The death of Cardinal Newman – archive, 1890

Portrait of John Henry Newman by Emmeline Deane (1858-1944).

Portrait of John Henry Newman by Emmeline Deane (1858-1944). Photograph: De Agostini via Getty Images

The venerable Cardinal Newman expired at the Oratory, Birmingham, last night, after a brief illness. He was in his ninetieth year, and the immediate cause of his death was an attack of pneumonia. His death has created a profound and universal feeling of sorrow.


A leader is fallen in Israel. Cardinal Newman died yesterday at Birmingham, in the “Oratory” which had been his home for forty years, and with him passes away one of the greatest Englishmen, and beyond all question the greatest master of the English language, of our time.

It is not quite half a century since the Fellow of Oriel and Rector of Littlemore was received by Father Dominic, the Passionist, into the Church of Rome. Since then he has attained to the highest dignities, save one, which his Church could bestow, and it is impossible to exaggerate the effect which his lofty intellect and still loftier character have had upon the current English estimate of English Roman Catholicism. It is not that he has in the least converted Englishmen either from their Protestantism or their Liberalism; but he has made it impossible for educated persons to dismiss the religion he possessed as a farrago of absurdities not worth examining, and he has made it difficult for a rational Protestant to assert that Mr Spugeon, say, has apprehended “the truth” in some preeminent way denied to the author of the “Apologia.”

John Henry Newman, circa 1888.
 John Henry Newman, circa 1888. Photograph: Herbert Barraud/Getty Images

The current English view of Roman Catholicism used to be somewhat insular and provincial, and it is mainly owing to Cardinal Newman that it has become less so. And the curious thing it that he won this victory over stubborn British prepossessions without losing the goodwill of the people whom he was constantly opposing and sometimes gently ridiculing. We have to remember that, even more than Protestantism, Liberalism was regarded by Newman as the enemy, and that the whole tone and temper of our time, with its breaking down of castes and classes, its throwing open of Oxford endowments to men of any creed or none, its determination to make this life worth living for the “common man,” its democratic bent, its principle of government not merely for the people but by the people, and its strong secular turn – using the word in no offensive sense – in all things, were absolutely alien and even abhorrent to him. It is often said that Catholic countries abroad are inferior to non-Catholic countries in all the elements of material prosperity. Newman did not care to inquire whether the charge was true or not. His answer was that “the Church considers the action of this world and the action of the soul simply incommensurate, viewed in their respective spheres; she would rather save the soul of one single wild bandit of Calabria, or whining beggar of Palermo, than draw a hundred lines of railroad through the length of Italy, or carry out a sanitary reform in its fullest details in every city of Sicily, except so far as these great national works tended to some spiritual good beyond them.”

And yet this preacher of authority, this contemner of private judgment, and this mocker of all the mere material progress on which the age seemed exclusively bent, was never unpopular in England. Somehow it was felt that he was very English himself, with all his insistence upon a point of view with which the mass of Englishmen had little sympathy, and that he was anything rather than a mere foreign ecclesiastic who did not understand us. It was not an accident that made a book of Newman’s the favourite of Gordon’s last hours. There was something congenial in him – as well, no doubt, as something that repelled – all deeply religious souls, whatever their differences might be. And then, it is perhaps impossible for Englishmen to feel unkindly towards such a master of their tongue. But whatever the reasons, the fact remains. Englishmen were proud of the great Cardinal; they had even a certain affection for him; and few among them but will mourn his loss.

The Guardian, 12 August 1890.
 The Guardian, 12 August 1890. Click to read the article in full.