A New York friend recently shared the excerpt below on John Henry Newman’s style of preaching. I’ve had a devotion to Newman for a long time, and prayed for his intercession at Brompton Oratory when I was in London in 2012. I wish I could be in Rome next month for his canonization. Anyway, I’m not sure what the source of this passage is, whether book or article or something else:
Newman’s matter and manner of delivery made no bid for popularity. He preached non-controversially on self-denial and the hunger for holiness, and on the majesty and awe-inspiring and all consuming love of God for man. One of his converts simply wrote that he ‘rooted in their hearts and minds a personal conviction of the living God’. But his speech was quick and his voice was low, and though it had a strangely musical quality, there was nothing obviously oratorical to attract the hero-worshipper, as he did not either vary his tone or move about or even gesture. Rather, he entered with such an imaginative power into the doubts and temptations of his hearers that they were caught up into a sense of the drama within themselves, even as they were transfixed by his projection of the utter reality of the supernatural world and by the sheer simple directness of his language describing it. Preaching or writing, he was calm and passionless as marble, and might well feel ‘like the pane of glass … which transmits heat yet is cold’. Yet his very restraint hinted at the fire within, suggesting a spiritual depth the more fascinating for being so artlessly concealed.
These qualities are summed up by Hurrell’s younger brother James Anthony, who came up to Oxford in 1835. Newman disliked Evangelical preaching of the Atonement for its want of reserve, and for bandying the most sacred doctrine of Christ’s suffering about like a talisman or charm to convert. His own preaching of the Passion was exactly the reverse. As Froude recalled it, Newman paused in his recital:
“For a few moments there was a breathless silence. Then, in a low, clear voice, of which the faintest vibration was audible in the farthest corner of St. Mary’s, he said, ‘Now, I bid you recollect that He to whom these things were done was Almighty God’. It was as if an electric stroke had gone through the church, as if every person present understood for the first time the meaning of what he had all his life been saying.”
Treat the doctrine in tones of quiet, though it is tremendous; even hide it; then when you unveil it, strike, and strike to the heart.
It was this quality of hidden power, of an heroic self-control over a buried inner fire, that was missed by Matthew Arnold, when he wistfully recalled Newman’s preaching in old age. “No such voices as those which we heard in our youth at Oxford are sounding there now. Oxford has more criticism now, more knowledge, more light; but such voices as those of our youth it has no longer … Newman … was preaching in St. Mary’s pulpit every Sunday … Who could resist the charm of that spiritual apparition, gliding in the dim afternoon light through the aisles of St. Mary’s, rising into the pulpit, and then, in the most entrancing of voices, breaking the silence with words and thoughts which were a religious music—subtle, sweet, mournful.”
I’m generally turned off by homiletics that sound like performance art. In a sense, Newman’s style of preaching sounds like a performance, but in the true sense of the word—no artifice, but an attempt at pointing toward the transcendent and true, in the same way all good art and beautiful things do in pointing beyond themselves.