In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Oxford Movement

  • Introduction
  • Bibliographies
  • Primary Sources
  • Modern Anthologies
  • Theology
  • Worship
  • Sociopolitics of the Oxford Movement
  • University Education
  • Anglican Sisterhoods
  • Sexuality
  • Romanticism
  • Literary Influence
  • Art

Victorian Literature The Oxford Movement
Elisabeth Jay
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 March 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0049


An 1833 bill to suppress a number of Irish bishoprics seemed to threaten the disestablishment of the Church of England. A group of clergy, who regarded the church as something more than either a man-made institution, or the “Church Invisible” of all true believers, sounded the alarm. Spearheaded by Hurrell Froude, John Keble, and Cardinal J. H. Newman (all sometime fellows of Oriel College, Oxford), and later joined by Edward Pusey, the so-called Oxford Movement disseminated their theological views to fellow clergy by means of tracts. Appealing to the teaching of the Catholic Church of Antiquity, they sought for a via media, or middle way, which allowed the interpretation of the doctrines of the Anglican Church, formed at the Reformation, in a spirit compatible with being a true member of the Universal Catholic Church, instituted by Christ and his apostles as a means for God to reveal Himself, and, through the Sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist to impart His grace. Newman’s Tract XC (1841) and his acceptance into the Roman Catholic Church in 1845, severely tested the concept of the via media, but the Movement continued to influence the wider Anglican communion, evolving over the years in response to fresh developments such as Ritualism and Anglo-Catholicism. The Oxford Movement’s distrust of contemporary reformers’ contempt for precedent (“liberalism”); its conviction of the primacy of faith over reason in matters of religious belief; its desire to preserve the mystery and beauty of creation in the face of reductive rationalism; its misgivings about education as a moral panacea, all struck chords with broader 19th-century cultural impulses. In origin, however, the Oxford Movement posed a dogmatic challenge, and subsequent scholarship has often responded combatively and with marked personal investment. Keble’s widely read collection of poems, The Christian Year (1827) predated the Oxford Movement, as did Newman’s famous poem, “Lead, kindly light,” but they remind us that these men used writing as their primary means of communication—their sermons were written, not extempore affairs. Their emphasis on discerning the spirit behind the word, and on reading God through His Creation, predisposed several of the first generation (and some notable followers) to poetry. Their conviction that literature could play an important part in directing minds to God, liberated female followers such as Charlotte Yonge and Christina Rossetti to give complex expression to the notion of silent self-sacrifices as the ideal mode of service for the Christian woman.

General Overviews

In the aftermath of the Oxford Movement’s first phase, generally viewed as defined by Cardinal Newman’s secession from the Anglican Church in 1845, there were a series of accounts by those interested in justifying their own allegiances, or the paths of leaders with whom they had been intimately acquainted. Modern accounts are usually less avowedly partisan but still frequently colored by a personal religious affiliation.

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