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« Trollope, the Church of England, and the Evangelicals | Main | Japan in the Edo Period »

Trollope, the Church of England, and the Oxford Movement

Trollope's six Barset novels, of which THE WARDEN (1855) is the first, take place in an era of perhaps the greatest changes in the history of the church of England. Trollope himself was keenly aware of the conflict, although he himself was a man of nominal faith. Mostly, he was interested in the ways people negotiate social change, social friction. The church provided a unique microcosm.

It was being hit from the "left" and the "right," as it were. Although these terms make little sense based on today's political definitions, we can use them as general guides to mean those who value change over tradition (the left) and those who value tradition over change (the right), with the church of England itself in the middle.

In this post, let's talk about the challenge from the "right"--that is, the Oxford Movement, so named because it began at Oxford and was fronted by a set of dons and priests.

The nut of the whole controversy was the great political reform bills of the early 1830s, the bills that cleaned out most of the rotten boroughs, repealed some of the onerous Corn Laws, and widened the voting rights for many (male) citizens. By and large, these bills at first favored the Whigs at the expense of the Tories (and the House of Commons at the expense of the House of Lords--although the upper house was able to defeat the complete enfranchisement of the Jews several years later).

In the light of the three reform bills, society was liberalizing. And the church felt the brunt of it, as many more people suddenly found themselves with a political voice. While their representatives in Parliament were off afar in London, the people had daily access to their church, itself still considered an arm of the state. They began to work the reform spirit there. And so began the troubles as far up the chain as Canterbury and as far down as the cathedral in Trollope's fictional Barsetshire.

As a response to change, these Oxford dons were trying to return the church to its roots. They began with a theory: that the Church of England was actually one of three great branches of the "true" Christian church, with the Roman Catholic church and the Orthodox church in Constantinople as the other two branches. The church, you see, was tripartite, just as the Trinitarian godhead.

To bring the Church of England back in line with the other two branches, these dons and priests longed to reinstitute older practices, particularly within the liturgy. For example, they believed that the eucharist must be the central element of the church service--not the sermon or the hymns, as was slowly happening in the church because of the rise of evangelicalism (as discussed in the post above). They also believed in a sort of infallibility doctrine for the church. You can see that Archdeacon Grantly is certainly an echo, if not an outright representative, of the Oxford Movement--as is his father, the Bishop. They stand for tradition, although the Archdeacon far more militantly. But they both fear the evangelicals. As Trollope says of the Bishop in chapter 3: He "felt no doubt that John Bold, had he so much power, would shut up all cathedrals and probably all parish churches, [and] distribute all tithes among Methodists, Baptists, and other savage tribes. . . ."

To advance their claims, the Oxford men began writing a series of pamphlets entitled "Tracts for the Times"--and so picked up the nickname the "Tractarians." They were also called "Newmanites" or "Puseyites," after two of their strongest leaders, John Henry Newman and Edward Pusey. (These last two nicknames were considered slurs at the time.)

Newman's fate is indicative of the Oxford Movement. After writing his final tract, #90, he became convinced that this whole notion of the three branches of Christianity was fatally flawed. The end result? He converted to Roman Catholicism. He was quickly ordained a priest in that church--and soon enough became a cardinal. In his wake, many of the Tractarians followed suit--for example, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.

In their converting, the Tractarians quickly lost their influence in the Church of England. Their opponents accused them of simply being clandestine proselytizers. And with the on-going suppression of and unrest in Ireland, such notions didn't play too well back in London, where Protestant feelings were running high--or back in Canterbury, for that matter. Newman himself was sued for libel because of certain lectures he gave on anti-Catholic sentiment at the time. He was forced to pay 100 pounds--although his legal bills mounted to over 14,000 pounds, a shocking sum for the mid-nineteenth century.

One thing we should note in all this: the "right" flank in the struggle within the Church of England was dominated by priests who would be considered to the "left" politically today. While they may have wanted to institute traditional liturgy and even nudge the church closer and closer to Rome, they were proponents of left-leaning political reforms like universal suffrage. This may be because many of the Tracterian priests who remained inside the Anglican church were pushed into small parishes in run-down cities and impoverished towns. They did their work among the poor--and so became political advocates for the downcast.

So it went for one side of the controversy in the church. You'll note that their "three branches theory" left out, oh, a good third of all the Christians in England, Scotland, and Wales at the time--that is, the evangelicals, represented by Quakers, Methodists, Baptists, Anabaptists, and a host of smaller, less discreet "low churchers." (Not to mention the Calvinist Presbyterians.) The evangelical spirit is alive and well in THE WARDEN, mostly in the person of John Bold.

And so on to Trollope--whose question is, how to be true to the liturgy without tipping over into Catholicism. Or better for his purposes, how to uphold tradition while still being a liberal.

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