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John Wesley, Catholic forerunner?

In 1840, John Henry Newman reviewed The Life and Times of Selina, Countess of Huntingdon for the British Critic (W.E. Painter, 1839), the quarterly journal he edited. Regarding the life of one of the great leaders of the 18th-century evangelical revival, Newman praised Selina Hastings’s devotion and that of her fellow Methodists, amid the “imbecile policy of the Establishment of the day.” Newman claimed that he would much rather say, “Sit anima mea cum Westleio” (“My soul is with Wesley”), than “cum Luthero” or “cum Calvino” or many other possible clever Latin tags. As for the Establishment, Newman wrote elsewhere,

Who would not rather be found even with Whitfield and Wesley, than with ecclesiastics whose life is literary ease at the best, whose highest flights attain but to Downing Street or the levee?

Nevertheless, Newman used the review to show how the Countess of Huntingdon’s life and career confirmed his Tractarian beliefs. Her Calvinist biographer surely feared the “leaven of Popery” but described her in terms of “saint-worship.” The countess set aside ecclesiastical authorities only to become very much like the bishop of a group of Methodists. Further, Newman concluded by claiming that everything good in Methodism had come from the established Church of England, and, presumably, could still be found there. To Newman, there was nothing new or irreplaceable in Methodism. (I leave others to explore the implications of such a view, at a time when Episcopalians and Methodists are considering a more formal union.)

Thus, Newman claimed that, despite the earnest devotion of the Countess of Huntingdon and her fellow Methodists, Methodism was a formal heresy. “We hope nothing,” Newman declared, to come from Methodism, and he expected its eventual “termination.” Given his dire prognosis, it’s somewhat striking, much later, to read Newman’s claims that the Countess of Huntingdon’s sympathetic biographer would surely misinterpret Newman’s theology as “unscriptural or Pelagian,” and that evangelical writers generally misinterpreted other theologies, only applauding “when others approached them in this or that point.” We might turn this acid criticism back against Newman. Perhaps he would be surprised to learn that there are still Methodists 177 years after the publication of his review. Whatever the struggles, there isn’t a clear “termination” in sight.


As Peter Nockles (2015) has shown in a recent essay, the relationship between evangelicals, Methodist or otherwise, and Tractarians was complicated, and more than a bit tragic, given their many similarities. One of Newman’s students, Samuel Francis Wood, called the Oxford Movement a “revival” in the same year that Newman reviewed the life of the Countess of Huntingdon. Many figures in the Oxford Movement had had evangelical formations, including Newman. There are identifiable bridge figures between evangelicalism and Tractarianism, such as the Irish High Churchman, Alexander Knox. Both movements used literary forms of expression, including spiritual autobiographies. And both movements experienced deep tension with an “Establishment of the day” that, “imbecile policy or not,” was all too quick to see new and disturbing forms of enthusiasm in them.

Of course, there were (and remain) theological differences, not least regarding soteriology. Newman believed that one could only “fear and hope” of salvation, never be assured of it. And, as for Methodist preaching, Thomas Mozley wrote of his fellow Tractarian, Newman:

It would not have suited his nature or his habits to go about from town to town, telling the people everywhere they were in bad hands and take care of themselves, forming them into communities and putting ministers over them.

But the real tragedy in the relationship between evangelicalism and Tractarianism is that both seemed incapable of understanding the other as anything more than a predictable character in an already complete theological narrative. What was good in the other was already present elsewhere. What was bad was simply more of the same, whether a mysteriously revivified Catholic “Pelagianism” or yet another variation of heresy leading to inevitable “termination.” So, to evangelicals, Tractarianism always seemed perilously “Romanizing.” For Newman, as Nockles writes, the danger of the evangelical preoccupation with feelings is that it was “vulnerable to sliding into the Rationalist mindset of taking as one’s spiritual center oneself and not one’s Maker, of bringing God to oneself rather than oneself to God.”

Some of these fears could be warranted. After all, Newman became a Roman Catholic, and “evangelical disenchantment” did happen, not least to Newman’s brother. But this did not have to be the case. To this day, there are Anglo-Catholics who are not Roman Catholics, and evangelical Anglicans and Methodists who are not perched on the edge of theological liberalism.

The emergence of two similar yet different “revivals” — that of Wesley in the 18th century and that of Newman in the 19th — may have occurred in the first place because of the pull of a particular ecclesial narrative: anti-Catholicism. That bridge figure, Alexander Knox, had written in 1816, “The dread of Popery, and the consequent prejudice against everything vulgarly branded with that stigma, is even more powerful now than when England was alarmed by the prospect of the Spanish match.”

Because of that “dread,” the Church of England had paid too little attention to the “interior effects of religion,” which had consequently been emphasized by the Methodists. Knox would also write that the “dread of transubstantiation has made the sacrament a ceremony; and, to ward off infallibility, every man has been encouraged to shape a creed for himself.” The response to that, in large part, would be Tractarianism.

As Knox would write, we can injure what we mean to defend through making it one-sided, or narrow and provincial. Perhaps that was the effect of anti-Catholicism on the Church of England. The tragedy is that those who meant to correct the resulting deficiencies, however divergently, could not perceive a lasting value in one another or even their similarities.

Nockles notes that Newman was only able to appreciate his early evangelicalism when he became Roman Catholic and saw Church of England conflicts from a safe distance — as “an external affair.” Newman’s most generous treatment of evangelical figures such as Thomas Scott of Sandford — from whom he had learned, among other things, “Growth is the only evidence of life” — is in his Apologia pro vita sua, published a quarter-century after his ambivalent review of the life of the Countess of Huntingdon.

As we remember John Wesley, what might be the lesson for us in all of this, tragic or otherwise?

This is the year in which many Christians will commemorate the Reformation. Several years ago, the late Catholic ecumenist Jeffrey Gros (2012), to prepare for the quincentennial, noted that ecumenism had to involve a church’s entire hermeneutics. Otherwise, even the best-crafted ecumenical document could be subject to misinterpretation. (Brother Gros noted that some German Lutherans found it “impossible to understand” how Catholics could celebrate a jubilee indulgence after the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, even though the thorny issue of indulgence was not even discussed in the text.) As part of this hermeneutic work, Brother Gros suggested a collaborative writing of church history, especially of those moments that “have taken on the character of identity markers,” so that they ultimately may become “reconcilable moments.”

What is true between churches may be true within churches. As we remember John Wesley, the lesson might be that Methodists, evangelical Anglicans, and Anglo-Catholics have to write history prayerfully and humbly, but, most of all, collaboratively, rather than an as expression of sibling rivalry.

Some may have to try to say, “Sit anima mea cum Westleio,” and still others, “Sit anima mea cum Newmano.”


J. Gros, “A hermeneutics of history for an ecumenical future,” One in Christ,46:1 (2012), pp. 124-37.

J. Hornby (ed.), Remains of Alexander Knox, Esq. (J. Duncan, 1834).

J.H. Newman, Essays, Critical and Historical (Longman, 1902 [1872]).

P. Nockles, “The Oxford Movement and Evangelicalism: Parallels and contrasts in two nineteenth century movements of religious revival,” Perfecting Perfection: Essays in honor of Henry D. Rack, ed. by R. Webster (Pickwick, 2015), pp. 233-59.


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