Oxford Tracts

Oxford Tracts a term applied to certain writings of a clerical party in the Church of England which began to form itself at the University of Oxford in 1833, and which has grown into what is now known as Anglo Catholicism, Sacramentarianism, or. Ritualism.

History. — A conference of certain Anglican theologians, held in July, 1833, laid the foundation of this movement. But this conference was occasioned by preceding events. The state of the English Church in the 18th century was deplorable — a proud, lifeless skeleton. The Wesleyan revival, meeting little sympathy within, had to grow up outside of the Church. Only towards the close of that century did the evangelical spirit find place, and form to itself a party, inside of the Church. This party was intent on practical Christian life rather than on guarding the strict formulae of orthodoxy. Hence it tended to liberalism, both in Church and in state. The political liberalism culminated in reform, particularly in the abolition of the Test Act, in 1828. Parliament was thus opened both to Dissenters and to Catholics. Church reform was now undertaken. The popular voice called for an "adaptation" of the Church to the spirit of the age. Violence occurred at some points. At Bristol the populace burned down the episcopal palace. In 1833 one half of the bishoprics of Ireland were abolished. The very existence of the Church of England seemed to be in danger. It was at this point that the Tractarian party organized itself in order to oppose both the assaults of politics and the inroads of evangelicalism. It was members of the University of Oxford who inaugurated this movement. Oxford, as opposed to Cambridge, the seat of the evangelical party, had remained, to some extent, true to its High- Church reactionary traditions. It was here that the clerical spirit of the past had had its intensest seat. Here the Romanizing tendency of Laud had never entirely died out. Oriel College became the nursery of the new tendency, notwithstanding that a few years previously it had been the seat of a very liberal scientific spirit. To this college now belonged several very gifted young men; among them, John Keble, after 1831 professor of poetry, and author of the much-admired Christian Year; Edward Bouverie Pusey, since 1828 canon of Christ Church and professor of Hebrew; John Henry Newman, fellow and tutor in Oriel; and R. H. Froude. With these co-operated A. P. Perceval, rector at East Horsley. Froude and Perceval first gave form to the movement. Perceval appeared in 1828 in a book — A Christian Peace Offering — aiming to allay the prejudices of the Anglicans against the Romanists. He argues that the differences between Anglicans and Romanists are not essential, and that the Roman is a true branch of the one Catholic Church. The debate as to the sacrament is mostly a battle of words. The two churches hold equally to the real presence; but the Roman errs in undertaking to explain the mode of this presence. The mode should be left to private .judgment; but the laity should have the communion in both kinds. As to the mass, the English articles only deny that at each celebration of the Eucharist Christ suffers afresh the tortures of the cross; but that is not the real sense of the Romish doctrine. It speaks only of an unbloody offering, and holds that, in some sense, the Eucharist is a sacrifice. Petitions to angels and to saints, and prayer for the dead, as also the veneration of relics, are per se harmless, but easily lead to misuse; hence their restriction or prohibition is justifiable. Purgatory, though not based on Scripture nor taught by the early fathers, is not to be condemned. Auriicular confession and indulgences are ancient customs, whose loss the Anglican Church regrets. Though not a complete substitute for the strict discipline of the primitive Church, they are much preferable to the lack of discipline which disgraces the English Church. As to justification, the Romish Church teaches not that man is justified by works alone, but only that none is justified by works that are done without grace through Christ. Both the Romish and the Protestant churches teach that the sins of him who repents are forgiven through Christ; hence on this point they do not essentially differ. But works of supererogation (they are not mentioned by the Council of Trent) are to be rejected. The Church is infallible thus far, that whatever objective error she may temporarily formulate, yet the people who faithfully follow her decisions infallibly attain to salvation. The significance of this doctrine is as a safeguard against promiscuous rationalism. A limitation of private judgment is to be preferred to such danger. Every branch of the true Church is superior to rulers in spiritual things; but the temporal claims of the pope are illegitimate. As thus viewed by Perceval, the Romish errors are mere excrescences which can readily be thrown off without seriously affecting the Church. The English Church is simply a branch of this Church in temporary schism. He looks for a reunion. But he is all the more severe against Dissenters. What error of Romanism is half so serious as the breaking up of the unity of the Church by the Independents, the rejection of infant baptism by Baptists? And what are all possible papal errors in comparison with the horrible, godless doctrine of a Decretum absolutum! But Froude, an earnest, logical, ascetically pious and very gifted young man, went even farther than Perceval. At first inclined to rationalism, he came finally to the view that while reason is able to judge and compare given ideas, it is dependent on the Church for the ideas themselves. But where is the Church? An examination of the formation of the English Church convinced him that it was far from being the sole true Church. Its founders had been governed too much by arbitrary caprice in their so-called reform of the old Church. The true criterion of the Church is the ancient rule: "Quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus." The Church of the first centuries alone is true to this rule. From it there is no dissent. To it must all modern churches go back, for doctrine, for rites, and for constitution. At first Froude hoped for reconciliation with the Romish Church; but a visit to Rome convinced him that it had fallen far from the primitive pattern. So was it largely also with the actual Anglican Church. The reformers of this Church had given up the divine right of the Church, had substituted preaching in the place of the sacraments as a means of grace, had eliminated the essential sacrificial element from the Eucharist; in a word, had retained only the merest crumbs of the apostolic preaching. But he found comfort in the assumption that the formulae of the Anglican Church are capable of being construed into the sense of the true primitive Church. Accordingly he insisted on celibacy, fasting, retirement from the world, and veneration for sacred things and places. He also looked on the revival of monkish orders as the best means of Christianizing the masses. In one respect he differed from most Ritualists. He insisted on the entire separation of the Church from state control. The friends of Froude at first went not so far as he in their disavowal of the Reformation. The Anglican Church had indeed been badly maimed by the Reformers; but, after all, it was the truest of all the severed branches, and, by proper culture, might yet be made to bear the good fruit of the original stock. But they saw in Froude's ideal primitive Church the sole goal of all their efforts, and in submission to Church discipline the sole remedy for rationalism.

While this little circle of devout ascetics was forming itself and shaping its ideal, the spirit of reform in the political world was moving in the opposite direction. The inherent rights of the bishops were in danger of being undermined. The Tractarians determined to stand in the breach. Their first endeavor was to indoctrinate the laity as to the inalienable rights of the Church as such. Three points were made prominent: The idea of the Church; the importance of the sacraments; the significance of the priestly office. These points were developed in popular catechetical form, and published under the title The Churchman's Manual in 1833. While this was in preparation Parliament abolished ten of the Irish bishoprics. This gave impulse to a conference at Hadleigh, July 25-29, of Hugh Rose, Froude, Keble, Newman, and Perceval, in view of a revision of the Manual. and of concerted action in defence of the Church. The action agreed upon was directed to two points — to develop the significance of apostolical succession, which had been ruthlessly ignored in the abolition of the Irish bishoprics, and to defend the orthodox interpretation of the Prayer-book against the Socinian views which the action of Parliament implied. In September Keble prepared a programme of action for the party, stating the doctrinal reforms they aimed at, and the means agreed upon to effect the end. The Churchman's Manual may be regarded as a sort of confession of faith of the party. It was sent to all the Scottish bishops, and was warmly welcomed by them and others. The archbishop of Canterbury (Dr. Howley) refused it his official sanction, but did not object to its publication. This Manual is "the first tract put forth to meet the exigencies of the times." Upon it followed ninety other small treatises, under the general title "Tracts for the Times." Hence the name of the party — Tractarians.

The Tracts (1833-1841). — Though the tracts were the chief missionary agency of the party, their views found also expression in poetry, tales, review articles, and sermons. Keble and Newman wrote the most of the tracts. Pusey wrote several of the most important. The first tract proper appeared Sept. 9 1833; by November, 1835, seventy had appeared, making two volumes. Most of them were original essays, though some were extracts from earlier writers. The later tracts were more lengthy and thorough, the last twenty making four volumes. At first these tracts were almost universally welcomed. They carefully respected the Prayer-book, and defended the rights of the clergy. They were an opportune ally of the establishment in a time of danger. They raised to fresh life the old High Church party, and vigorously assailed evangelicals and dissenters. But the evangelical Church party soon became alarmed. The Christian Observer, in March, 1834, charged the Tractarians with being Romanists. Newman resented the charge in his Via media (tracts 38, 41), arguing that not his party, but the opposers had fallen away from the idea of the primitive Church, and declaring that the Thirty-nine Articles needed to be supplemented by a protest against Erasmianism and latitudinarianism, and by an additional article on the sacrediless of the priesthood. In 1836 the Tractarians involved themselves in a violent personal strife. Dr. Hampden, a Broad Churchman, was nominated by the crown to a professorship of moral philosophy at St. Mary's Hall, Oxford. The Tractarians used petitions and all other practicable means to prevent the confirmation. Dr. Thomas Arnold sprang to the help of Hampden in the Edinburgh Review (April, 1836). It was the signal to a general attack. The Tractarian movement became the order of the day. Though defeated in the Hampden matter, they lost none of their courage nor zeal. In 1838 they began a series of translations from the fathers, entitled "A Library of the Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church anterior to the Division of the East and West." The Bible is the foundation of the apostolical doctrine, but the fathers are the channel through which it has come down to us — so says the Preface. In 1837, and later, some of the tracts showed a marked advance towards Rome. Rev. Isaac Williams, in tract 80, enjoined "reserve" in the communication of religious truths. It was an effort to revive the Romish Disciplina arcani; it discountenanced the preaching of all doctrines to the general public, as also the promiscuous distribution of the Bible. This and similar tracts excited general dismay. It was in vain that Pusey, in a letter to the bishop of Oxford, attempted to deny the Romanizing tendency. Keble wrote tracts in the same vein as Williams. The Tractarians in general had taught their followers to look indulgently on the errors of Rome, and to bewail the Reformation as a blunder. What wonder, then, that certain young enthusiasts were on the point of actually going over to Rome? To prevent this consummation Newman wrote the 90th tract. It was a most ingenious piece of sophistry, the point of which was to make it easy for the conscience to subscribe to the Thirty-nine Articles, and yet hold firmly all the essentials of Romanism. No other essay from the whole school made such a sensation as this. The Thirty-nine Articles had always been looked upon as a breastwork against all the errors of popery. This breastwork was now riddled through and through, and a free way opened for the influx of the whole host of papal errors. Shortly after the appearance of tract 90 Oxford became alarmed. A session of the university authorities declared that the tracts were in no wise officially sanctioned by the university, and that a subscription of the Thirty-nine Articles in the sense taught in tract 90 was utterly contrary to the' spirit of subscription. Also the bishop of Oxford (hitherto friendly to the party) sent a message to Newman, censuring the tract in question, and forbidding their further publication. Other prelates joined in the condemnation. Newman yielded; and the tracts ceased to appear. A host of hostile writings was now set afloat. The evangelical party saw all its fears realized: the Tractarians were at the threshold of Rome.

The Perverts. — It seemed a heavy stroke for the Tractarians that their tracts were now prohibited, and that most of the prelates had turned against them. But this very crisis was a help to their cause; it occasioned a sifting of the party, throwing out the half-hearted elements, and drawing the genuine Anglo-Catholics into closer ranks. The general drift of the school disapproved of Newman's crypto-Romanism. Perceval, in 1842, in a book, A Collection of Papers connected with the Theological Movement, etc., divided the Tractarian doctrines into two classes: the common teaching, and the private views of certain individuals. The first class embraced four points: apostolic succession, baptismal regeneration, the eucharistic sacrifice, and the infallibility of councils called according to the canons of 1571. To the second class belonged five opinions: turning towards the east in prayer, the purification of souls in the middle state, Pusey's view of sin after baptism, Williams's reservatio, and Keble's notion of mystical interpretation of Scripture. The first four points constituted the golden centre of the Tractarian school. Pusey and Keble diverged slightly towards Rome; and farther still stood Newman, W. G. Ward, and many younger disciples. When, now, the official condemnation of Newman's tract 90 tended to drive the extremists back towards the centre, some had already gone too far to regain their equilibrium. In a sermon in May, 1843, Pusey taught transubstantiation so clearly that the authorities suspended his preaching for two years. Soon thereafter his assistant teacher in Hebrew, Seager, went over to Rome. The next important case was Ward. He had taught in the British Critic, a quarterly that went down in 1843, and in the Ideal of a Christian Church, 1844, the most offensive Romish views — Mariolatry and mental reservation in subscribing the Thirty-nine Articles. A '"convocation" at Oxford degraded him from his university rights, and expelled him. In September, 1845, he went over to Rome. Newman thereupon clearly saw that a mid-position between Anglicanism and Rome was no longer practicable. lie resigned his position, and followed Ward. Newman's act was the signal for a host. Oakley, fellow of Baliol, and priest of St. Margaret's, London, followed. Other perverts were: Collyns, chief pastor at St. Mary's, Oxford; the poet F. W. Faber, rector of Elton;. Thompson, pastor of St. Marylebone; Gordon, priest of Christ Church, Regent's Park. By December, 1846, not less than 150 clergymen and eminent laymen had become Romanists.

It was not merely doctrines, however, but rites also that caused trouble. Several Romish usages were silently and gradually introduced into many churches. These things alarmed the public. The press resounded the cry, "No Popery!" Counteractive societies were formed. An incident gave impulse to a general attack. One Gorham was nominated to a parish in the diocese of Exeter. The High-Church bishop, Dr. Philpotts, opposed his appointment on the ground that he denied baptismal regeneration. After manifold protests and appeals, Gorham's views were justified by the highest tribunal. This spread consternation among the AngloCatholics. The Church, said they, is surrendered to heresy, and that too by a court of laymen. How can she longer be a guardian of orthodoxy! It was now feared that the Sacramentarians would in a body go over to Rome. But the bishops of Exeter and Oxford exhorted to patience and hope. This, however, came too late for some: Palmer, a chief Tractarian, had sought. communion with the Greek Church; Maskell, priest in Exeter, had come to the conviction that, with the exception of the Trinity, the English Church had not a single settled doctrine; Dr. Townsend, of Durham, had sought audience with the pope, and prayed for the call of a council. Others, in deeper despair. had set out to colonize New Zealand, in hope of there realizing their Church ideal. While this agitation was in progress, England was awakened and astonished by the news, in October, 1850, that the pope had raised Dr. Wiseman to the dignity of cardinal and archbishop of Westminster, and distributed England into twelve bishoprics. Nothing, however, but regrets and disapproval were possible. The pope had acted uncanonically, said the Tractarians, since England possesses already a sufficiency of Catholic bishops. But this papal action was severely felt by the Tractarian party: it rendered the Romish Church more inviting and aristocratic, and attracted many of their members into its bosom, especially from the higher classes. By Christmas, 1852, no less than 200 clergymen and more than as many laymen had gone over to the Romish communion. The assumptions of Romanism and the political agitation combined to check the extreme High-Church bishops in their patronage of innovations. The bishops of Exeter, of Oxford, of Bath-Wells, and the archbishop of Canterbury, assumed a more conservative position, protested against the arrogance of Rome, and counselled their clergy to beware of giving deeper offence. But these counsels were poorly heeded. The leaven of sacramentarianism had been too widely sown. It continued to work, and silently to gain ground. Romanizing ritualism more or less pronounced spread far and wide. Auricular confession was introduced in some parishes. In a few cases priests were silenced for indulging in it. This feature is very distasteful to the English sense of personal honor, and has contributed largely to moderate the Tractarian advance. By the end of the year 1862 the whole number of clergymen who had gone over to Rome amounted to about 300.

Tractarian Doctrine. — The basal principle of the system is salvation through the sacraments. The formal principle is the exclusive authority of the visible Church. But what of the Protestant principle of justification by faith? Faith, so teaches Pusey, does not justify, but simply brings us to God, who freely justifies us by grace. In this faith lie- other elements, as repentance, hatred of sin, hope of forgiveness. It is the repentant, humble, earnest faith that justifies; and this. faith is wrought in us by God. Justification implies two acts on the part of God: the declaring of the soul just, and the making of it what it is declared to be; The first is an actus Dei forensis, the second a justitia infesa. This double act is essentially but one. God imputes not to us righteousness, but imparts it. In baptism, righteousness is given in germ. It grows by the use of the means of grace. We are justified before works; but works are germinally involved in faith. God rewards each according to his works; hence works stand in relation to the reward of grace. According to this view justification is essentially a habitus infusus, and faith is the grace-life produced by the justitia infusa. This is essentially the Romish view, save that works are not regarded as meritorious, but only as a manifestation of the inner faith. Faith, as appropriating God's grace, has no place in this view; all depends upon a mystical infusion of the divine life. Baptism regenerates, that is, the regularly administered rite is the means through which God works regeneration. In the Eucharist the bread and wine become really, but Iwr a spiritual manner, the body and blood of Christ; and Christ, as so present, imparts himself to the believer as spiritual food, unto salvation. The consecrated elements are not Christ, but Christ is present in them. The Tractarians adore not the consecrated bread and wine, but Christ as specially present in them. The Church, as the organic body founded by Christ, and perpetuated by apostolic succession, is the sole mediator of grace, inasmuch as she alone can validly administer the sacraments. The Church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. But the attributes of unity and sanctity may suffer eclipse in times of schism and misfortune. The Church, as an organism derived by direct succession from Christ, is supreme authority in spiritual matters. Her helps are the Scriptures as interpreted by patristic tradition. But as both Bible and tradition admit of different interpretations, hence it is ultimately to the autonomy of the Church that the believer must look for infallible guidance. The grace and truth that were in Christ passed over to the apostles, and thence to the bishops. The unity of the bishops finds expression in general councils; and the embodiment of the councils lies in the recognised primacy of the successor of Peter. Thus tractarianism, when followed out, leads to Rome. As a school of, theology, tractarianism is a revived scholasticism. It is purely realistic and unspeculative. Truth is to be sought for not by processes of thought, but by consulting authorities. It is objectively existent, and needs only to be looked for. As a form of Church life, tractarianism is esthetic, earnest, active, contemplative, constructive. Regarding itself as the visible manifestation of a divine institution, it lays great stress on the outward form of the Church life upon architecture, ceremonies, manners, and daily conduct. With all its narrowness and errors, it has infused an entirely new spiritual life into what was once the very staid, cold life of the High-Church party in the Church of England. It has also in the same way affected the Protestant Episcopal Church in America.

Quite recently the ritual innovations of the Tractarians have been repeatedly opposed by legal prosecution. The points involved are the eastward posture of the celebrant of the Eucharist, lights on the altar, incense, the mixed chalice, and unleavened bread (wafer). A case in 1867 against Westerton failed. Cases in 1868 and 1869 against Mackonochie and Purchas led to little result. The case against Bennett for the most extreme ritualistic practices resulted in Bennett's favor. This decision of the Court of Arches was appealed by the judicial committee to the Privy Council; but in 1872 the Privy Council dismissed the appeal. Other later attempts of the same nature have also failed of result. So at present the ritualists have pretty nearly' all the liberty of action they could desire.

See Tracts of the Times (1834); Froude, Remains (1838); Perceval, Christian Peace Offering (1828), and his Collection of Papers (1842); Wiseman, High-Church Claims (i841); Weaver, View of Puseyismn (1843); Dublin Review, Sept. 1843; Quart. Review, May, 1843; Palmer, Narrative (1843); Newman. Essay on Miracles (1843); Ward, Ideal (1844); Bishop M'Ilvaine, Oxford Divinity (1841); Gladstone, Church Principles (1840); Alexander, Anglo-Catholicism (1843); Taylor, Ancient Christianity (1844); Goode, Rule of Faith; many articles in the Edinburgh Review after 1843; Herzog, Real Encyklop. art. Tractarianismus; Lond. Quart. Rev. Oct. 1874, art. 8; Pye-Smith, Introd. to Theol. (see Index), Hagenbach, Hist. of Doctrines (see Index); Brit. and For. Rev. (1844), p. 528 sq. Buchanan, Justf; Farrar, Crit. Hist. of Free Thought, p. 424.

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