Newman the Calvinist

Denis Desert argues that Calvinism provided the young Newman with a authoritative base for his faith and may have had a lifelong influence on him

Newman’s Christian formation came from the strong Calvinistic base fostered by his mother Jemima Fourdrinier, a second generation Huguenot with family with roots in Caen. While her son was brought up as a member of the Church of England, it was at a period when the church was influenced by the evangelical movement and therefore a natural haven for the French refugees.

I suggest that Calvinism with its clear-cut theology and ecclesiology enshrined in Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and Ecclesiastical Ordinances provided the young Newman, either directly or indirectly, with an authoritative and systematic base for his faith. It may well be that this foundation led him in later life to be attracted to the Oxford Movement and eventually to his conversion to the Church of Rome.

Walter Mayers

The young Newman was sent to Dr Nicholas’s School in Ealing where he came under the influence of the classics master Walter Mayers, who encouraged his pupil to read the works of Calvin. In his Apologia he writes, ‘When I was fifteen, I fell under the influences of a definite Creed, and received into my intellect impressions of dogma, which, through God’s mercy, have never been effaced or obscured.’ Newman continues with reference to Mayers, ‘Above and beyond the conversations and sermons of the excellent man ...who was the human means of the beginning of divine faith in me, was the effect of books which he put into my hands, all of the school of Calvin.’

William Romaine

One of the books that made a deep impression on the young Newman was one of William Romaine’s, whose title Newman in his Apologia cannot recall but was possibly The Walk of Faith. A passage from this work that may well have moved the young Newman reads,

‘I will make, says God, an everlasting covenant for them, a covenant ordered in all things and sure by the counsel of the blessed Trinity, the two immutable things, in which it is impossible God should lie... My kindness shall not depart from them, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed... I mean nothing but good to them. I will put my fear into their hearts that they shall not depart from me... I will give them grace to walk close with me... till they receive the end of their faith, even the salvation of their souls.’ It is worth noting that Romaine was a third generation Huguenot, an ordained Anglican and an enthusiastic advocate of the Thirty-Nine Articles. The main point from Romaine’s work that struck young Newman’s mind was the doctrine of ‘Final Perseverance’. This doctrine, a base tenet of Calvinism, declares that once a person is saved they enter into a permanent state of salvation. This concept gave the boy the absolute assurance for which he craved.

In his Apologia Newman, referring to the doctrine of Final Perseverance, writes, ‘I received it at once, and believed that the inward conversion of which I was conscious (and of which I am still more certain than that I have hands and feet), would last into the next life, and that I was elected to eternal glory’. His parenthesis possibly indicates that the perception he received as a youth and the inward change that it produced in him persisted throughout his life.

Thomas Scott

In his Apologia Newman refers to the Revd Thomas Scott, ‘the writer who made a deeper impression on my mind than any other, and to whom (humanly speaking) I almost owe my soul.’

Thomas Scott, who was born in humble circumstances in 1747, exercised a remarkable ministry as an evangelical and was deeply influenced by John Newton of Olney and served there as his curate. His Commentary on the Whole Bible was widely acclaimed. The Force of Truth published in 1779 was valued by Newman from boyhood and clearly inspired and moved him. The volume ends, ‘When we hear the Son of God address us in these rejoicing words, ‘Come ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world,’ may the Lord vouchsafe unto the writer, and to every reader of this book, that wisdom which is from above; that teaching of his Holy Spirit, which guides into the ways of peace; that peace of God which passeth all understanding; and that measure of sanctifying and strengthening grace, which shall enable us to hold on, and hold out to the end.’

Quest for holiness

Newman continued to comment on Scott’s influence in the Apologia, speaking of the author’s unworldliness, independence of mind and his diligent quest for truth that led him from Unitarianism to a firm faith in the Holy Trinity. He continues, ‘It was he who first planted deep in my mind [i.e. belief in the Trinity] that fundamental truth of religion.’

I would suggest that the young Newman was moved and inspired by the Evangelical movement, leading him in the quest for holiness that remained with him throughout his life. But it would appear that he needed the deep sense of assurance and authority provided by the teaching of Calvinism. Again, this need for an absolute authority stayed with him and eventually led him to his conversion to the Church of Rome. ND

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