Seeking common ground between Tractarians and Evangelicals

The Rev’d Peter Kane

Peter Kane is currently Vicar of the Parish of St James, Clacton-on-Sea, in the Diocese of Chelmsford. He studied Music at King’s College London and the Royal College of Music, and originally trained for the Methodist ministry at Wesley House and Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. He served for three years as a Methodist minister before transferring to the Anglican ministry. After spending a year at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford (during which time he undertook a research-based course), he served as Assistant Curate at St Paul’s, Chichester, before taking up his present post.

Much of the secondary literature relating to the Oxford Movement and the response of Evangelicals to it, tends to focus predominantly on the negative of aspects of that response. This is understandable, given the fact that various prominent Evangelical figures at the time were rather vocal in their criticism of what they saw as Roman Catholic tendencies in the teaching of the Tractarians – something which they regarded, in turn, as a serious threat to the Protestant identity of the Church of England. However, this negative reaction masks the fact that, at the deepest theological level, the two ‘parties’ actually had much in common. The following paper is an extract from my recent MA thesis, “‘Protestantism versus Popery?’ An Examination of the reaction of Evangelicals to the Oxford Movement”, which aims to explore the common ground between the Evangelicals and Tractarians.

In light of the intense criticism leveled against the teachings of the Oxford Movement by prominent Evangelical figures, it would appear, on first inspection, that the two parties had little, if anything, in common. However, if one were to look beyond the surface, it becomes evident that there is rather more to the relationship between Evangelicals and Tractarians than these writings seem to suggest. Indeed, if the motivation behind the negative response of Evangelicals towards the Tractarian teaching is as much about matters of politics and identity as it is about serious theological engagement, it does prompt one to suspect that the two parties actually had rather more in common, in purely theological terms, than Evangelicals were prepared to admit at the time. The polemical nature of so much of the Evangelical writings against the Oxford Movement tends to mask the fact that the basic theological principles underlying the two movements are virtually identical. To begin with, as Toon has pointed out, they both held strongly to the divine inspiration of Scripture, the Catholic doctrines of the Holy Trinity and of the Person of Christ, the pursuit of holiness (both in the visible Church and in the individual life of the believer), the hope of the Second Coming of Christ, and the Resurrection of the Dead and everlasting life. Furthermore, during the earlier part of the 19th century, there were two particular areas of concern which united Tractarians and Evangelicals, namely the quest for holiness and opposition to theological liberalism.

Common areas of concern underlying the Oxford and Evangelical Movements
A profound emphasis upon the need for the believer to live a life of holiness was a fundamental feature of Evangelicalism, and it was to become a key motivating factor behind the emergence of the Oxford Movement, too.

John and Charles Wesley, key figures in the Evangelical Revival of the 18th century, laid a great emphasis upon the life of holiness. A century before the emergence of Tractarianism, the ‘Holy Club’ in Oxford, which came under the leadership of John Wesley from 1729, aimed to nurture the spiritual life of young men through guided reading, spiritual exercises and good works. The group drew upon the work of esteemed devotional writers, both ancient and modern, and central to it all was the pursuit of holiness.

A century later, the pursuit of the godly life became a key impetus behind the teachings of the Oxford Movement. In his sermon, ‘Holiness Necessary for Future Blessedness’, Newman declares that “None but the holy can look upon the Holy One; without holiness no man can endure to see the Lord”, and he goes on to state that “holiness, or separation from the world, is necessary to our admission into heaven.” Moreover, Newman asserts that the gift of holiness is the work of a lifetime, and he even declares that the believer should be “content with nothing short of perfection.” In fact, the latter is reminiscent of John Wesley’s sermon on ‘Christian Perfection’; like Newman, Wesley viewed Christian perfection as an attainable ideal. Indeed, in Newman’s later reflections upon the development of the Oxford Movement in his Apologia, it is clear that holiness was a matter of central importance – “…Holiness as the true test of a Church was steadily kept in view in what I wrote in connexion with Tract 90.”

As Hylson-Smith points out, both Evangelicals and Tractarians were strongly opposed to the contemporary forces of rationalism, liberalism and utilitarianism, and they shared a common emphasis upon the life of holiness, dogma, the supreme authority of Scripture, the need for a personal faith, and a life marked by dedication and service. Alongside this, there was a common agreement between Tractarians and Evangelicals that the social, political and ecclesiastical reforms occurring at the time could be seen as an attack on the Church. As Newsome has observed, the common fear of rationalism and latitudinarianism amongst Evangelicals and Tractarians is reflected in the devotional writings of leading members of both parties. The sense of impending catastrophe is evident, for instance, in Newman’s 1833 hymn, ‘Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom’, and in the phrase of the Evangelical H.F. Lyte’s hymn, ‘Abide with me’ C ‘Change and decay in all around I see, / O Thou who changest not, / abide with me.’

Instances of Tractarians and Evangelicals coming together in a common cause
The common opposition of Evangelicals and the leaders of the Oxford Movement to theological liberalism is demonstrated, in practical terms, by the way in which they were united in their outrage at the appointment of R.D. Hampden as the Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford in 1836. Both parties strongly objected to Hampden’s view that some formularies of the Church of England merely reflected an interpretation of Scripture in a certain age, as well as the way in which he advocated the abolition of the requirement that all those who wished to be members of Oxford University should consent to the Thirty-Nine Articles. Indeed, a letter in the Evangelical publication, the Record (dated 24th March 1836), expressing concern about the proposed appointment of Hampden, even quotes from Pusey’s Propositions maintained in Dr Hampden’s Works.

Another indication of the common concern of Evangelicals and Tractarians about developments in the Church of England at the time can be seen in a series of letters written by Newman (signed, ‘A Churchman’) to the Record between 28th October and 14th November 1833. The subject of his letters is that of sound discipline within the Church, and in particular, he proposes a revival of the practice of excommunication. Concern about matters of discipline had been the cause of many recent secessions of Evangelical ministers from the Church of England, thus, as Altholz suggests, it was “a theme which might appeal to moralistic Evangelicals while drawing them to acknowledge the authority of bishops, who had the power to excommunicate.”

In the first of his letters (dated 24th October), Newman raises the question of a revival of Church discipline, and he interprets what he regards as the troubles facing the Church and nation at the time in terms of God’s judgement upon the national Church. In his second letter (dated 31st October), he gives Scriptural proofs “of the duty of both separating from notorious sinners and reviving ecclesiastical excommunication.” In the third letter (dated 7th November), Newman asserts that churchmen are guilty of neglecting the duty of discipline within the Church. Newman’s fourth letter (dated 11th November) seeks to defend the practice of formal excommunication by the Church. Meanwhile, his fifth letter (dated 14th November) appeals to the revulsion of Evangelicals towards ‘popery’. Newman argues that the growth in Roman Catholicism in England at the time was due to the fact that the Roman Catholic Church enforced doctrine and discipline with authority, whereas Protestants failed to make use of the authority implicit in the Church of England. Alongside this, Newman calls for the appointment of a “more spiritual class of bishops.”

It is apparent that Newman is advocating here a particularly high doctrine of the Church, one which would perhaps have been quite novel in an Evangelical publication. Nonetheless, two letters published in the Record of 12th December in response to Newman were quite favourable in tone; one of them agreed that the succession of bishops was a matter of history, while the author of the other letter claims that he had been strengthened spiritually by the views set out in the Tracts which had been published up until then.

Even though, ultimately, Newman’s attempt to reach out to Evangelicals through his letters to the Record was not particularly successful, it nevertheless illustrates the fact that one of the key concerns which served as an impetus for the publication of the Tracts for the Times was one which the Tractarians held in common with Evangelicals. It might seem that the subject Newman chose to expound in his letters was a rather specific one, but at the heart of his proposed revival of Church discipline was a concern for upholding orthodox Christian teaching in the face of liberal tendencies in the Church. AntiCliberalism united all conservative Christians, whether they be Evangelicals or Tractarians. Indeed, whilst the primary theme of Newman’s letters to the Record was that of church discipline, at the same time, it seems that he was ultimately seeking coCoperation with Evangelicals on an even wider range of issues, including the rejection of liberalism, reverence for Scripture, and the need to uphold doctrinal orthodoxy.

One further notable instance which involved some collaboration between Tractarians and Evangelicals was the publication of a ‘Library of the Fathers’, a project first proposed in 1836. In particular, the prominent moderate Evangelical, Edward Bickersteth, lent his support to this, and it was he who even encouraged Pusey to write an introductory address refuting those of an ‘ultra-Protestant’ tendency in the 18th century who had been disparaging towards the patristic testimony. Such was the significance of this Evangelical interest in the ‘Library of the Fathers’, that Nockles has remarked that “Here was a consensus on which the Tractarians could have built. They chose not to. They had their own agenda.”

It was, of course, the case that the reason behind the interest shown by Evangelicals in the writings of the Church Fathers was quite different from that of the Tractarians. For the former, Scripture was the ultimate rule of faith; the writings of the Church Fathers might be seen as an aid to interpreting the Bible, but this did not usurp the place of private judgement in interpreting Scripture. Moreover, Evangelicals would have regarded the writings of the Protestant Reformers as an equally important resource for biblical interpretation. By contrast, the Tractarians sought to create a ‘Library of the Fathers’ as they regarded the writings of the Church Fathers as indispensable to a correct understanding of the Scriptures; furthermore, they sought to appeal directly to the Fathers, bypassing the Reformation in the process. Nevertheless, despite these different intentions, the fact remains that there was some collaboration between the two parties in this project, which, in turn, points to a degree of shared appreciation of the value of Antiquity.

The three different cases outlined above serve to demonstrate the fact that there was some acknowledgement amongst Evangelicals and Tractarians that the need to uphold doctrinal orthodoxy in the Church was of common concern to both groups. However, the direction in which the teachings of the Oxford Movement developed was such that any sense of a common purpose between the two parties was soon forgotten. Had the teachings of the Tractarians remained in a distinctly Protestant framework, there may well have been further opportunities for them to work collaboratively with Evangelicals in pursuit of a common cause.

Evangelical tendencies towards Sacramentalism
Sacramentalism lay at the heart of the Tractarian approach to faith. This high sacramental outlook often brought them into conflict with Evangelicals, who detected in the writings of the Tractarians a certain inclination towards Roman Catholic doctrine. The response of Evangelicals to the sacramentalism of the Oxford Movement therefore tended to focus on this particular concern. However, the polemical style of the Evangelical writers masks the fact that prior to the Oxford Movement, many prominent Evangelical leaders themselves had certain leanings towards a more sacramental approach.

A key element of the spiritual discipline of members of Wesley’s ‘Holy Club’, for instance, was that they received Holy Communion on a weekly basis. Indeed, Cocksworth has demonstrated that John Wesley actually held a high view of the Eucharist, his sacramental views being largely an outworking of his teaching on the presentation of the gospel and the call to holiness. For Wesley, the Eucharist was a means of grace. Whilst he maintained that there was a need for faith on the part of the recipient thus rejecting an ex opera operato understanding), he nonetheless believed in an objective consecration of the elements, the Holy Spirit being the agent of consecration. Moreover, Wesley went as far as to propose that the Eucharist is a ‘converting ordinance’, in that the Eucharistic elements may “create, or at least facilitate, faith and then convey the Gospel’s gift to faith.” Like Wesley, Charles Simeon also maintained an openness to the possibility of conversion taking place through the Eucharist. As he put it, “Christ sometimes reveals himself in the breaking of bread, to those who had not so fully discovered him in the ministration of the word.”

In fact, Wesley and Simeon were far from alone amongst Evangelicals in their strong sacramental emphasis. As Russell puts it, in the 18th century the Evangelical movement actually embraced many who “preached Christ crucified, while they maintained the old theology concerning the Church, the ministry, and the Sacraments.” Even more significantly, there were those who were to become leading Evangelical critics of Tractarianism who, in their earlier writings and practices, demonstrated a clear inclination towards a sacramental outlook. For instance, in his earlier writings, Daniel Wilson (as Russell puts it) “had used language about the font, the altar, and the Eucharistic Sacrifice, which, after the Tracts had alarmed the Evangelicals, would have been stigmatized as rank Popery.” Indeed, his own conversion experience had been closely connected with the Eucharist. Similarly, Edward Bickersteth, in his Treatise on the Lord’s Supper (1822), states:

The Lord’s Supper was designed to represent, commemorate, and show forth the Lord’s Death as a sacrifice for sin. This is done as a prevailing mode of pleading His merits before God…..we plead the virtues and merits of the same Sacrifice here which our great High Priest is continually urging for us in Heaven.

Whilst Bickersteth is certainly not advocating anything resembling the Catholic doctrine of the Sacrifice of the Mass, the language he uses does suggest vague echoes of it. And once again, Bickersteth himself claimed that his own ‘spiritual faculties’ had been first awakened during a service of Holy Communion.

According to Bebbington, such a revival of interest in the Sacraments amongst certain Evangelicals was a consequence of a stronger sense of churchmanship which emerged amongst Evangelicals around 1830. The move towards a higher view of the Church was largely aimed at counteracting tendencies towards individualism. Indeed, alongside the renewed emphasis on the Eucharist, a higher view of the effects of Baptism was adopted by many Evangelicals. Bebbington even goes as far as to suggest that:

[These] radical Evangelicals were not just similar to the Tractarians but were actually an earlier phase of the same movement that in the 1830s proliferated into many strands – including…..Tractarianism.

According to Newsome, those who subscribed to the Evangelical publication, the Christian Observer, were particularly inclined towards an insistence on church order, and by the 1820s, “they seem[ed] to use the language of the High Churchmen.” Such ‘radical Evangelicals’ included Newman and others who were to become leading members of the Oxford Movement.

Although pre-Tractarian Evangelicals did not attempt to define their thinking on the Eucharist in a systematic way, they certainly related it to Christ’s sacrifice, to the believer’s faith and to Christ’s presence. As Cocksworth observes, for them the Eucharist was not simply a past event “but…an eternally effective one which is powerfully present – to the eye of faith – in the dynamic symbolism of the sacramental event…..”

Therefore, what we witness prior to the Tractarian era is a highly positive and creative approach to Eucharistic thinking amongst many prominent Evangelicals. Moreover, there is little, if any polemic in their writings on the Eucharist. Indeed, as Cocksworth has pointed out, the various sacramental manuals and sermons on the Lord’s Supper written by Evangelicals at this time were not concerned with condemning Roman Catholic Eucharistic doctrine. Rather, any warnings they contained focused more on the danger of mere formality in Eucharistic practice. However, the attitude of Evangelicals towards the Eucharist started to change when the Tractarians increasingly began to emphasise the objectivity of sacramental grace and the mediation of the priest in the process.

There is evidence to suggest, though, that after all the furore surrounding the Tracts had abated, a renewed interest in a more sacramental approach (along with a higher view of the visible Church) occurred amongst Evangelicals in the later part of the 19th century and beyond. The prominent Evangelical leader, Edward Garbett, even suggested in 1871 that the High Church and Evangelical parties should combine, asserting that (as Bebbington puts it) “Evangelicals had neglected the doctrine of the church ‘as a visible organised society’…and the Tracts for the Times had done some good.” The result of this was a copying of High Church practice, where it seemed not to involve any sacrifice of principle on their part. Indeed, by the beginning of the 20th century, a new Evangelical party was forming which sought to put an end to the assumption that Evangelical theology and low church practice necessarily went together, and they even began to freely use terms such as ‘altar’, ‘Eucharist’ and ‘Catholic’. It is what Brilioth calls “the renaissance of sacramental religion…here seen bearing fruit in the evangelical party…” This sacramental emphasis was eventually to culminate in the pronouncement (though not without some controversy) at the Keele Evangelical Anglican Congress of 1967 that Evangelicals would “work towards weekly communion as the central corporate service of the church.”

In briefly surveying some of the evidence for a sacramental approach amongst Evangelicals both before and after the controversies surrounding the Tracts for the Times, I am not suggesting that what the various prominent Evangelical figures were advocating in regard to the Eucharist was in any way akin to what the Tractarians were teaching on this matter. Rather, my point is that there was, and continues to be, a strong sacramental tradition within Anglican Evangelicalism. It was a tradition that often came across as advocating a high view of the efficacy of the Eucharist in the life of the believer and which, as was the case with the Tractarians, made a direct link between the Eucharist and the pursuit of holiness. Indeed, it seems that the response of prominent Evangelicals to the Tractarians on the matter of Eucharistic doctrine was something of a ‘low point’ in Evangelical Eucharistic thought. The writings of such Evangelical figures as Goode, Lee and Maguire, and the Evangelical reaction to the Denison affair tend to come across as negative and defensive. As Cocksworth puts it, they largely comprise a traditional restatement of Reformed doctrine, an attempt to set limits on the parameters of Eucharistic experience, and a tendency towards reinforcing nonCsacramental spirituality along with a focus on the word. The Evangelical response to Tractarian Eucharistic theology tends to mask the fact that, despite their quite different perspectives on the matter, there was a long tradition of sacramentalism amongst Evangelicals (together with a higher view of the visible Church), something which represents a deep area of common ground between the two parties.

Interest shown by Evangelicals in the earlier Tracts
There is evidence to suggest that when the earlier numbers of the Tracts for the Times were published, some Evangelicals did show a degree of positive interest in them, and in particular, their seemingly spiritual character. Charles Sumner, the Evangelical Bishop of Winchester, for instance, was said by Henry Wilberforce to have approved of the first few Tracts. As late as October 1835, Sumner had a positive encounter with Newman at Wilberforce’s home, though Sumner was later to change his mind about Tractarianism.

Particularly revealing, in terms of Evangelical interest in the earlier Tracts, are some letters written by a Mrs Anne Tyndale to her friend, Pusey. Mrs Tyndale was the wife of the Evangelical incumbent of Holton, and she and her husband regularly visited John Hill at St Edmund Hall in Oxford, where Hill’s rooms had become something of a meeting place for Evangelicals. As Toon puts it, the letters illustrate the response of “one intelligent lady, who was no stranger to Evangelical theology…to the teaching of the Tracts”, copies of which Pusey himself had sent her.

The letters reflect a thoughtful and often appreciative reading of some of the earlier Tracts, though at the same time, Mrs Tyndale is quite open about certain misgivings she has about some of the views expressed. In a letter dated 11th November 1833, she begins by acknowledging the division of the Church of England into Evangelical and High Church parties, but at the same time recognizes “in each, the love of Christ the constraining principle.” In an allusion to the content of Tract 8 (‘The Gospel a Law of Liberty’), she touches on the subject of the Apostolic Succession. Although she herself expresses some personal doubts about the doctrine, she nonetheless demonstrates a certain openness to the Tractarian point of view – “If I could quite enter into the opinion with regards to the apostolical succession, I shall like to have hundreds of that paper on Gospel liberty to circulate…” Meanwhile, in regard to Tract 3 (‘Thoughts on Alterations in the Liturgy’), Mrs Tyndale expresses a willingness to circulate copies of this Tract – “as many as you will commit to me.” On the specific proposal in the Tract for more frequent Communion, Mrs Tyndale cautions that this should be done “without running the risk of its being done formally”; her main concern is that believers should “receive the Communion profitably.” It is interesting to note here that she is not at all opposed to frequent Holy Communion in principle. Rather her concern is the same as that of pre-Tractarian Evangelicals, namely that it should not become a mere formality. In fact, her views actually reflect a deep reverence for the Sacrament on her part.

In a letter of 20th November 1833, Mrs Tyndale raises with Pusey the issues of regeneration and Baptism. She affirms her belief in the appropriateness of bringing infants for Baptism. At the same time, however, she expresses caution about the use of the word ‘regeneration’; she mentions she would be open to clarification from Pusey as to what precisely he meant by the term in regard to infant Baptism. Furthermore, in regard to Tract 5 (‘A Short address to his brethren on the nature and constitution of the Church of Christ, by a Layman’), Mrs Tyndale suggests that “upon a first reading [the Tract] would perhaps be better understood by a Catholic than a Protestant”, and she expresses some misgivings about the author’s high view of the role of the ordained. Nevertheless, after all of this, she implicitly acknowledges that Evangelicals and the writers of the Tracts were united in the same basic vision:

May God give his blessings to your efforts and those of your friends and to all who are anxious that Christ should be glorified in his Church that it may deserve to be addressed as Ignatius addresses it as a truly beautiful Church, when once the stones really become living stones then will no one dispute its claim to the encouraging promise.

In a letter dated 29th January 1834, Mrs Tyndale focuses on the nature of the Kingdom of God, and particularly on the way in which the doctrine is usually divided into four parts – Celestial, Ecclesiastical, political and spiritual. She suggests that High Churchmen are most anxious to support the Ecclesiastical kingdom, whereas the spiritual kingdom is “that to which the attention of the Evangelical is chiefly directed…” She therefore cites the only cause of division between the two parties on this issue as being “perhaps that each takes a part instead of the whole.” Mrs Tyndale sees the Tractarians as seeking to place an equal emphasis on both the Ecclesiastical and spiritual aspects of the Kingdom – they are “anxious to take both and in proportion[;] as they do this I expect to see the Evangelical party flock in to them.”

Finally, in a letter of 6th September 1835, Mrs Tyndale expresses her appreciation for the latest Tract which Pusey had sent her, namely his own Tract 67 (‘Scriptural Views of Holy Baptism’). She describes “The salutary solemnity and deep religious tenor – once which it is calculated to diffuse over the mind, I deeply feel.” She expresses admiration for Pusey’s ability to discern spiritual things and “the sweet spirit of Christian love in which it is written…” Furthermore, Mrs Tyndale once again recognizes that the basic motivations behind the writing of the Tracts are shared by Evangelicals too:

One thing I clearly see and bless God for, that he has given you that spiritual vision and that spiritual taste whereby you are enabled to see Christ’s wonderful workings…

The overall impression given in Mrs Tyndale’s letters is of an Evangelical genuinely attempting to understand and to engage with the Tractarian perspective on various issues. It has to be admitted that the Tracts to which she was responding were perhaps not as controversial as some of the later writings of the Oxford Movement which were to move in a more explicitly ‘Romeward’ direction. Nevertheless, the letters do touch on some issues which were soon to become points of controversy between Evangelicals and Tractarians. In contrast to the later Evangelical writings, the tone here is noticeably nonCpolemical. Indeed, although not a prominent Evangelical herself, the content of Mrs Tyndale’s letters might perhaps be representative of the views of many Evangelicals at the time who were nonetheless somewhat reluctant to be seen to demonstrate an openness to the Tracts in the same way that she had done.

To what extent is Tractarianism a development of Evangelicalism?
Having considered some of the profound links between the Evangelical and Tractarian parties, one could go further by asking whether Tractarianism is, in some ways, actually a natural development of Evangelicalism. A helpful line of inquiry, in this regard, is to consider some of the reasons as to why certain prominent Evangelical churchmen made the journey towards Tractarianism, and some even to the Roman Catholic Church. Was the transition from Evangelicalism to Catholicism, for them, as radical as it might at first appear?

One practical reason for their move was the lack of effective leadership within the Evangelical party. Whilst they were still a powerful and influential group in the Church of England in the 1810s and 1820s, they had, nonetheless, lost their greatest leaders and there were no successors to them just at a crucial time when the problems within the Church were at a peak. As Kings has remarked, “evangelicalism faced the rise of the Oxford Movement without moderate, wise and strategic leaders who could combine rigour without rancor.” In such a context, “any party which championed the cause of the Church against secular interference and adopted the appropriate militant tone would be likely to attract large numbers…” If the Evangelical party failed to raise up effective leaders in this regard, then there would inevitably be an exodus of its members to other groups where such leadership was evident.

The deeper theological issues underlying the change of allegiance of some prominent Evangelicals mirror some of the broader areas of common ground between Evangelicals and Tractarians, outlined above. Thus these individuals shared with Tractarians a common concern about the advance of materialism, liberalism, and state interference in the Church’s affairs. Moreover, Evangelicals were attracted by the emphasis of the Tractarians on the pursuit of holiness, expressing, for instance, an admiration for Keble’s religious poetry and Newman’s sermons. Indeed, some Evangelicals were so inspired by a new understanding of holiness which they gained from study of the early Church, that they even went as far as to look for the realization of the ideal in a place they would have previously regarded as forbidden, namely Roman Catholic teaching – “…some, in despair, came to believe that the Roman Church alone possessed the true marks of sanctity and the effective authority to withstand the progress of secularism.”

Furthermore, as outlined earlier, sacramentalism was far from an alien concept to Evangelicals. As Newsome again puts it, Evangelicals were actually “pioneers in recalling Christians to the importance of the sacraments and in encouraging the practice of frequent communion.” Therefore, in light of the considerable sacramental tradition amongst Evangelicals prior to the Oxford Movement, the move from Evangelical to Tractarian would not necessarily have seemed so radical to them as we might at first suppose. As Bebbington has remarked:

…the sons of William Wilberforce, with Henry Manning, found the transition from Evangelicalism to a much higher churchmanship a natural evolution. Later, when the battle lines were drawn between Evangelical and AngloCCatholic, the affinity was forgotten, but at the time it was substantial.

It appears that underlying the transition of certain prominent Evangelicals to Tractarianism is a certain fluidity in their understanding of religious identity. Whereas the Evangelical critics of the Oxford Movement were deeply concerned about retaining their distinctive Protestant and Evangelical identity, individuals such as Robert, Samuel and Henry Wilberforce and Henry Manning were ultimately willing to set aside their Evangelical (and even Protestant) identity in the cause of truth and holiness. In the midst of the present crisis in the Church of England, if it was in Tractarianism (or even Roman Catholicism) where doctrinal orthodoxy was most clearly seen to be upheld and where the commitment to the pursuit of holiness was greatest, then they were willing to sacrifice their previous allegiances in favour of these. For these individuals, therefore, Tractarianism would have been seen as a development of Evangelicalism.

Taking the matter one step further, the question could be gainfully asked as to whether Tractarianism is actually to be regarded as a successor to Evangelicalism. It is a view which had originally been expressed by William Gladstone when he suggested that the leaders of the Oxford Movement would not have been aware as “to how large an extent they were to be pupils and continuators of the Evangelical work, besides being something else.” As we have already observed, there were many profound theological perspectives which the two parties held in common. At the same time, though, there were many Evangelical distinctives which were not shared by the Tractarians, including the sole authority of Scripture as the word of God, justification by faith alone and an emphasis on the preaching of the Atonement. Moreover, the Tractarians held to views about the nature of the Church and of ordained ministry which could not be subscribed to by Evangelicals. This dichotomy has led Toon, for instance, to suggest that Tractarianism could not be seen as a continuation or fulfillment of the Evangelical movement; he argues that the change from Evangelical to Tractarian required a fundamental change in one’s doctrines of salvation and ecclesiology.

On the other hand, however, for certain individuals who made the transition from Evangelicalism to Tractarianism, they would have probably felt, from their personal perspective, that the latter was indeed a natural successor to the former. This is a view clearly expressed by Robert Wilberforce in his Charge to the Clergy of East Riding (1851), where he asserts:

…that these movements, though distinct, were not repugnant. On the contrary, persons who had been most influenced by the one, often entered most readily into the other…So then the second movement was a sort of consequence of the first.

In the end, it is not possible to demonstrate conclusively that the Oxford Movement is a successor to Evangelicalism. However, those individuals who made the move from Evangelical to Tractarian no doubt regarded this to be the case.

On the whole, therefore, there was a great deal more common ground between Evangelicals and Tractarians than the former were often prepared to admit. Due to their profound adherence to their Protestant identity, Evangelicals tended to be very reluctant to acknowledge these considerable areas of agreement between the two parties openly. Instead, they opted to focus on their differences, and especially what they regarded as an increasing inclination towards Roman Catholic doctrine in the Tractarians’ teaching. Had the Evangelicals sought to engage in dialogue with the Tractarians rather than reacting to their teachings in a somewhat defensive manner), they would no doubt have discovered that there was actually much common ground which they could build upon. At the same time, though, had the Tractarians, on their part, chosen not to move in such a seemingly ‘Romeward’ direction, it might have made it a lot easier for Evangelicals to work together with them in pursuit of their common aim, namely to uphold doctrinal orthodoxy in the Church of England.

Peter Kane
(September, 2013)


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