Fr. James Pereiro’s new history of the Victorian Church examines a much-neglected element of the Oxford Movement’s central tenets.  Ethos, he contends, was the key component in the development of a complex theory of knowledge that Tractarians—named after the movement’s “Tracts for the Times”—would adopt as their own.  The idea was conceived by Anglican priest and poetry professor John Keble, based on his reading of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Bishop Butler’s Analogy.  It was quickly adopted and further developed by fellow Tractarian leaders Richard Hurrell Froude and John Henry Newman.

In the process of explaining the meaning and significance of ethos, Pereiro introduces a figure who he believes has not received enough attention.  Samuel Francis Wood, a gifted student of Newman, played an important role in the movement by formulating a theory of doctrinal development that made a significant impact on his former tutor’s intellectual trajectory.  Along the way, we learn of another neglected aspect of Tractarian history: the activities of laymen, like Wood, who carried on the cause in London while the more famous members continued their work at Oxford.

The movement itself was formed for the purpose of countering the influence of religious liberalism or rationalism within the Church of England.  The events that precipitated it were the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts of 1828 and Catholic Emancipation in 1829, followed by the suppression of a number of Irish dioceses in 1833.  The rationalizing principles that guided government action betrayed a dangerous spirit of religious indifference and were seen to threaten the Church of England.  According to Pereiro, Newman reacted to Wood’s theory of doctrinal development by warning him in 1838 of the “dangers of theorizing.”  Newman recorded in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864) how he recoiled years before at seeing the tricolor flag of a French ship during a Mediterranean voyage.  His Burkean revulsion toward abstract theorizing would stay with him his entire life.  He would admit, for instance, that in matters of intellectual debate, “[a]bstract argument is always dangerous.”  “I prefer to go by facts,” he added in A Grammar of Assent (1870).  Yet through the influence of such men as Wood and Froude, Newman was able to arrive at an understanding of how the Church is to treat revelation over time, without abandoning his own insight into the dangers of intellectual abstractions.

Indeed, the well-documented account of Newman’s embrace of the notion of doctrinal development is one of the most notable contributions Pereiro’s book makes to Newman studies.  While Froude was open to the idea that the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church might have been “a development of the Apostolic ethos,” Newman first believed that only error was capable of development.  During this same period, Wood was developing his own argument for doctrinal development, which Newman and Henry Edward Manning—future Catholic convert and archbishop of Westminster—opposed at the time, only to reverse course years later.  Newman thought that doctrines not found in Scripture and antiquity are traditions of men.  Wood argued that the result of Newman’s principles would be “not merely to refer us to antiquity but to shut us up in it.”  The Church must gradually and carefully exercise authority given to Her by “taking the divine word for her guide, and proceeding in the course which is natural to the mind . . . evolve, comment on, and exhibit the whole counsel of God.”  Deprived of Her ability to develop a greater and more profound understanding of divine revelation, beyond the comprehension of the Fathers and the limited exposition found in Scripture, She would be defenseless against error and powerless to defend orthodox teaching against heresies.

Newman’s decision to accept doctrinal development did more than convince him to become a Roman Catholic in 1845.  It transformed the theoretical basis of his conservatism.  He did, in fact, embrace a vision of Tradition that was more dynamic than static, more capable of responding in creative ways to heterodox teaching.  Newman would famously say in his Development of Christian Doctrine (1845) that “to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”  Christian truths do not change, but our understanding of them deepens over time under the protection of the Church guided by the Holy Ghost.

Soon after his conversion, while at the College of Propaganda in Rome, Newman wrote in his diary an assessment of the Jesuit priests he encountered there.  Despite the conspiratorial Protestant literature against the Jesuits, Newman found them to be disappointingly lacking in “tact, shrewdness, worldly wisdom, sagacity, all those talents for which they are celebrated in the world.”  While some were clever, the group as a whole lacked originality and the intelligence needed to “create anything positive for the wants of the times.”  They appeared to be “plodding, methodical, unromantic,” while possessing a “deep suspicion of change.”  They were unthinking “conservatives” reminiscent of Keble at the time of the Whig Reform Bill of 1831 as well as Froude, “before his eyes were opened to see through the hollowness of the then so called Toryism.”  Burke once wrote that “a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.”  By adopting a more Catholic ecclesiology, Newman was able to apply this principle of conservatism to the Church.

Pereiro aptly explains the significance of long-neglected documents and ignored passages in well-known manuscripts.  One of these neglected documents is the contemporary history of the Oxford Movement written by Wood at the request of Newman and Edward Pusey, who succeeded Froude upon his death in 1836.  Wood’s Revival of Primitive Doctrine underscores the Tractarians’ claim that they were giving a much-needed boost to the Anglican Church, which had lost her vigor and direction.  In recent years, this Tractarian claim has been challenged by Peter Nockles, who argued that High Churchmen were much more influential in the early 19th century.  However, Pereiro effectively answers Nockles with testimony from both evangelical and High Church commentators of the day who saw the Anglican Church in crisis with no clear relief in sight.  Wood’s account helps to illustrate the difference between High Churchmanship and the Oxford Movement.  Unlike High Churchmen, the Oxford Movement sought to revive a Catholic ethos by recovering the doctrine and practice of primitive Christianity.  That ethos contributed significantly to their epistemology.

Keble followed Aristotle and Butler in arguing that moral goodness plays a central role in forming an accurate understanding of right and wrong.  In matters of religion, the moral sense can correct intellectual deficiencies.  The Catholic ethos was understood to be a moral temper involving openness to God’s actions in the soul.  This requires a humility of mind and heart rather than the self-sufficiency of rationalism or the righteous confidence of private judgment.  Through an openness to God’s guidance, the intellect would become receptive to the light of truth, and grace would be sufficiently abundant to make possible the soul’s discovery of the proper path.  “We have nothing to hope or fear,” Newman wrote in 1837, “from Whig or Conservative Governments . . . We must trust our own ethos.”

Pereiro’s book is the result of extensive archival research and a thorough knowledge of the primary and secondary sources.  Brief biographies of more obscure figures are included in footnotes to assist the nonspecialist.  The letters of Wood to Newman and Manning on doctrinal development are reprinted in the Appendix together with his history of Tractarianism, all accompanied by Pereiro’s helpful notes.  Here is a fine work of history by a scholar who treats the past with the care and respect it deserves.


[“Ethos” and the Oxford Movement: At the Heart of Tractarianism, by James Pereiro (New York: Oxford University Press) 271 pp., $150.00]