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Blessed John Henry Newman had some special American counterparts.
It is accepted wisdom that the newly beatified Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890) and his associates in the Anglo-Catholic Oxford Movement were influences in the faith formation of members of the Episcopal Church in the United States, including some who followed Newman’s path of conversion to Roman Catholicism. Less appreciated are the stories of made-in-the-USA Anglo-Catholics and Roman Catholic converts, contemporary or even antecedent to Newman, and probably influential in the Cardinal’s own spiritual odyssey.
Though there may not have been a “movement” in America of scope, celebrity, academic prestige and literary heft to compare with that of the Oxford divines, there were notable moves by individuals that deserve their place alongside Newman’s. To give two clichés some well deserved mangling, not all of the great 19th-century Crossings of the Tiber took place Across the Pond.
During the early days of the American Republic, when much of the Empire State was still frontier territory, Christian clergy of every church and denomination were pressed to emphasize pastoral duties above intellectual pursuits. John Henry Hobart (1775-1830), an Anglo-Catholic and one of the first leaders of the Episcopal Church following American Independence, was exceptional in his integration of scholarship with pastoral and charitable endeavor. As assistant minister at fashionable Trinity Church in lower Manhattan, he inspired a parishioner, a young society matron named Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, to deepen her faith and involve herself in direct care for the poor. Arguably the most startling event during his tenure at Trinity was Mrs. Seton’s conversion in 1805 to the humble parish of St. Peter’s, the only Roman Catholic church in New York City.
As Episcopal Bishop of New York from 1816 until his death, Hobart became founding dean of the General Theological Seminary in New York (1817). In 1822, he founded the institution in Geneva, New York, today known as Hobart College. That same year he gave his daughter Rebecca’s hand in marriage to Levi Silliman Ives (1797-1867) and ordained Ives a deacon. In 1824, Bishop Hobart traveled in Europe, spending several months in England and dining and conversing with young English churchmen including the 23-year-old Newman, then preparing for his ordination as deacon.
As a mature Anglican and Oxford Movement leader, Newman in 1839 wrote with warm appreciation of the American Episcopal Church in general and of Bishop Hobart in particular. Newman was fascinated with, and sympathetic to, the American Church as a species of Anglicanism unbound from control by the British Crown and Parliament.
“We have the proof that the Church, of which we are,” wrote Newman, “is not the mere creation of the State, but has an independent life, with a kind of her own, and fruit after her own kind. …if her daughter can exist, though the State does not protect, the mother would not cease to be, though she were protected no longer….It is encouraging to find that the [American] Church, though deprived of all external aids [is still based on] … the ground of the consistency, definiteness and stability of its creed.”
The same year Newman wrote: “Let the American Church take her place; she is freer than we are; she has but to will and she can do. Let her… react upon us, according to the light and power given her. Let her not take our errors and increase them by copying, but let her be, as it were, our shadow before us—the prophecy and omen, the mysterious token and the anticipated fulfillment of those Catholic principles which lie within us, more or less latent, waiting for the destined hour of their development.”
By 1842, Newman, and others, were moving decisively away from the disposition that Anglicanism could provide the Catholic principles they awaited.
In that year, James Roosevelt Bayley, kinsman of two U.S. Presidents, nephew of Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, and rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Harlem, New York, went to Rome and was received into the Roman Catholic Church. Unmarried, he was ordained a Roman Catholic priest two years later. He went on to become the first bishop of Newark, the eighth archbishop of Baltimore, and founder of Seton Hall University.
In 1842, John Henry Newman, surely aware of Bayley’s story as he was of Elizabeth Seton’s, left his prestigious chaplaincy at Oxford and retreated to what was for Anglicans a strangely “monastic” community he established in nearby rural Littlemore. Three years later Newman converted to the Roman Catholic Church, and a year after that he was ordained a priest in Rome by Cardinal Giacomo Fransoni and awarded a Doctor of Divinity degree by Pope Pius IX.
Levi Silliman Ives and his wife came from the same small circle of New York Episcopalians that had included the Bayleys and the Setons. He became Episcopal Bishop of North Carolina in 1831, the prestige of which office was signified when he was awarded an honorary doctorate of laws from the University of North Carolina in 1834. Explicitly Anglo-Catholic, he acknowledged the influence of Newman and the Tractarians. In 1842, in a place he named Valle Crucis in the Appalachians near the Tennessee border, Bishop Ives established the Society of the Holy Cross, said to have been the first monastic order in the Anglican Communion since the English Reformation. In 1848, Bishop Ives was put before an Episcopal Church tribunal concerned that the monastery and his Romish practices, including promotion of prayers to the Virgin Mary and saints and private sacramental confession before a priest, had crossed the boundaries of heresy. He retained his office after agreeing to the suppression of the Society of the Holy Cross.
But his conscience was in agony. In 1852, Ives took a leave of absence and went with his wife to Rome. There he was personally received into the Roman Catholic Church by Pius IX. He was said to have been the first Protestant bishop since the 17th century to have converted to Rome. A few months later his wife also converted.
There are many, many dots to connect within the trans-Atlantic exchange of Anglo-Catholic and Tractarian ideas, and among the personalities involved. Some of these are connected in a well researched 1999 article by Larry Crockett, who gives a clue to his sentiments by referring repeatedly to conversion to Rome as “secession.” The article is “The Oxford Movement and the 19th-Century Episcopal Church: Anglo-Catholic Ecclesiology and the American Experience,” in the online theological review Quodlibet Journal.
For those who have just witnessed Pope Benedict’s beatification of John Henry Newman, a relevant, and heretofore largely neglected, story is that of Levi and Rebecca Ives. Today married Anglican and Episcopal clergy converting to Rome frequently are admitted to the Roman Catholic priesthood. This did not happen in the 19th century. Today departures of clergy from Canterbury to Rome are taken graciously by the Anglican side. In 1853, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church denounced Levi Ives as an “absconding and apostate delinquent.”
Ives wrote a book-length apologia, The Trials of a Mind in its Progress to Catholicism, published in 1854 and now available in full on the Internet. However, it is not so much an autobiography as a detailed pronouncement in favor of Roman Catholic versus Anglican claims.
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