Christian TraditionsRoman Catholic

John Henry Newman and the Journey of Conversion

“Great acts take time.” – John Henry Newman

        In 1839, Oriel College Fellow John Henry Newman was at the height of his career, both as a member of the Oxford Movement and Anglican priest at St. Mary’s. Within six years time, he had resigned both these posts and preparing to leave Oxford for good, not for retirement, or acceptance of a new job, but because he had converted from the Church of England into the Roman Catholic Church. This paper shall focus on what caused such a change in both the mind and soul of John Henry Newman from the years of 1839 to 1845, as outlined in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua. The chronology of events leading to Newman’s conversion to the Roman Catholic Church reveal a struggle within his soul and intellect of sympathy and affection versus reason, along with other tensions, such as private judgment versus authority, and paper logic versus organic life. These tensions, which are illustrated throughout the Apologia, indicate that Newman’s conversion, much like his Anglican career and involvement in the Oxford Movement, was simultaneously intellectual and spiritual, and both aspects had to be aligned before he could fully join the Catholic Communion.

        The year 1839 brought a dramatic change to Newman’s reputation at Oxford. At the start of 1839, he reached the peak of his career; at the close of the year, he found many of his Anglican convictions shattered, and also found himself pulled between following his affections or his reason. These tensions began with his study of the Monophysites in the summer of 1839. Newman, who greatly appealed to the authority of Antiquity, was shocked to discover a parallel between the modern authority of Rome and the Anglican Church with the authority of the orthodox fifth century Catholic Church over the heretical Monophysites. “My stronghold was Antiquity; now here, in the middle of the fifth century, I found, as it seemed to me, Christendom of the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries reflected,” he wrote[1], and recalls how the veracity and firmness of the Anglican Church came under a shadow of doubt, both spiritually and intellectually. It also made him question the authority of the Church of England, which he saw represented in the Monophysites. Furthermore, it made him question his own orthodoxy: “I saw my face in that mirror, and I was a Monophysite,” and the orthodoxy of the church which he served: “It was difficult to make out how Eutychians or Monophysites were heretics, unless Protestants and Anglicans were heretics also.”[2] Hence, in the summer of 1839, Newman felt both his reason and his spiritual affection pulled towards the Church of Rome.

While Newman’s emotions settled upon conversion at this time, his reason and sense of duties in the Anglican Church and Oxford prevented him from converting in 1839. “I had to determine its logical value, and its bearing upon my duty,” he noted, and further stated that he felt he had more to learn about the Churches.[3] Paper logic here prevents him from joining based on this experience, and then growing further in his conversion while in the Church, and reason prevents him from following his affections and imaginations into the Catholic Church. This must, as demonstrated here, be not only a spiritual conversion for Newman, but also a thoroughly thought out, intellectual conversion.

Newman admits, later on, that his conversion was a slow and arduous process from 1839 to 1845 not just because he had to determine its logical value, but also because, “All the logic in the world would not have made me move faster towards Rome than I did.”[4] Indeed, this had to be an organic growth of his reason and spirit together, rather than a decision made from the argument of paper facts. “It is the concrete being that reasons; pass a number of years, and I find myself in a new place; how? the whole man moves; paper logic is but the record of it.”[5] Hence the major tension present in the long duration of Newman’s conversion was not paper logic versus organic and natural growth, but rather, sympathy versus reason. Since all the logic in the world would not hasten Newman to Rome, he, as he indicated in the Apologia, had to wade through some weighty obstacles to his reason.

For, at this point in 1841 and the following few years, both Rome and England held his reason and sympathies in a terrible tension, which caused great distress in Newman’s soul and mind. He remarked a letter in 1841, “That my sympathies have grown towards the religion of Rome I do not deny; that my reasons for shunning her communion have lessened or altered it would be difficult perhaps to prove. And I wish to go by reason, not by feeling.”[6] Even though he had given up upon the Church of England, and had held affections for Rome for two years at this point, he was afraid to give into his affections for Rome because there were not rooted in reason. Stuck between reason and affection, between Anglicanism and Catholicism, Newman also found himself stuck between authority and his own private judgment. In 1841 he wrote, regarding his desire for the solution of his situation in the union of the Church of England with the Roman communion, “but I do think that there is less of private judgment in going with one’s church, than leaving it.”[7] What kept Newman in the Church of England during these years, despite his realization that the Via Media was not viable, was his belief in the authority of the Church. If the Church of England had misled him, how could he be so certain of the veracity of the authority of Rome? Furthermore, if he rejected the authority of the Church of England, was he relying on his own private judgment, just as the Liberals of his time did? Such questions scourged his soul from 1841-1845, and thus, in 1845, he decided to address the issue of authority to attempt to soothe his soul and work out the intellectual aspects of his conversion, through writing the initial draft of his Essay on Development of Christian Doctrine.

Newman’s long process of converting from the Church of England to the Roman Catholic Church spanned from 1839 to 1845 due to several tensions conflicting his mind and soul. His spirit and intellect were throughout these years constantly torn between reason and affection; he also experienced tension between paper logic and organic growth over time; and his need to resolve the tension of private judgment versus authority eventually led to the composition of his Essay on Doctrine of Development. However, the events that brought forth these tensions, such as his Monophysite in the mirror moment of 1839, his publication of Tract 90 and the bishops’ rejection of it, and his writing of Essay, also allowed him the opportunity to resolve these issues, and eventually join the Roman Catholic Church with a content mind and spirit in 1845.


[1] John Henry Cardinal Newman. Apologia Pro Vita Sua, 114.

[2] Ibid 114.

[3] Ibid 116.

[4] Ibid 158-9.

[5] Ibid 158.

[6] Ibid 175.

[7] Ibid 173.


Laura Norris

Laura Norris

Laura Norris is a Catholic, freelance writer, running coach, and outdoor enthusiast. She holds a master's degree in Theological Studies and now works as a running blogger and coach as, in the words of St. Ignatius Loyola, "a woman for others" in helping others live a healthy life and achieve their goals. She and her husband live on the Eastside of Seattle and spend their time running their own businesses and hiking in the mountains.

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