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A record left by John Henry Newman helped a scholar follow him through his library


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John Burger - published on 07/15/19

We now know what books he was reading when, and how they influenced his conversion to Catholicism.

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These days, more and more people are concerned about how much data is collected about them—from their use of smart phones to their visits to websites to where they’ve used their credit cards.

It might surprise people that a similar thing was happening in 19th-century England.

And that proved handy for Kenneth Parker, who devoted 25 years to study an aspect of the life of John Henry Newman, the English theologian who will be declared a saint later this year.

Parker is about to release the results of his research, just in time for the October 13 canonization of Blessed John Henry Newman. That research involved literally retracing Newman’s steps in his college library, thanks to the “data” Parker was able to mine.

After studying at Oxford’s Trinity College, Newman became a tutor at that university’s Oriel College, and soon became an Anglican clergyman. For 17 years he was vicar of the university church, St. Mary the Virgin.

“He became disenchanted with reformed theology and the way it presented God and the way it presented the way human beings respond to God because he found that it just didn’t line up with his experience of working with his parishioners in a parish context,” said Parker, the Ryan Endowed Chair for Newman Studies at Duquesne University.

It was around this time that he was influenced by a group of theologians known as the Caroline Divines. “Caroline” refers to the fact that they lived in the time of King Charles I and II (Carolus in Latin), and “divine” is an archaic word for theologian.

Parker, who completed a doctorate at Cambridge in 1984, wanted to know exactly when Newman began reading these scholars.

“These were Anglican theologians who took very seriously the ancient Catholic tradition and were trying to draw that into the Church of England more intentionally, in the 17th century,” he said in an interview. “But how do you find out when a particular person starts reading a particular set of authors? I went first to [Newman’s] letters and diaries … but he didn’t keep a list of the books he read or when he read them.”

The son of a librarian, Parker thought to ask the Oriel College library if there might be any record of what books Newman borrowed while he was living there. And in fact, there was.

“Starting about a year after Newman became a Fellow at Oriel, there was a register that the Fellows used to record when they took a book out,” said Parker. “When they returned it they wrote their name in. The bad news was that they didn’t record the name of the author and the title of the book.” They simply wrote in the “shelfmark,” or call number. Books were since then reassigned call numbers and moved to different parts of the library. “And so that’s why it took about 25 years and multiple trips to Oxford.”

Parker said that apart from a few illegible entries, he was able to track down over 800 entries, spanning from 1824 to 1842. That didn’t mean 800 books, as some of them were borrowed multiple times, and Newman simultaneously was building his own private library. But it gave Parker a floor plan from which to explore further.

“I felt sometimes like I was walking behind him because I would be following him from shelf to shelf, as he pulled off a book to respond to a particular question.”

“What this did was it enabled me to start piecing together what Newman was reading and lining it up with what he was writing,” he said. “We now can, through a process of evaluating his use of the library, get some idea of what he was reading as he was preparing to write certain important pieces of his Anglican corpus. … You can identify points when he was struggling with a particular question, or something was raised in correspondence. I felt sometimes like I was walking behind him because I would be following him from shelf to shelf, as he pulled off a book to respond to a particular question.”

For example, at one point, Newman’s mother wrote to him about a theological dispute that took place in the family—over the question of infant baptism. The letter arrived on a Friday, and after a weekend spent preparing to preach and take care of other duties, he “wrote back a 15-page letter with a detailed exposition on infant baptism and the theology behind infant baptism,” Parker said.

“I followed him to the shelf he went to that Friday afternoon and he pulled off [a] work on infant baptism. And he read that over the weekend and responded the next Monday to his mother at length.”

Newman never referenced the book, but now we know what the source was.

Parker, former interim director of the National Institute for Newman Studies, said it’s important to study this period of Newman’s life because he found that the Catholic approach he learned about from the Caroline Divines was “much more reflective of his experience of working with parishioners.”

Newman went on to become a leader in the Oxford Movement, which, as Franciscan Media describes it, “emphasized the Church’s debt to the Church Fathers and challenged any tendency to consider truth as completely subjective. Historical research made Newman suspect that the Roman Catholic Church was in closest continuity with the Church that Jesus established.”

He became a Catholic in 1845 and traveled to Rome to study for the priesthood. A few years later, he founded and became the superior of the Birmingham Oratory, where priests could share a religious life. Pope Leo XIII made him a cardinal in 1879. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, no simple priest without duties in the Roman Curia had been so honored in modern times. Newman took the motto cor ad cor loquitur (“Heart speaking to heart”). He died in 1890, at the age of 89.

By the end of July, Parker’s catalog will be part of the Digital Collections of the National Institute for Newman Studies. The institute says the collections will house the most comprehensive digital archive of Newman-related works, including more than 200,000 digitized images of Newman’s handwritten papers, images of his published books and articles, and never-before-seen manuscripts for scholars to access across the globe.

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