John Henry Newman, Edward Gibbon, and the true character of history

The rise of Christianity, for Newman, primarily involved those who accepted and cooperated with God’s particular Providence and those who rejected and spurned it. Gibbon, on the other hand, regarded ordinary people and their yearning for God from an aloof, contemptuous remove.

Left: Portrait of Cardinal John Henry Newman by John Everett Millais [Wikipedia]; right: Portrait of Edward Gibbon by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792) [Wikipedia]

The quote that one hears most often trotted out about Newman and history is: “to be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.”

Now, even taken out of context, the quote reaffirms a good deal of what we know about Newman’s relation to history. As a student of the early Church Fathers, Newman was converted from Anglican Protestantism to Roman Catholicism largely by consulting the work of the Fathers – especially, the work they did in identifying, verifying and reaffirming the fidei depositum– and by recognizing that the Early Church and the Catholic Church were one and the same. Of course, one of the fundamental claims made by Protestants in Newman’s day was that the Catholic Church is not the same as the Early Church because it is a corruption of that primitive Church. If we look at the work of the Whig historians, from Henry Hallam and Connop Thirlwell to Henry Hart Milman and James Anthony Froude, we can see how persistently they sought to substantiate this claim. However, both the early Fathers and the later Fathers told a different tale. The Catholic Church was an authentic development, not a corruption of the Early Church. Indeed, for the convert in Newman, it was the National Church, cobbled together by Henry VIII and the first Elizabeth in the sixteenth century that was a corruption of the “one holy catholic and apostolic” faith, and not the other way round.

Yet if we put Newman’s quote in its larger context, we can see that he was making an additional point, which nicely exhibits the acuity of his historical sense.

Whatever be historical Christianity, it is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this. And Protestantism has ever felt it so. I do not mean that every Protestant writer has felt it; for it was the fashion at first, at least as a rhetorical argument against Rome, to appeal to past ages, or to some of them; but Protestantism, as a whole, feels it, and has felt it. This is shown in the determination of dispensing with historical Christianity altogether, and of forming a Christianity from the Bible alone; men never would have put it aside, unless they had despaired of it. It is shown by the long neglect of ecclesiastical history in England, which prevails even in the English Church. Our popular religion scarcely recognizes the fact of the twelve long ages which lie between the Councils of Nicaea and Trent, except as affording one or two passages to illustrate its wild interpretations of certain prophesies of St. Paul and St. John. It is melancholy to say it, but the chief, perhaps the only English writer who has any claim to be considered an ecclesiastical historian, is the unbeliever Gibbon. To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.

In other words, for Newman, it was no accident that the Protestant English should have been content to have so zealously anti-Catholic a historian as Edward Gibbon writing their ecclesiastical history. After all, if they had paid attention to any more balanced church historian, they would have run the risk of encountering real church history; and they could not have borne that because it might very well have forced them “to cease to be Protestant.”

Gibbon’s animus against Christianity per semay not have been altogether congenial to all English Protestants; the thesis of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, after all – which, incidentally, Gibbon pinched from Voltaire – was that Rome fell because of what Gibbon styled “the triumph of barbarism and religion,” specifically, the Christian religion. Nevertheless, for English Protestants, his history did have the benefit of not contradicting the Anglican view of church history, which Newman memorably encapsulated in one of his best satirical sallies in his Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics. In that brilliant book, published in 1851, which I commend to all of my readers for its witty demolition of the entire No Popery house of cards, Newman got at the root of the Protestant Englishman’s fanciful notions about his national identity by locating them squarely in his even more fanciful notions about the progress of the Christian faith. In his marvelous lectures, Newman explains that for English Protestants, “Christianity was very pure in the beginning, was very corrupt in the middle age, and is very pure again in England now, though still corrupt everywhere else.” Moreover, as Newman observes, “in the middle age, a tyrannical institution called the Church arose and swallowed up Christianity.” Fortunately, however, “the Church is alive still, and has not yet disgorged its prey, except, as aforesaid, in our own favoured country.” The reason this should be the case is simple. As Newman describes it, “in the middle age, there was no Christianity anywhere at all, but all was dark and horrible, as bad as paganism, or rather much worse. No one knew anything about God, or whether there was a God or no, nor about Christ or His atonement; for the Blessed Virgin, and Saints, and the Pope, and images, were worshipped instead; and thus, so far from religion benefitting the generations of mankind who lived in that dreary time, it did them infinitely more harm than good.”

Here Newman’s satirical wit exposed how English Protestants resolutely refused to consider the real course of ecclesiastical history, a refusal extensively exhibited in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, where scoffing and mockery take the place of any equitable criticism of Christianity’s true progress. It was not only the rise of Catholicism that Gibbon misunderstood but Catholicism itself. And here, again, the historian in Newman is indispensable because he shows the extent to which Gibbon was not only unsympathetic to Catholicism but intent on ignoring any evidence that might show why the Faith commanded the unprecedented allegiance it commanded.

In his History of Latin Christianity (1855), the liberal Anglican historian, Henry Hart Milman followed Gibbon by paying attention only to the externals of the Faith. In “Mr. Milman’s View of Christianity” (1841), Newman wrote about an abiding feature of rationalist, secular accounts of the rise of Christianity. “For the fact is undeniable, little as Mr. Milman may be aware of it, that this external contemplation of Christianity necessarily leads a man to write as a Socinian or Unitarian would write, whether he will or not. Mr. Milman has not been able to avoid this dreadful disadvantage, and thus, however heartily he may hate the opinions of such men himself, he has unintentionally both given scandal to his brethren and cause of triumph to the enemy. A very few words will account for this. The great doctrines which the Socinian denies are our Lord’s divinity and atonement; now these are not external facts;—what he confesses are His humanity and crucifixion; these are external facts. Mr. Milman then is bound by his theory to dwell on the latter, to slur over the former.”

Newman was adamant that if historians neglected the inner substance of the Faith, especially as it was attested by the martyrs, they would only produce a rationalist caricature of the Faith. And, indeed, if we look at most histories of Christianity that followed the baleful example of Gibbon – with the honorable exceptions of those by John Lingard and, more recently, Peter Brown and Louis Wilken – we can see that this reductionist, secular, rational bias continues to be prevalent.

In this regard, it was ironic that Gibbon should have used the Arian heresy to argue the absurdity of seeing the rise of the Church in terms of the rise of her theology because, in a fundamental way, Gibbon and all of the rationalist Liberal historians who followed him were Arians themselves. That is to say, they refused to concede that in order to write a proper history of Christianity it was necessary to include not only the human aspects of the Faith but the divine aspects as well. And by insisting that the evidence of martyrdom revealed both these aspects of the Faith, Newman was insisting that it was only by taking into consideration the Creator’s particular Providence – His direct, personal, unwavering love for His creatures– that we could understand and represent the true character of history.

Of course, Newman recognizes that such direct, personal, unwavering solicitude on the part of a loving Creator is difficult to credit, much less fathom, even by those who rejoice in His Providence. In his moving sermon, “A Particular Providence as Revealed in the Gospel” (1835), Newman responded to the vision of history that Gibbon set out in his voluminous history – a vision from which God is largely absent or present only as the result of the claims of deluded fanaticism – with a profound reminder of the one factor that gives all of human and divine history its governing purpose.

God beholds thee individually, whoever thou art. He “calls thee by thy name.” He sees thee, and understands thee, as He made thee. He knows what is in thee, all thy own peculiar feelings and thoughts, thy dispositions and likings, thy strength and thy weakness. He views thee in thy day of rejoicing, and thy day of sorrow. He sympathises in thy hopes and thy temptations. He interests Himself in all thy anxieties and remembrances, all the risings and fallings of thy spirit. He has numbered the very hairs of thy head and the cubits of thy stature. He compasses thee round and bears thee in his arms; He takes thee up and sets thee down. He notes thy very countenance, whether smiling or in tears, whether healthful or sickly. He looks tenderly upon thy hands and thy feet; He hears thy voice, the beating of thy heart, and thy very breathing. Thou dost not love thyself better than He loves thee. Thou canst not shrink from pain more than He dislikes thy bearing it; and if He puts it on thee, it is as thou would put it on thyself, if thou art wise, for a greater good afterwards. Thou art not only His creature (though for the very sparrows He has a care, and pitied the “much cattle” of Nineveh), thou art man redeemed and sanctified, His adopted son, favoured with a portion of that glory and blessedness which flows from Him everlastingly unto the Only-begotten. Thou art chosen to be His… Thou wast one of those for whom Christ offered up His last prayer, and sealed it with His precious blood. What a thought is this, a thought almost too great for our faith!

The rise of Christianity, for Newman, primarily involved those who accepted and cooperated with God’s particular Providence and those who rejected and spurned it. Faith is the means by which the individual, with God’s providential grace, enters into the reality of history, which, for Newman, is not simply something that concerns historians or savants. Gibbon, on the other hand, regarded ordinary people and their yearning for God from an aloof, contemptuous remove. “The decline of ancient prejudice exposed a very numerous portion of human kind to the danger of a painful and comfortless situation,” he writes of the desuetude into which devotion to the imperial gods fell before the Incarnation:

A state of scepticism and suspense may amuse a few inquisitive minds. But the practice of superstition is so congenial to the multitude that, if they are forcibly awakened, they still regret the loss of their pleasing vision. Their love of the marvellous and supernatural, their curiosity with regard to future events, and their strong propensity to extend their hopes and fears beyond the limits of the visible world, were the principal causes which favoured the establishment of Polytheism. So urgent on the vulgar is the necessity of believing that the fall of any system of mythology will most probably be succeeded by the introduction of some other mode of superstition.

Compared to this dismissive view of “the vulgar” and their susceptibility to what Gibbon regarded as mere superstition, nothing could be more refreshing than Newman’s view of the ordinary faithful. “Religion has its own enlargement, and an enlargement, not of tumult, but of peace,” he writes in The Idea of a University (1873).

It is often remarked of uneducated persons, who have hitherto thought little of the unseen world, that, on their turning to God, looking into themselves, regulating their hearts, reforming their conduct, and meditating on death and judgment, heaven and hell, they seem to become, in point of intellect, different beings from what they were. Before, they took things as they came, and thought no more of one thing than another. But now every event has a meaning; they have their own estimate of whatever happens to them; they are mindful of times and seasons, and compare the present with the past; and the world, no longer dull, monotonous, unprofitable, and hopeless, [the world, in other words, that Gibbon presents us throughout the Decline and Fall) is a various and complicated drama, with parts and an object, and an awful moral.

What Newman found most objectionable about Gibbon’s polemical treatment of Christianity was not that it tallied with heterodox theology – that was a given – but that it prefigured the widespread infidelity to which liberalism would give rise in the nineteenth century. Of course, in reading his various works as well as his voluminous letters, we can see how at once consistent and incisive Newman’s lifelong critique of liberalism was, a critique which many scholars now working in the liberal academy are intent on discrediting. That they are attempting to do this by contending that Newman was mistaken in his opposition to liberalism because he somehow did not understand what liberalism was about will give my readers a good sense of just how mischievous and brazen this enterprise is. Indeed, in most cases, their only refutation of Newman’s criticism of the very liberalism that they promote themselves is to argue that the criticism itself is inadmissible because it is unfounded. Yet in his most succinct definition, which he gave in his famous Biglietto speech in Rome after Leo XIII made him a cardinal on 12 May 1879, he spoke of an evil that no faithful Catholic today would ever dare deny.

Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily. It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion, as true. It teaches that all are to be tolerated, for all are matters of opinion. Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous; and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy. Devotion is not necessarily founded on faith. Men may go to Protestant Churches and to Catholic, may get good from both and belong to neither. They may fraternise together in spiritual thoughts and feelings, without having any views at all of doctrine in common, or seeing the need of them. Since, then, religion is so personal a peculiarity and so private a possession, we must of necessity ignore it in the intercourse of man with man. If a man puts on a new religion every morning, what is that to you? It is as impertinent to think about a man’s religion as about his sources of income or his management of his family. Religion is in no sense the bond of society.

Whenever I see liberal academic historians disputing the accuracy of Newman’s definition of liberalism—most of whom follow uncritically in the footsteps of the scurrilous Frank Turner, the late Yale Professor of History, who wrote an almost pathological assault on the great convert’s faith and integrity, accusing him of having been “the first great, and perhaps most enduring, Victorian skeptic” — I am reminded of something to which Yeats gave pungent expression in his poem, “The Seven Sages” (1933), where he asks

                          what is Whiggery?
A levelling, rancorous, rational sort of mind
That never looked out of the eye of a saint
Or out of a drunkard’s eye.

No one understood how this “levelling, rancorous, rational sort of mind” animated the French Revolution better than Edmund Burke, the prophetic insights of whose works demonstrate why Newman was right to oppose the rationalism at the heart of nineteenth-century liberalism, the mischief of which is with us still in the twenty-first century.

Apropos the Revolution, it is important to note that there was no keener admirer of Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution (which came out in 1790, only two years after the last volume of the Decline and Fall appeared) than Edward Gibbon, who saw it as a necessary defense of the public order and the rights of property that the revolutionaries had so thoroughly undermined. Nonetheless, Gibbon was entirely mum on Burke’s critique of the havoc wrought by the anti-Catholic ideas of the philosophes, ideas which were of the essence of Jacobinism. Of course, conceding the accuracy of that critique would have required Gibbon to admit the wrongheadedness of his own promotion of the same ideas in his Decline and Fall. In his intellectually dishonest silence, in other words, he sought to conceal his own culpability for touting such anti-Catholic ideas, all of which would become staples of nineteenth-century liberalism.

Newman, however, more than any of his contemporaries, saw the great prescience of Burke’s recognition of the bloodshed and mayhem to which Enlightenment Europe’s apostasy would lead, and in his lifelong opposition to liberalism we can see his debt to Burke’s great anatomy of the evils of apostasy. One can demonstrate this easily enough by quoting the two men in succession. Here is Burke in a letter written to his beloved son, Richard, in 1792, in which he warned that:

If ever the Church and the Constitution of England should fall in these Islands, (and they will fall together), it is not Presbyterian discipline, nor Popish hierarchy, that will rise upon their ruins. It will not be the Church of Rome nor the Church of Scotland—not the Church of Luther, nor the Church of Calvin. On the contrary, all these Churches are menaced, and menaced alike. It is the new fanatical Religion, now in the heat of its first ferment, of the Rights of Man, which rejects all Establishments, all discipline, all Ecclesiastical, and in truth all Civil order, which will triumph, and which will lay prostrate your Church . . . If the present establishment should fall, it is this religion which will triumph in Ireland and in England, as it has triumphed in France. This religion, which laughs at creeds and dogmas, and confessions of faith, may be fomented equally amongst all descriptions and all sects; amongst nominal Catholics, and amongst nominal churchmen; and amongst those dissenters, who know little and care less about a presbytery, or any of its discipline, or any of its doctrine.

And for Newman’s part, in his lecture, “On the Patristic Idea of Anti-Christ” (1835), he sets out how the French Jacobins had provided the boilerplate for the liberalism that would enter England in its wake:

[I]n the Capital of that powerful and celebrated nation, there took place, as we all well know, within the last fifty years, an open apostasy from Christianity; nor from Christianity only, but from every kind of worship which might retain any semblance or pretence of the great truths of religion; atheism was absolutely professed;—and yet in spite of this, it seems a contradiction in terms to say it, a certain sort of worship, and that, as the prophet expresses it, “a strange worship,” was introduced.

Observe what this was. I say, they avowed on the one hand Atheism. They prevailed upon a wretched man, whom they had forced upon the Church as an Archbishop, to come before them in public and declare that there was no God, and that what he had hitherto taught was a fable. They wrote up over the burial-places that death was an eternal sleep. They closed the churches, they seized and desecrated the gold and silver plate belonging to them, turning, like Belshazzar, those sacred vessels to the use of their impious revellings; they formed mock processions, clad in priestly garments, and singing profane hymns. They annulled the divine ordinance of marriage, resolving it into a mere civil contract to be made and dissolved at pleasure. These things are but a part of their enormities.

On the other hand, after having broken away from all restraint as regards God and man, they gave a name to that reprobate state itself into which they had thrown themselves, and exalted it, that very negation of religion, or rather that real and living blasphemy, into a kind of god. They called it Liberty, and they literally worshipped it as a divinity. It would almost be incredible, that men who had flung off all religion should be at the pains to assume a new and senseless worship of their own devising, whether in superstition or in mockery, were not events so recent and so notorious. After abjuring our Lord and Saviour, and blasphemously declaring Him to be an impostor, they proceeded to decree, in the public assembly of the nation, the adoration of Liberty and Equality as divinities: and they appointed festivals besides in honour of Reason…

Here was the historical context that Newman supplied for his concerns over liberalism—a revolutionary context in which liberalism became not only anti-religion but a religion in itself. And we can readily see how Gibbon’s anti-Christian, rationalist history contributed to the anti-Christian, rationalist tyranny that came to define the French Revolution, which has provided the blueprint for all future revolutions.

The redoubtable diplomatic historian, George Peabody Gooch, who lived a splendidly long life (from 1873 to 1968) was convinced, as he said in his magisterial History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century (1913) that “Gibbon constructed a bridge from the old world to the new which is still the highway of nations, and stands erect long after every other structure of the time has fallen into ruins.” This was truer than old Gooch could have realized. But to appreciate just how truly he spoke, we need to consult the prophetic historian in Newman.

Why should any of us bother ourselves about this new religion of Liberty and Equality? We should bother ourselves about it because it is the same religion to which our own rationalists subscribe, those who promote contraception and abortion, sodomy and transgenderism, gender theory and what the most impudent of them style ‘same-sex marriage.’ It is replete with notions of false liberty. It is anti-life and it is most decidedly anti-Catholic.

In conclusion, Newman is an historian worth heeding because he recognized that history is not, pace Gibbon, “little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind;” it is the register of man’s need for salvation—indeed, his hope for salvation—which is why Newman’s own history is founded on the Cross, as we can see most brilliantly in his sermon, “The Cross of Christ the Measure of the World” (1841):

It is the death of the Eternal Word of God made flesh, which is our great lesson how to think and how to speak of this world. His Cross has put its due value upon everything which we see, upon all fortunes, all advantages, all ranks, all dignities, all pleasures; upon the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. It has set a price upon the excitements, the rivalries, the hopes, the fears, the desires, the efforts, the triumphs of mortal man. It has given a meaning to the various, shifting course, the trials, the temptations, the sufferings, of his earthly state. It has brought together and made consistent all that seemed discordant and aimless. It has taught us how to live, how to use this world, what to expect, what to desire, what to hope…

Go to the political world: see nation jealous of nation, trade rivalling trade, armies and fleets matched against each other. Survey the various ranks of the community, its parties and their contests, the strivings of the ambitious, the intrigues of the crafty. What is the end of all this turmoil? the grave. What is the measure? the Cross.

Go, again, to the world of intellect and science: consider the wonderful discoveries which the human mind is making, the variety of arts to which its discoveries give rise, the all but miracles by which it shows its power; and next, the pride and confidence of reason, and the absorbing devotion of thought to transitory objects, which is the consequence. Would you form a right judgment of all this? look at the Cross.

Again: look at misery, look at poverty and destitution, look at oppression and captivity; go where food is scanty, and lodging unhealthy. Consider pain and suffering, diseases long or violent, all that is frightful and revolting. Would you know how to rate all these? gaze upon the Cross.

Thus in the Cross, and Him who hung upon it, all things meet; all things subserve it, all things need it. It is their centre and their interpretation. For He was lifted up upon it, that He might draw all men and all things unto Him.

The eminent Acton scholar, Josef Althoz, who taught for many years at the University of Minnesota and edited Acton’s letters to the liberal Catholic Richard Simpson, argued that Newman’s “commitment to religion was too profound to allow him to submit to the rival discipline of history” and that therefore “he was ahistorical in his outlook.” Keeping this great sermon on the Cross in mind, I should argue that it is precisely because of Newman’s “commitment to religion” – the very essence of religion – that he understood history in ways that entirely eluded Gibbon and continues to elude all of his rationalist progeny within and outside of the Church.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Edward Short 38 Articles
Edward Short is the author of Newman and his Contemporaries, Newman and his Family, and Newman and History, as well as Adventure in the Book Pages: Essays and Reviews. His latest book, What the Bells Sang, includes essays on poets, moralists, novelists, historians, and Saint John Henry Cardinal Newman. He lives in New York with his wife and two young children.


  1. Yes Edward Short man of limited academic credentials exceeding in academic acumen. Like some who perceive. We don’t have the luxurious moment of displaying our expertise. All the marvelous arguments are now past. Fiery implacable witness to the truth of Christ sans intellectual frills is what alone will suffice.

    • As I reread my comment and the article I perceive I’m too iconoclastic. Life must go on and intellectual converse that affirms the faith is needed. “Thus in the Cross, and Him who hung upon it, all things meet; all things subserve it, all things need it”. Who can contend with Short’s critique of Gibbon as compared to Newman’s vision of human history?

  2. I wasn’t sure whether the the early morning sleep in my eyes was playing tricks on me but I believe that the pictures that adorn the top of the article should be reversed. Or, reverse the descriptions underneath the pictures. Great article, though.

  3. Encouraging piece, worth the effort it takes to follow the highly stylistic and quotable Newman quotes. Short’s “Newman and His Contemporaries” is very good too!

  4. Two admirable men of intellect and conviction. When Newman states “to be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.”, It is a statement he felt appropriate to his own life and we praise God that he found a closer walk with the Lord through the Catholic Church. Should it be categorized as a blanket statement though? Is an attachment to a church more important than adoration of Jesus Christ. I don’t know Newman’s mind, yet is it a question that all should ponder?

    Acts 17:24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man,

    Isaiah 66:1 Thus says the Lord: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest?

    Hebrews 13:8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

    Isaiah 44:6 Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.

    Matthew 28:19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.