On February 21, 1801, John Henry Newman was born into an Anglican home in London, England. Neither of Newman’s parents was particularly religious. To the extent that they had any religious convictions at all, they believed in generic Bible religion. The premise of Bible religion was simple: through private reading of the Bible, the individual believer could determine for himself what doctrines he would believe. One’s religious convictions were an entirely private, personal matter.
When Newman was 15 he had a religious experience that changed his life. While praying he became deeply aware that following Jesus meant subscribing to a particular dogmatic creed. Newman was struck by the factr that Jesus taught a particular religious doctrine and founded a Church. In this Church, the Apostles promulgated Christ’s teachings with divine authority. Newman knew from his Bible reading that Jesus had promised the Church the Holy Spirit to guide her into all truth. For this reason, he came to the conclusion that this dogmatic creed had to be found in the Church.
Newman’s rejection of religious relativism was just the beginning. In the England of his day there were many different religious creeds. Anglicanism, the Church into which Newman was born, was in reality several different doctrinal systems co-existing in the same church. There were some Anglicans who were radical Protestants and believed that the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist were nothing but empty symbols. On the other hand, there were Anglicans who believed that deacons, priests and bishops received sacramental grace when they were ordained through the laying on hands and that baptism and the Eucharist were more than just symbols. On top of all this, there were some liberal Anglicans who did not believe in much of anything as regards supernatural revelation.
There were also Evangelical movements outside of the Anglican Church like Methodism that preached a doctrine that is something along the line of born-again Christians today. According to them, true Christians had to have an adult conversion experience in which they realized they were sinners and accepted Jesus into their heart as their savior. This religion was high on emotionalism but almost entirely devoid of doctrinal content.
None of these groups satisfied Newman. He was an Oxford-trained classical scholar and a first-rate historian. From his reading of early Christian writers he knew that none of these doctrinal systems were consistent with what the first Christians believed. In his study of history he found that there was one thing that separated early heretics who rejected huge chunks of the Bible from the Christians who accepted the New Testament we have today as the inspired Word of God: the Doctrine of the Apostolic Succession.
Paul writes to Timothy in one of the Apostle’s pastoral letters that the bishop should, “stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of hands.”
The gift of God to which Paul refers is the gift of the Holy Spirit to guard and pass on the deposit of doctrine that Jesus entrusted to His Apostles. These words give evidence of the Apostles ritual imposition of hands on the leaders of the churches they founded. In this sacramental rite these first bishops received from the Apostles the spiritual power to teach, govern and celebrate the sacraments in the name of Christ.
At this point in his investigation, Newman had already become an Anglican minister. Like most Englishmen in that age, he had been raised to think of the Pope as the Antichrist and the Catholic Church as an enemy of his country. But as much as he wanted to hate the Catholic Church, his historical research was indisputable: The Catholic Church was the same Church that Jesus Christ Himself founded. She alone taught all of the doctrines to which the first Christians subscribed. Through an unbroken succession of bishops going back the Apostles, the Catholic Church had preserved intact the doctrinal deposit that Jesus had given the Apostles the authority to promulgate. This, finally, was the dogmatic Christian creed for which Newman first began to search when he was 15. At about forty years of age Newman resigned his living as an Anglican minister and was received into the Catholic Church. His family disowned him, his friends abandoned him and he became an outcast in British society.
Several years later Newman was ordained a Catholic priest. Toward the end of his life Pope Leo XIII made him a cardinal. His cause for beatification is now in its final stages. He is considered by many to be the most important spiritual writer who has ever written in the English language.
Newman summed up his conversion experience with a pithy phrase, “To become immersed in history is to cease to be Protestant.”