Essay / Theology

National Apostasy

July 14, 1833, was the day when John Keble (1792-1866) preached his sermon with the title National Apostasy in St. Mary’s, Oxford. Though it was not recognized as a major event at the time, the sermon was published and distributed, and the events of the next decade would cause historians (following the testimony of John Henry Newman) to look back on this date as the beginning of the Oxford Movement, or Tractarianism.

Keble was a certified genius, having earned a “double first” at Oxford and become a fellow of Oriel College at age 19. He had tutored at Oriel until becoming curate in his father’s parish in 1823. His masterpiece is the book of religious poems called The Christian Year, published anonymously in 1827. From 1831 to 1841 he held the poetry lectureship at the university.

His “National Apostasy” sermon was a response to a mounting crisis in the life of the Anglican church, the background of which is rather complex. In the early nineteenth century, Paraliament had been extending more and more rights to its religious minorities, and legislation in 1828 and 1829 had opened the door for dissenters (non-Anglican Protestants) and Roman Catholics to become members of Parliament with full rights. Keble was not opposed to religious toleration as such, but consider the problem that ministers of the established Church of England now faced: Since Parliament had power to make judgments about the affairs of the established state church, a mixed body of Anglicans and non-Anglicans would now be making decisions about church matters. Keble knew that this was not the relationship between church and state envisaged by his beloved Richard Hooker, or Queen Elizabeth. With a Whiggish Parliament that was increasingly constituted by democratic means, and with secularized France as nearby example, Keble and other ministers feared that Erastianism, the dominance of state over church, was on the horizon. One historian has remarked that these developments produced “a parliament which could no longer be conceived as a lay synod of the Church of England,” and another has said that with the tolerance acts, “the ancient Anglican ideology of kings as the nursing fathers of the Church was a dead letter.”

The final outrage for Keble in July 1833 was a proposition to dissolve the positions of ten Anglican bishops in Ireland, withdrawing that Church of England presence from a Catholic populace. Keble decided that the English church had lost its way, and went to the pulpit with a text from 1 Samuel 12: “As for me, God forbid that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you: but I will teach you the good and the right way.”

The sermon on “National Apostasy” begins with Keble’s justification for preaching from an Old Testament text on matters of national interest. He said “We naturally turn to the Old Testament, when public duties, public errors, and public dangers, are in question,” even though the English remember only too well a time in the seventeenth century when “the Old Testament was quoted at random for every excess of fanatical pride and cruelty.” Today, the authority of the Old Testament is at the opposite extreme: “now, its authority goes for nothing, however clear and striking the analogies may be, which appear to warrant us in referring to it.”

The two extremes, as usual, meet ; and in this very remarkable point : that they both avail themselves of the supernatural parts of the Jewish revelation to turn away attention from that, which they, of course, most dread and dislike in it: its authoritative confirmation of the plain dictates of conscience in matters of civil wisdom and duty.

Keble, whose greatest writings in later years would be about the interpretation of Scripture, laid out a simple rule for handling the Old Testament, which is established in the Bible itself by the pattern of the New Testament’s use of the Old: “as regards reward and punishment, God dealt formerly with the Jewish people in a manner analogous to that in which He deals now, not so much with Christian nations, as with the souls of individual Christians.”

On this basis, Keble turns to the words of “Samuel, the truest of patriots,” and shows how he reacted to the Israelite request for a king. Was it not clear that

they rejected God? that they wished themselves rid of the moral restraint implied in His peculiar presence and covenant? They said, what the prophet Ezekial, long after, represents their worthy posterity as saying, ‘We will be as the heathen, the families of the countries.’ (Ezek. xx. 32.) ‘Once for all, we will get rid of these disagreeable, unfashionable scruples, which throw us behind, as we think, in the race of worldly honour and profit.’

Keble thought that this primal act of disobedience that “began the downfall of the Jewish nation” was “warning to all nations, as well as to all individual Christians, who, having accepted God for their King, allow themselves to be weary of subjection to Him, and think they should be happier if they were freer, and more like the rest of the world.”

After rehearsing the ways in which a Christian nation could set about scrubbing herself clean of all signs of Christian commitment, Keble turned to the duties of the church in such a time: Above all, prayers of intercession. “That duty once well and cordially performed, all other duties, so to speak, are secured.” Second, remonstrance: “calm, distinct, and persevering, in public and in private, direct and indirect, by word, look, and demeanour, is the unequivocal duty of every Christian, according to his opportunities, when the Church landmarks are being broken down.”

“We have ill learned the lessons of our Church, if we permit our patriotism to decay, together with the protecting care of the State,” said Keble. And near his conclusion, he warned that one of the worst things about such political excitements is that they tend to take over the whole attention of believers: “one chief danger, in times of change and excitement, arises from their tendency to engross the whole mind. Public concerns, ecclesiastical or civil, will prove indeed ruinous to those, who permit them to occupy all their care and thoughts, neglecting or undervaluing ordinary duties, more especially those of a devotional kind.”

The “National Apostasy” sermon, though it has attained the status of classic, is a mixture of success and failure. Keble was rightly sensitive to a major spiritual crisis in the life of his nation and church, but he identified it with a strange and convoluted series of causes. He had to position himself against religious toleration and Irish autonomy; in favor of an established church but against the church’s entanglement in the state’s decisions about the rights of its people; and against the rights of Roman Catholicism in the UK but even more opposed to Protestant principles.

It was a confusing start for what even its devotees confess turned out to be a confusing movement. The Oxford Movement was a constantly shifting set of allegiances and co-belligerencies, with its key players undergoing considerable changes and reversals in their positions during the decades after 1833. Of the “National Apostasy” sermon, Hans Schwarz says, “When Keble preached his famous sermon in 1833, Newman understood the occasion to be a divine summons to defend the church in the hour of peril.” By the time Newman came into his mature mind in the 1840s, he had decided that “defend the church” could only mean convert to Roman Catholicism. Keble remained Anglican, deploring most of the Reformation and much of the evangelical awakening, but considering the Roman church to have laid down insuperable obstacles to Christian unity. Liberalism and spiritual deadness were sweeping over the church like an unstoppable tide in those days. Though they meant different things by it, the men and women who were moved by the tremendous surge of theological, political, and spiritual energy that went into the Oxford Movement all heard “the divine summons to defend the church in the hour of peril,” and it was John Keble whose words first sounded the alarm.

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