John Henry Newman (1801–1890)

1. Brief Vita

John Henry Newman was born in London on February 21, 1801. At the age of fifteen, under the influence of Walter Mayers, an Evangelical schoolmaster at Ealing School where he was a pupil, Newman experienced an early “Calvinist” conversion, “making me rest in the thought of two and two only absolute and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my Creator.”[1] He went in 1817 as an undergraduate to Trinity College Oxford, obtaining, probably due to mental and emotional strain, a not very distinguished BA in 1820. In 1822, he was elected a fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, and in 1824 was ordained deacon and made curate at St. Clement’s in Oxford. In 1825 he was ordained priest and became Vice-Principal of Alban Hall. In the following year he was appointed tutor of Oriel College, and in 1828 became the vicar of Saint Mary’s, Oxford, where he became a charismatic and very influential preacher. In 1832 he published his first book, The Arians of the Fourth Century. From December 1832 to July of the following year he traveled in the Mediterranean with Hurrell Froude—who encouraged in Newman a distaste for Protestantism—and fell seriously ill in Sicily. Together with some other newly-elected fellows, Edward Pusey, Robert Wilberforce and Hurrell Froude, Newman from 1833—the year in which John Keble preached the Assize Sermon on the theme of “National Apostasy”—inspired and led what came to be known as the Oxford, or Tractarian, Movement, a search for moral and religious renewal within the Church of England along Anglo-Catholic lines. In September of 1833 the series of Tracts for the Times, from which the movement took its name, began to be published.

Various publications followed between 1833 and 1841, mostly in the form of collected sermons and lectures on theological subjects. A dedicated patrologist and historian of the early Christian church, Newman came, after much soul-searching, to believe that the Roman Catholic Church was the true Church founded by Christ, and, having resigned his Oriel fellowship on October 3, 1845, was received into the Catholic Church on October 9, 1845, by Blessed Dominic Barberi at Littlemore, where Newman with certain friends had been living a quasi-monastic life since 1842. Also in 1845 he published his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.Newman’s conversion cost him dear in that he was shunned by his family (except one sister) and by many of his old friends. Newman left Oxford for Maryvale near Birmingham in 1846, and was ordained a Catholic priest in Rome on May 30, 1847. In the same year he wrote his first novel, Loss and Gain, the story of the conversion of an Oxford man.In 1848 he founded the Birmingham Oratory—the Oratory being a priestly society created by St. Phillip Neri. This foundation was followed by a later one in London.

Newman was invited to Ireland in 1851 to become first Rector of the Catholic University, a position from which he resigned in 1858; during that time, among the many daunting educational and administrative tasks he undertook in the setting-up of the University, and built the University Church, in the Byzantine style, on Saint Stephen’s Green in Dublin. The Catholic University of Ireland—which included James Joyce as an undergraduate and the poet Gerard Manly Hopkins as a staff-member—is the parent institution of University College Dublin, one of the four universities which compose the present National University of Ireland. Newman also founded the Oratory School in Birmingham. Although Newman had suffered a great deal from the suspicion and opposition of some Catholic authorities, he was created cardinal in 1879 by Pope Leo XIII. He was also elected an honorary fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, in 1877. He died on August 11, 1890, and was buried at Radnall near Birmingham.

James Joyce in his own fictionalized autobiographical novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man speaks of Newman’s “cloistral, silver-veined prose,” and the Apologia, Newman’s record of his own spiritual journey, written in response to a mean attack on his own integrity, and that of Catholics in general, by Charles Kingsley,[2] is recognized as one of the jewels of English prose, while The Idea of a University is also credited with being one of the most eloquent and finely judged defenses of intellectual culture.[3] Newman’s novels are read mainly by specialists today, but his long mystical poem The Dream of Gerontius (1865), which depicts the death of Gerontius (“old man”) and his soul’s journey to God, was set to music by Edward Elgar—first performed in 1900. Newman is also the author of the much-loved poem, Lead Kindly Light. In Grammar of Assent, his study of the logic of religious assent or faith, Newman gives a masterly delineation of the kind of epistemic virtues which are necessary for the discovery of truth. He writes:

We have arrived at these conclusions—not ex opere operato, by a scientific necessity independent of ourselves—but by the action of our own minds, by our own individual perception of the truth in question, under a sense of duty to those conclusions and with an intellectual conscientiousness.[4]

This constellation of virtues has as its center the primacy of individual conscience, both epistemic and moral, the responsible, truth-seeking judgment of the individual, which Newman defended, notably in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, where he refutes the charge that Catholics cannot be faithful to the state because of their allegiance to Rome. The Letter contains the following celebrated passage:

Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts […]. I shall drink,—to the Pope, if you please,—still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.[5]

Joseph Ratzinger, before he became Pope Benedict XVI, wrote, in this connection:

We had experienced the claim of a totalitarian party […] which negated the conscience of the individual. One of its leaders [Hermann Göring] had said, “I have no conscience. My conscience is Adolf Hitler.” […] So it was liberating and essential for us to know that the “we” of the Church does not rest on a cancellation of conscience, but that, exactly the opposite, it can only develop from conscience.[6]

This vision of conscience, as well as the breadth of what it extends to, namely responsible knowing as well as ethics and politics, may well be Newman’s greatest legacy. In general, the character of Newman’s thought is personalistic and organic rather than objectivistic and abstract: the motto that he took as Cardinal, cor ad cor loquitur (“heart speaks to heart”) reflects this idea very well.

Though by no means a process thinker in anything like the Whiteheadian sense, Newman nevertheless is one who thinks in terms of organism and change. For Newman the object of thought is always living and organic, and hence subject to change, to development. This is probably most clearly expressed in his Essay on Development, which inter alia, puts forward an account of the evolution of an idea, of which the following quotation gives a flavor:

being the germination, growth, and perfection of some living […] truth, in the minds of men during a sufficient period […]. Its development then is not like a mathematical theorem worked out on paper, in which each successive advance is a pure evolution from a foregoing, but it is carried on through individuals and bodies of men; it employs their minds as instruments, and depends upon them while it uses them. […] It grows when it incorporates; and its purity consists not in isolation, but in its continuity and sovereignty.[7]

Novelty and unpredictability are here, as well as identity and faithfulness to self, but never mere stasis. For Newman, change is vital to perfection, and perfection is impossible without change: perfection is the final state of such a process of evolution, not its beginning; and this for him was a spiritual and ethical principle, as well as one governing the development of more abstract entities such as an idea, and one which is well illustrated by the pilgrimage which was his life. That life is also the illustration of the supremacy of conscience, which is the “kindly light” which shows the pilgrim, step by step, the way.

2. Whitehead and Newman

Lowe[8] speaks of Whitehead’s “long, serious flirtation with Rome” (1985, 141). Lowe maintains that the Apologia, the Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine and the Grammar of Assent had been read by Whitehead, and that Whitehead went to see Newman in the Birmingham Oratory in 1890, “when the question of his […] possible conversion to Roman Catholicism came to a head” (1985, 142); Whitehead may perhaps even have gone in 1889 (1985, 171). Whitehead’s inclination towards Catholicism was revealed only after his death by Russell, who attributed his near conversion to the influence of Newman (Lowe 1985, 169). There is no written record of Whitehead’s visit to Newman, but Lowe quotes Whitehead twice on the subject of Newman (1985, 170): at an “at home,” when Whitehead’s wife said that Whitehead had met Newman, Whitehead maintained a long silence, and in reply to a student who asked what Newman was like, replied, “He was wonderful.” “But,” he added, “he was very old then.” As Lowe puts it, this must have been “an event so significant and personal that Whitehead did not want to talk about it.” Lowe also quotes Lucien Price’s report of a conversation in 1945 in which Whitehead said that he had met Newman, and when asked what Newman had said, replied that “it is too long ago” and “looked preoccupied for a moment, then abruptly changed the subject.”

Newman had been deaf and nearly blind since 1886, and Lowe speculates that after a short time into the visit Newman’s secretary may have intervened and brought Whitehead away to talk with someone else about his conversion, thus resulting in an inconclusive interview (1985, 171). Lowe also notes that in his philosophy lectures at Harvard, Whitehead recommended reading Newman, and sometimes referred to him as “the most profound mind of the nineteenth century” (1985, 171).


[1] J. H. Newman, Apologia pro Vita Sua, edited by Ian Kerr (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1994), 25; cf. 179. For all this, see Ian Kerr. 1988. John Henry Newman: A Biography (Oxford, Clarendon Press).

[2] “Truth, for its own sake, had never been a virtue with the Roman clergy. Father Newman informs us that it need not, and on the whole ought not to be […].” Quoted in the Apologia (1994, 358); the dispute between Newman and Kingsley may be followed in the Appendices.

[3] “For all the complicating effect of its religious setting, there is still no more eloquent and finely judged defence of intellectual culture than Newman’s”; so the philosopher Anthony Quinton, quoted in Noel Annan, The Dons: Mentors, Eccentrics and Geniuses (London, Harper Collins, 1999), 53.

[4] John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (London, Longmans, 1895), Chapter VIII, Section 2, 318.

[5] John Henry Newman, A Letter Addressed to His Grace the Duke of Norfolk on Occasion of Mr. Gladstone’s Recent Expostulation (London, B. M. Pickering, 1875), 66.

[6] “Newman Belongs to the Great Teachers of the Church,” Introductory Words to the Third Day, Newman Symposium Organized by the International Centre of Newman Friends, Rome, April 28, 1990 (German original, Newman gehört zu den grossen Lehrern der Kirche).

[7] An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine: The Edition of 1845, edited and with an introduction by J. M. Cameron (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1974), 99.

[8] Victor Lowe, Alfred North Whitehead: The Man and his Work. 2 Vols. (Baltimore and London, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985, 1990). All page references are to the first volume.

Works Cited and Further Readings

Newman’s literary output was prodigious, and he was also a voluminous correspondent. His main works may be roughly grouped under the following headings:

Sermons and Lectures: Parochial Sermons, 1834; Lectures on the Prophetical Office of the Church, 1837; Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification, 1838; Discourses Addressed to Mixed Congregations, 1849; Lectures on Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Submitting to the Catholic Church, 1850; Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England, 1851; Sermons Preached on Various Occasions, 1857.

Ecclesiology and Church History: The Arians of the Fourth Century, 1832; An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, 1845; Via Media, 1877; “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine,” article in the Rambler, 1859.

Educational Works: Discourses on the Scope and Nature of University Education, 1852; Lectures and Essays on University Subjects, 1859; The Idea of a University, 1873.

Autobiography: Apologia pro Vita Sua, 1864.

Epistemology: An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, 1870.

Open Letters: A Letter to the Rev. E. B. Pusey, 1866; A Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, 1875.

Fiction: Loss and Gain, 1847; Callista, A Tale of the Third Century, 1856.

Poetry: The Dream of Gerontius, 1865; Verses on Various Occasions, 1868.

Author Information

Thomas A. F. Kelly
National University of Ireland
Maynooth, Ireland

How to Cite this Article

Kelly, Thomas A. F., “John Henry Newman (1801–1890)”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <>.