Oxford Movement Begins

The Oxford Movement opposed liberal and evangelical trends within the Church of England. It sought to reestablish the high moral and devotional level of the early Christian Church and insisted that the Church of England was a divine institution rather than merely an arm of the state. The Oxford Movement had a long-lasting influence on Anglican doctrine and practice, as well as on Victorian art, architecture, and literature.

Summary of Event

The first decade and a half of the nineteenth century saw relatively little internal political strife in Great Britain: As long as the British were threatened with invasion by France, they united behind their monarch. However, after Napoleon I was defeated in 1815, reformers again felt free to agitate for social and political change. Among their grievances was the fact that members of the Church of England (Anglican Church) enjoyed rights and privileges denied to Roman Catholics, who were in the majority in Ireland, and to Dissenting Protestants, whose numbers were increasing rapidly. Oxford Movement
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[kw]Oxford Movement Begins (July 14, 1833)
[kw]Movement Begins, Oxford (July 14, 1833)
[kw]Begins, Oxford Movement (July 14, 1833)
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[g]Great Britain;July 14, 1833: Oxford Movement Begins[1790]
[c]Religion and theology;July 14, 1833: Oxford Movement Begins[1790]
[c]Social issues and reform;July 14, 1833: Oxford Movement Begins[1790]
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Keble, John
Newman, John Henry
Pusey, E. B.
Froude, Richard Hurrell

The Corporation Act of 1661 Corporation Act of 1661 and the Test Act of 1671 Test Act of 1671 excluded anyone from public office who would not take Communion in the Church of England. In 1828, a nervous Tory government repealed these acts, and the following year it moved on to full Catholic emancipation, which meant that Roman Catholics could now sit in Parliament. However, it was the passage of the Irish Church Temporalities Bill, abolishing ten Irish bishoprics, that prompted Oxford’s professor of poetry, John Keble, to ascend the pulpit of the University Church, St. Mary’s, on July 14, 1833, and preach a sermon on what he called England’s “National Apostasy.” Thus began the Oxford Movement.

Keble’s Keble, John fears for the Church were shared by two other young Oriel College dons, Richard Hurrell Froude Froude, Richard Hurrell and John Henry Newman, and by a number of older High Church clergy who lived in the Oxford area. However, at their first meeting, it became clear that this group could not agree on a strategy. Instead of working through a society, committees, and petitions, the younger men wanted to reach a wider audience by publishing a series of lively essays by various writers that would awaken the clergy and the laity to the dangers the Church was facing. The first of these Tracts for the Times was published on September 1, 1833. Over the next eight years, ninety tracts were published, twenty-four of them written by Newman. It was from these tracts that the movement took its other name, the Tractarian Movement.

The three founders of the Oxford Movement were delighted when one of Oxford’s preeminent scholars, E. B. Pusey, Pusey, E. B. agreed to write a tract. However, at first Pusey was far more sympathetic to the Protestant reformers than were the other Tractarians; it was not until 1837 that his theological views were clearly in harmony with those of the others. Ironically, after Newman left the Anglican Church for Roman Catholicism in 1845, it was Pusey who took his place as leader of the movement.

There were a number of principles on which the Tractarians agreed. One was that the authority of the Church of England rested not upon the state but instead upon the Apostolic Succession, passed down from Christ through his apostles to the present-day bishops. The Tractarians found their ideal in the Church as it was in the fourth and fifth centuries, before it split and before both Rome and Geneva Geneva corrupted Christian doctrine and practice. As Newman defined it, Anglicanism was the embodiment of the early Church; it was also the via media, or middle way, between Roman Catholicism and Calvinism.

The Tractarians believed that the early Church had had a spirituality that Christianity had since lost. In order to recapture that holiness, they suggested that the Church abandon the notion that to be a clergyman, one need only be a gentleman. Regardless of social class, the Tractarians argued, it should be a man’s devotional life and his capacity for dedicating himself to his parishioners that made him worthy of ordination. Moreover, the Eucharist should once again be made the central service in the Church; in order to accomplish that goal, communicants must be educated as to the real meaning of the sacrament, which to all the Tractarians was more than a memorial and to some of them was very close to the Roman doctrine of the real presence. Another change they advocated was the reestablishment of private confession.

At first, British High Church clergymen saw the Tractarians as merely a younger version of themselves. However, they changed their minds when they read a volume of Froude’s Froude, Richard Hurrell writings that Newman and Keble Keble, John had assembled after his death. They were shocked that an Anglican priest would consistently attack the great Protestant reformers and just as consistently justify the Roman Catholic Church. Now the High Church priests began to suspect what the Evangelicals had contended from the beginning: that the Oxford Movement sought to take the Church of England back to Rome. Already, a number of Tractarians had converted to Roman Catholicism; in 1845, they were followed by the acknowledged leader of the Oxford Movement, John Henry Newman.

Newman’s conversion dealt such a blow to the Tractarians that traditionally 1845 has been given as the date the Oxford Movement ended. However, though the inner circle at Oxford mourned the loss of their friend, many of the clergymen and laity who had been influenced by Tractarian ideas were little affected by Newman’s action. In fact, the removal of a leader who for some years had made more moderate Anglicans uneasy was to them a relief, because it enabled them to pursue the less radical goals of the movement.


The effects of the Oxford Movement were felt within the Church of England throughout the rest of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. The Tractarians’ criticisms of the clergy led to the selection of better educated, more dedicated priests, who would not only set a moral example for their parishioners but could also explain basic theological concepts in terms the laity could understand. Once that task had been accomplished, it became possible to introduce meaningful ceremonials, including the use of candles, the wearing of Eucharistic vestments, and even the burning of incense. Even more important was the fact that within a generation or two, the Eucharist became much more widely recognized as the central service of the Church.

These church reforms were not universal. Certainly, there were many parishes where ceremonial practices would not be tolerated. However, members of the Church of England acquired the option of attending Anglo-Catholic churches and even of joining Anglican monastic communities. They retain those options to this day, lending support to the claims of the Church, and of the worldwide Anglican Communion, that it is both truly universal and truly free.

The Oxford Movement also influenced literature, art, and architecture. The works of the novelist Charlotte Mary Yonge, for example, all reflect her Tractarian views, and the views of the movement led architect Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin to insist that only the Gothic style was appropriate for a Christian church. The Arts and Crafts movement, associated with the designer William Morris, utilized medieval motifs, and medieval subjects dominated the art and the the literary works of his friends in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood[PreRaphaelite Brotherhood]
Art;Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood[PreRaphaelite Brotherhood] even the works of the literary giant Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Thus, largely because of the Oxford Movement’s idealization of the medieval Church and, by extension, of the medieval period, the Gothic revival that had begun in the middle of the eighteenth century lasted well into the Victorian period.

Further Reading

  • Chadwick, Owen. The Spirit of the Oxford Movement: Tractarian Essays. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Includes an important essay entitled “The Mind of the Oxford Movement.”
  • Church, R. W. The Oxford Movement: Twelve Years, 1833-1845. 1891. Reprint. McLean, Va.: IndyPublish .com, 2004. An early nineteenth century Oxonian describes events as he observed them. A classic account.
  • Faught, C. Brad. The Oxford Movement: A Thematic Study of the Tractarians and Their Times. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003. Utilizing a new approach to the subject, the author of this work shows how the movement affected English society in five important areas.
  • Herring, George. What Was the Oxford Movement? London: Continuum, 2002. A useful, brief study, including charts demonstrating the long-lasting effects of the movement.
  • Nockles, Peter B. The Oxford Movement in Context: Anglican High Churchmanship, 1760-1857. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Traces the movement back to earlier High Churchmanship.
  • Reed, John Shelton. Glorious Battle: The Cultural Politics of Victorian Anglo-Catholicism. Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 2000. A sociologist argues that what began as a counterculture movement was eventually absorbed by the Victorian establishment.

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