This year we celebrate the centenary of John Henry Newman’s death. The new ecumenical interest in Newman has centered largely in his parochial preaching in sermons he first gave as an Anglican and reissued as a Roman Catholic with no substantial changes. It was through Newman’s preaching that he gained and exercised a position of prominence and influence in the Oxford Movement of the nineteenth century.
One of the outstanding things about Newman’s life is the brilliant preaching he did week after week for almost two decades after his ordination. From his first parish appointment to St. Clement’s in 1824 to his farewell sermon to his parish and friends at Littlemore Oxford in 1843, he preached over a thousand sermons.
Horton Davies says: “Men of many denominations still turn to his sermons chiefly for their penetrating understanding of human nature and destiny and for their moral guidance and spiritual illumination which are admirably expressed in the economy of nervous and subtle English prose.”
There are eight volumes of his Parochial and Plain Sermons delivered in the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford from 1835-41. In 1849 he published Discourses addressed to mixed congregations and in 1857 Sermons preached on various occasions. The sermons he preached as a Roman Catholic are more direct and challenging, have deeper pathos, and bolder flights of the imagination. The Anglican sermons have more refinement and delicacy of feeling.
I commend to your attention a book published in 1969 by Fortress Press, The Preaching of J. H. Newman, edited with an introduction by W. D. White. It contains his own selection of his best sermons preached at St. Mary’s. Two outstanding characteristics are clues to his magnetism: the sheer spirituality of this man and his uncanny psychological penetration.
Newman was free from the temptation to exalt preaching for its own sake or to luxuriate in his own powers. He did exalt the office and calling of a minister but his exaltation of his office was the basis for his deep sense of awe and reverence before his own vocation.
In 1859, Newman published an essay on University Preaching. The first principle that dominates his thought is that each sermon must have a clear and consistent intention, a definite aim or end. He said: “Definiteness is the life of preaching. Nothing that is anonymous will preach, nothing that is dead and gone.”
The ultimate aim of all preaching is the salvation of the hearer. He never succumbed to the temptation to be a pulpit orator. He concentrated in his preaching on the concrete, the definite, the individual.
In preaching, purity of heart is to will one thing. Singleminded commitment to a particular spiritual good is the one thing necessary for effective preaching. Since the art of preaching is persuasion, the preacher must instruct and convince the intellect as well as move the affections and fire the will of his hearers.
What is Newman’s secret? His superb intelligence, his knowledge of language and disciplined use of it, his pursuit of truth, his intense spirituality are all qualities that he possessed. He rejected topical or timely preaching. His preaching is apologetic and polemical. His parochial sermons deal with the enduring verities of the Christian faith and the deposit of revealed truth in the Bible and tradition.
He rejected cheap appeals to passing emotions, rhetorical brilliance, the use of wit and humor. He had a deep sense of awe and reverence before the vocation of preaching. His sermons have a clear intellectual formation and a dogmatic and biblical framework. They evoke deep emotion and carry a depth of feeling which is alive and vibrant.
The fascination of Newman is that of a great soul fighting through loneliness to the city of God. He is Bunyan’s pilgrim come in the flesh, as human, as full of mysticism, as sure of God as Bunyan himself. But it is another mind than Bunyan’s, the mind of a Pascal, with all the poetry and imaginativeness of Coleridge, clothing itself in the most perfect English prose. He spoke as one who believed that the hand of God was on human life, and he spent his days as one who saw from afar the reflected light of eternity.
All his life through he cast a strange spell upon men, attaching them to himself with a passion of personal devotion. Alexander Whyte once visited him at the Oratory in Birmingham and was received with the utmost courtesy and frankness. An autographed portrait of the Cardinal had a place of honor in Whyte’s study to the end of his life. He wrote an appreciation of Newman in which he said: “I live by admiration, hope and love and Newman has always inspired me with all those feelings towards himself and many of his works.”
If we turn to those who did not share his religious faith, the strain of praise does not grow fainter. Here are two references to the Sunday afternoon services at St. Mary’s. The first is by Matthew Arnold: “Who could resist the charm of that spiritual apparition, gliding in the dim afternoon light 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 and mournful? Happy the man who hears such voices. They are a possession to him for ever.”
Another is J. A. Froude: “Newman described clearly 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 he said, ‘Now I bid you remember that he to whom those things were done was Almighty God.’ It was as if an electric shock 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.”
What is the secret of Newman’s fascination for minds so different from one another and from his own? There is the extraordinary beauty of his style. Unforced, stately but never stifled, simple, persuasive, musical, sensitive. Whyte found in it a touchstone by which any lapse from dignity and purity of diction in his own writing might at once be detected. In writing Newman said that his one desire was to express clearly and exactly his meaning.
Yet we must go further than his style to find the secret of his hold upon the esteem of his fellow-countrymen. It was his self that conquered, that self which, at the challenge of Charles Kingsley, he laid bare with such honesty and sincerity in his Apologia in 1864. He confessed that he had a strong desire to influence others. He was not a mere interpreter of the truth. He had the passion of an advocate pleading for a verdict. He was conscious of a mission.
As a preacher he won a hearing by the distinctively religious character of his message, which appeals to the higher needs of men, by the passionate intensity of his advocacy, and by the force and grace of his diction, rather than by any skill as an orator.
Dean Church said of Newman’s sermons that “he made them an earnest letter, a call which came home to each hearer, a summons to ascend to the heights of religion.” What he says is the product of a well-stored mind, and of a richly nurtured and sweetly trained character. It is not the technique of the sermon that commands interest and attention; it is the man and the intensity of his message. That is why, in reading his sermons, the first impression is not enough and why they increase in interest by frequent reading.
F. J. A. Hort, in a letter written to his wife on August 24, 1890, at the time of Newman’s death, said, “The force of his sermons comes partly from his own pure and intense devotion, partly from his own marvelous power of reading and analyzing the mixed thoughts and feelings of men but in matters of belief what F. D. Maurice said of him is perfectly true, that he was governed by an infinite scepticism, counteracted by an infinite devoutness.”
In G. F. Barbour’s life of Alexander Whyte there is recorded an incident of his student days. Someone was praising the sermons of F. W. Robertson. Pointing to four volumes of Newman’s sermons on his shelves, Whyte said: “These sermons are far more to me than Robertson’s. The poetical-prose expression of Newman is well illustrated in the Parochial Sermons. Always the beautiful passages are bound up intimately with his theological thought. The style is spiritual, penetrating, imaginative, fluent. Each adjective is important in describing its power. Most of the fascination of his style lay in its imaginative feeling and its fluency. Looked at as pure literature they are not far from absolute perfection. The finer and more fastidious your mind is, the more you will enjoy them.”
His sermons were a great factor in the Oxford Movement but they survive because of their humanity, their close knowledge of humanity expressed in faultless English. In the last sentence of his last Oxford sermon on “The Parting of Friends” he begins: “O my brethren, my loving friends, should you know anyone whose lot it has been in some degree to help you, if he has ever told you what you know about yourselves or what you did not know, has read to you your wants and feelings, and comforted you by the very reading.” To the same effect is the motto he later chose for his Cardinal’s shield, Cor ad cor loquitor, “Heart speaks to heart,” — a sentence taken from St. Francis de Sale’s letters.
“You always understand everything,” Newman’s sister said to him as a boy when he made her dry her tears. Here is the secret of his influence. This strange life of ours, this tangle of emotions and motives which make up the human heart, Newman could interpret these things and there is nothing more interesting. There is a felicity in the very titles of these sermons — “The Greatness and Littleness of Human Life,” “The Mysteriousness of our Present Being,” “Curiosity, a Temptation to Sin” and “The Church a Home for the Lonely.”
Here are the chief points of value in Newman’s preaching.
(1) The most striking feature of it is its elevated and intense religious note. He was intensely hostile to the worldliness of his time. There is a certain unearthly note about his preaching. He made men see and feel that there is a higher life than this earthly one and a brighter world than the one we see. One of the young men of his day said: “The effects of Newman’s preaching on us young men was to turn us inside out.”
(2) The ethical significance of faith for the Christian life is another point of value in his preaching. His aim was to show that it is natural to believe, that it is better to be credulous than doubtful, to vindicate the reasonableness of faith.
(3) The intensity of its emotional and spiritual fervor is another element that impresses one in his preaching. He was a man of intense and tender feelings. He had a capacity for close attachments. His farewell to his Anglican friends in his last Oxford sermon when he appealed to them to remember him in time to come is unbearable in its pathos. It is said there was not a dry eye in the church except the preacher’s. There is something deeply moving in his utterances of passionate adoration, not only for our Lord but for his mother.
(4) His preaching reveals his insight into the human soul. His intellectual subtlety, his skill in psychological analysis, his understanding of human motives, his study of himself, all fitted him to interpret the human soul.
(5) The great merit of his sermons is their internal unity — the presence of a dominant note which gives unity and grace to each sermon. All his sermons bear the mark of an apologist. The doctrinal and the practical were in his view identical. There is considerable range and variety in the subject matter. They are not commonplace themes. If they are familiar they are discussed with such freshness and individuality of method that they have the interest of novelty.
Three things impress the student of his sermons: the directness of the address, the fullness and free flow of the thought, and the progressive movement of the thought. The subtlety of thought, the skillful dialectic, the expository grace, the seriousness of tone, the strong conviction and earnest feeling make Newman’s sermons a valuable study for preachers of any denomination or age.

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