this response is available via the Newman Reader.

“IT is simply a duty, which I owe alike to Cardinal Newman and the readers of this REVIEW, to ask, whether, in the light of his statement and the rigorous criticism of Dr. Barry, I have anything to retract or modify in the judgment which has provoked these replies. It would, in some respects, be much more pleasant for me to allow the matter to stand where the Cardinal has left it, and were it simply a personal matter between him and me, it would, so far as I am concerned, be allowed so to stand. It costs a very peculiar kind of suffering to conduct a controversy, after his personal intervention, with the one man in all England on whose lips the words of the dying Polycarp sit with equal truth and grace. Not that Cardinal Newman has been either a hesitating or a soft-speaking controversialist. He has been a man of war from his youth, who has conquered many adversaries—amongst them the most inveterate and invincible of English prejudices. He was one who not only changed sides when the battle was hottest, but led a goodly company, with him; yet the change, so far from lessening, increased the honour and admiration in which he was held. He has, as scarcely any other teacher of our age, made us feel the meaning of life, the evil of sin, the dignity of obedience, the beauty of holiness; and his power has been due to the degree in which men have been constrained to believe that his words, where sublimest, have been but the dim and imperfect mirrors of his own exalted spirit. He has taken us into the secret places of his soul, and has held us by the potent spell of his passionate sincerity and matchless style, while he has unfolded his vision of the truth, or his quest after it. He has greatly and variously enriched the religious life of our people, and he lives in our imagination as the last at once of the fathers and of the saints. Whatever the degree of our theological and ecclesiastical difference, it does not lessen my reverence for the man, or my respect for his sincerity.”[6]


The next handwritten quote is from the Catholic historian, John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton (1834–1902), and is rather well-known, despite the fact that it might still surprise readers who understand the degree of Acton’s esteem for Newman in his earlier years.

“If you work Newman’s theology out, it is a school of infidelity.”

John Acton

There are a number of works that treat the relationship between Newman and Acton, and I have even analyzed their relationship at a recent conference held at NINS.[7] Acton was referring to Newman’s infidelity to history and truth (as Acton understood them). Acton felt that Newman’s justifications for the infallible teaching authority of the church—for example, in his An Essay on Development of Christian Doctrine (1845/1878)—as well as his later reception of the First Vatican Council, amounted to a betrayal of the fruits and legitimate authority of historical science and the faults of the past church that it had uncovered so clearly. The result for Acton was a justification by Newman et al. of the status quo and thus the maintenance of evil in the church that was being called upon to change in a more liberal age. Acton had written the following to William Gladstone in 1896, and his sentiments in this regard were clearly picked up by non-Catholic critics of the Roman Catholic Church and Newman as one of its great apologists:

“I may say: Read Newman; he is by far the best writer the Church of Rome has had in England since the Reformation. And the pupil will come back and say: But do you think his arguments sound, or his religion Catholic? I shall have to say: No; if you work it out, it is a school of Infidelity.”[8]


The fourth quoted passage is attributed to Harvey Goodwin (1818–1891), who was an academic and Bishop of the Church of England (at Carlisle, 1869–1891). It reads as follows:

“Bp. Harvey Goodwin says of Cardinal Newman: — ‘His utterances do not carry conviction; they only produce the pleasure [which] results from looking at a phantasmagoria;[9] they do not correspond to facts + conclusions [which] calm reflection enables us to accept as real.’”

This particular passage was quite difficult to locate, but I found a reference online to a posthumously published piece by Goodwin in The Contemporary Review (January 1892), which turned out to be the source. In this piece, Goodwin actually defended Newman in some respects on the relationship between probability and faith. Goodwin commented on Newman’s influence on him through the Tracts for the Times, as well as from the pulpit, as he had been struck by Newman’s atypical, but remarkable eloquence in person; the sermon Goodwin had witnessed at St. Mary’s “was like a message from another world, or like an utterance of a primitive saint or martyr permitted to revisit the world of living men.”[10] Despite this praise, Goodwin did find fault with some features of Newman’s thought, and I quote at some length:

“my purpose will have been accomplished if the account which I have given of my feeling of interest in Newman, and of the effect produced upon my mind by his preaching, enables me to say, without suspicion of any wish to do him injustice, that I never found his utterances capable of carrying conviction to my mind. … The result upon my mind in listening to the sermon in question is for me true also concerning Newman’s writings as a whole,—full of striking thoughts, poetical passages, holy aspirations, conveyed in faultless English; but (so far as my experience is concerned) wanting in the primest of all qualities—namely the power of conviction; a kind of phantasmagoria of thought, not corresponding to facts and conclusions which calm reflection enables an unbiassed mind to accept as real.”[11]


The final quote is from James Denney (1856–1917), who was a Scottish theologian and preacher who served as Professor of Systematic Theology and later New Testament Language and Literature at the Free Church College Glasgow.

“Newman was one of the greatest sophists of all time. He knows Man well; but he does not know God at all. He is cowardly towards God and domineering towards men.”

Principal Denney

The title of “Principal” is revealing, in that Denney was only Principal of Free Church College from 1915 to his death in 1917, which indicates the earliest time in which these quotes could have been transcribed. This quoted material is found in a letter from James Denney to the Rev. J. P. Struthers from 17 Dec. 1894.[12] Once again, the handwritten transcription features material out of order and slightly inaccurate. I will quote it at some length:

“That cutting you sent me about Newman was very remarkable. The more one hears about the man, the less one likes him. I read two volumes of his sermons lately, and found desperately little in them. He knows man very well, be he does not know God at all. There is a mixture in them of cowardice, almost, towards God, and domineering toward men, which provokes contempt as well as aversion. He was certainly one of the greatest sophists of all time. I heard Rainy (some people would think him a rival) say once that the Oratorians in London, with whom Newman had some standing ecclesiastical dispute, always referred to him as ‘the old serpent.’ He is pretty subtle anyhow, but that belongs to his Church.”[13]


It seems somewhat probable that this 1844 edition of Newman’s University Sermons was once owned by a person affiliated with, or at the very least influenced by, the evangelical Free Church movement in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Beginning chronologically with Fairbairn’s dispute regarding the apologetics of the Roman Catholic Church, these quotes indicate a desire to undermine the claims of Rome both in a synchronic sense (infallible teaching authority) and a diachronic sense (the true church throughout time), and as championed by none other than John Henry Newman. Newman was a particularly vexing figure to such Free Church thinkers, given his role in reintroducing dubious Catholic elements into the Church of England from his time in the Oxford Movement, as well as his influence on the conversion of many persons to Roman Catholicism beginning in the 1840s. Newman’s increasing popularity toward the end of his life and in the wake of his death is another factor behind the need to counter his thought and even malign his person to a degree. These transcriptions which mark the front pages of the volume perhaps served to protect the reader from the sophistry and skepticism of Newman that was to follow in his University Sermons!

Regardless, this volume serves as a reminder of the concrete persons who have engaged Newman’s thought throughout the years, and not always brimming with adulation for his poignant insights and/or character as a saint. That this volume has been sitting here at NINS waiting to be investigated is a testament to the importance of going through the stacks on occasion and looking for that unpublished material that can be so revelatory. In addition, we at NINS discovered that this 1844 edition is not currently scanned in the NINS Digital Collections, a matter that will soon be rectified.  

[1] This passage from the May 1893 issue of Evangelical Magazine was found in the following text: W. B. Selbie, The Life of Andrew Martin Fairbairn, First Principal of Mansfield College, Oxford (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1914), 232.

[2] Referring to Fairbairn’s important 1893 work, The Place of Christ in Modern Theology.

[3] See A. M. Fairbairn, “Catholicism and Modern Thought,” The Contemporary Review 47 (May 1885): 652–74. In the February issue of 1885, Fairbairn had written on “Catholicism and Apologetics.”

[4] See J. H. Newman, “The Development of Religious Error,” The Contemporary Review 48 (October 1885): 457–69; and A. M. Fairbairn, “Reason and Religion,” The Contemporary Review 48 (December 1885): 842–61. William Barry had also weighed in. See idem, “Catholicism and Reason,” The Contemporary Review 48 (November 1885): 656–75.

[5] Adam Stewart, “John Henry Newman and Andrew Martin Fairbairn: Philosophical Scepticism and the Efficacy of Reason in The Contemporary Review Exchange,” Newman Studies Journal 7, no. 2 (Fall 2010): 6–17.

[6] A. M. Fairbairn, “Reason and Religion,” The Contemporary Review 48 (December 1885): 842.

[7] Christopher Cimorelli, “The ‘dark side’ of the Church: Newman, Acton, and Reconciling History,” delivered at the National Institute for Newman Studies 2022 Spring Symposium, “The ‘Earthly Light’ of Friendship: Newman’s Circle, Influence, and Integrity,” 12 March 2022, Pittsburgh, PA, USA.

[8] Acton to Gladstone (12 April 1896), in Selections from the Correspondence of the First Lord Acton, vol. 1, ed. John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1917), 227.

[9] Defined as “a constantly shifting complex succession of things seen or imagined” (Merriam Webster).

[10] The sermon was “The Incarnate Son, a Sufferer and Sacrifice,” (1 April 1836), PS vi, 6 available through the Newman Reader and NINS Digital Collections.

[11] Harvey Goodwin, “Probability and Faith,” The Contemporary Review 61 (January 1892): 50.

[12] This correspondence can be found online in the volume Letters of Principal James Denney to His Family and Friends, ed. J. Moffatt (London: Hodder and Stoughton Ltd., 1922), 62.

[13] Letters of Principal James Denny, 62.

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Christopher Cimorelli

Christopher Cimorelli

Director of the National Institute for Newman Studies

Christopher Cimorelli is the Director of the National Institute for Newman Studies and Associate Editor of the Newman Studies Journal. He is the author of the monograph, John Henry Newman’s Theology of History: Historical Consciousness, ‘Theological Imaginaries’, and the Development of Tradition (Peeters, 2017) and the co-editor of Salvation in the World: The Crossroads of Public Theology (Bloomsbury, 2017). He has varied research interests, including Newman studies, doctrinal development, views of doctrine and the magisterium, apophatic theology, spirituality, and ecotheology.


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