Newman and History

by Edward Short, Gracewing, 376pp, £20

In Newman and History, Edward Short maintains the high standard of his two previous books on the cardinal. The first essay here incisively treats John Henry Newman’s response to Gibbon’s Enlightenment critique of Christianity. Short contrasts the cardinal’s understanding of the spiritual dynamics that led ancient men and women to live and die for Christ with Gibbon’s narrow 18th-century prejudices, which culminated in the French Revolution. There was nothing parochial about Newman’s mind. His deep historical research protected him from glib Protestant and liberal interpretations.

Short goes on to focus on Newman’s “Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine”, and delineates with scalpel sharpness the parallels between primitive Christianity and 19th-century Catholicism, both despised as “superstition” by Whig historians. For Newman, superstition acknowledges the supernatural, even if it misinterprets it, and the Whig historian’s dismissal of superstition all too often boils down to a mere disdain for the supernatural.

The third essay, “Travesties of Newman” is the first of Short’s book reviews included here. In it, the author is gracefully pugilistic, pouring potent scorn on those who impugn Newman’s character and intellect.

“Newman and the Liberals” is a weighty riposte to those (including the historian Frank Turner) who claim that Newman misunderstood or wilfully misrepresented liberalism. Traditional Anglican and liberal criticisms of Newman, repeated to this day, get short shrift. With abundant quotations from the cardinal and an array of contemporary witnesses, including opponents of Newman such as Fitzjames Stephen, Short proves that Newman understood liberalism perfectly well and consistently opposed it from the start of the Tractarian Movement to the end of his life.

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