Anglican Notables – John Keble – 29 March

Anglican Notables – John Keble (Priest, Tractarian, Poet) – 29 March

[This is a series of biographical sketches of Anglican men and women whose lives have been exemplary in virtue and/or have made significant contributions to Anglicanism’s expression of the Gospel.  Written from the perspective of full communion with the See of St. Peter, including such papal statements as St. John Paul II’s encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, this series will occasionally acknowledge differences between Anglicans and Catholics where they exist and will do so in a spirit of charity and respect.  However, the intent is to focus less on differences than on opportunities for mutual enrichment between the Anglican and Catholic traditions and on shared spiritual treasures that already unite us.]

John Keble.  Born 25 April 1792, Fairford, Gloucestershire, England – Died 29 March 1866, The Bournemouth, England.  Commemorated 14 July in the Church of England, 29 March in the Episcopal Church of the United States.

[ Image: George Richmond, _John Keble_ (1863).  National Portrait Gallery, London ]

[Long has it seemed to me that John Keble was to the Oxford Movement something of what St. Stephen Harding was to the twelfth-century Cistercian reforms of monasticism.  As it happens, both men came from the West Country, Stephen Harding from Dorset, Keble from Gloucestershire.  Both were intellectually brilliant but “in a quiet, unobtrusive and unostentatious way,” as one of Keble’s biographers wrote of him (Hylson-Smith 131, quoting Battiscombe ix).  Both were radical, in the etymological sense of the word: returning or remaining faithful to the roots of things.  Yet, this radical integrity resulted in claims many would have termed revolutionary.  Stephen returned to the roots of the Benedictine monastic tradition and, in the process, launched a new form of monastic governance as well as a renewed commitment to monastic observance.  Keble remained constant to his High Church roots, though High Churchmanship had ceased to enjoy widespread favor since the Revolution of 1688 and the defeats (in worldly terms) of the Non-Jurors (including that preeminent High Churchman Thomas Ken) and though Keble saw indications of a worsening situation—possibly the Church of England’s disestablishment—leading up to the summer of 1833.  It was therefore Keble—perhaps most sincerely at home in the quiet role of a country parson when compared to the Newman and Edward Bouverie Pusey—who launched the controversial Oxford Movement in 1833 with his sermon on “national apostasy.”  As for personalities, the older, quieter Stephen Harding has always been overshadowed by Bernard of Claivaux, and the same applies to Keble and Newman.  Bernard had a brilliance of his own that was of an international order, but it could not have accomplished what it did without Stephen’s organizational brilliance and scholarship.  Newman was also of a brilliance that continues to transcend nineteenth-century England, the still-somewhat rural, quiet Oxford of their day, and certainly the country vicarage.  But Newman, whose upbringing had leaned much more Evangelical than not, could not have been exposed so profoundly to High Church ecclesiological ideals and to the riches of patristic literature but for the influence Keble had already established in the Oriel College Common Room.

Convinced that Keble deserves to be much better known than he is, I devote the remainder of this biography to large swathes from Hylson-Smith’s presentation of Keble in pages 131-137 of his _High Churchmanship in the Church of England_, which in turn relies heavily on Georgina Battiscombe’s 1964 biography of Keble.

Also, following is a list of links to earlier posts on this website that discuss the influence of Keble in the Anglican patrimony:

Birthday of the Oxford Movement – 14 July 2016.

The Oxford Movement Today – 14 July 2018

Shunning Controversy: The Greatness of Humility – 25 March 2019

Separated Doctors: The Anglican-Patrimonial Difference – 17 January 2020

Brother John-Bede Pauley, O.S.B. ]

“Of the three Oxford movement giants, Keble, Newman and Pusey, Keble has received the least attention and the least acknowledgement for his contribution not only to the movement but to the history of the Church.  This is partly due to the fact that his life was not ‘before the world’ to the extent that Newman’s and Pusey’s were ….  His contemporaries were quick to recognize his importance, and indeed within the movement he was, in certain respects, seen as pre-eminent.  Newman especially, and Pusey to a lesser extent, unintentionally attracted the limelight to themselves.  Nonetheless, of these three Keble was the oldest ‘and, in a sense, the first in the field’. [Battiscombe xvi]  His book of poems, The Christian Year, was published six years before the accepted date for the beginning of the movement, and it rapidly established itself not only as the foundation devotional text of the movement, but as a work of lasting value which was to have an almost incalculable effect on English religious life in the nineteenth century. It was Keble, with his roots in the High Church Tory tradition, who exercised such a great influence on the Oxford of his day that he helped to prepare the ground for the impending movement. It was Keble who preached the Assize Sermon in 1833 which inaugurated the movement; and it was Keble who, by his saintly life, ‘blessed and fructified’ the movement.  [Battiscombe xviii]  It was Keble also who initially took the movement out to the world beyond Oxford, yet remained its most respected adviser and elder stateman.

Keble’s “father was a clergyman, like so many of his family, being parish priest of Coln St. Aldwyn near Fairford in Gloucestershire, and in his childhood he was surrounded by relations in a close-knit family. … The home life he enjoyed provided him with the character forming … ‘reticent, reverent and practical” High Churchmanship of his father. [Charlotte Yonge, quoted in Battiscombe 11]

“In 1807 he won a scholarship and went up to Corpus Christi, Oxford.  He flourished in the congenial loveliness of an Oxford which was then small and homogeneous, and dedicated to providing a literary education almost exclusively for Anglican gentlemen.  Nearly every Fellow was in Orders and the Oxford of Keble’s undergraduate days was ‘comfortably reminiscent of a cathedral close’.  [Battiscombe 18]  It was expected that Keble would achieve a brilliant examination result and the expectation was not disappointed …. [He] was awarded a Double First.  He had attained to the highest Oxford Honours at the age of entry to the University for most young men.  ….  Four days before his nineteenth birthday, he was elected to an Oriel Fellowship, a prize which was then regarded as the crown and seal of a successful University career.  Then his depth of character was revealed.  Amid the mighty men of argument who constituted the Oriel Common Room, he remained true to the reverent, conservative High Church ideals of his home, and was untouched by the free-ranging and sceptical temper of the College society around him.  Indeed, ‘far from Oriel influencing John Keble it was John Keble who influenced Oriel’.  [Battiscombe 29-30]

“In 1815 he was ordained deacon and later in the year priest.  He then promptly became curate of Eastleach, a neighbouring parish to Fairford, and retained the post for eight years [but was installed as tutor at Oriel in 1818, which meant combining both parochial and academic duties.]

“In Oxford he was increasingly venerated. He grew steadily and undramatically in his own devotional and spiritual life, for he never experienced any sudden conversion or radical change.  He had a deep belief in sacramental religion, but a reticence which meant that his religious and moral influence over others was largely the influence of example; and it was especially powerful in the lives of Newman, [Richard Hurrell] Froude and Pusey. But there was to be another break in his Oxford career, for in 1823 he resigned his Oriel Fellowship to become curate of Southrop, a few miles from Fairford.  It was there that he sowed the first seeds of the Oxford movement, for he held vacation reading-parties for Oxford students and attracted Hurrell Froude, Robert Wilberforce, one of the four sons of the Evangelical leader of the Clapham Sect, William Wilberforce, and William Williams.

“In 1827 he published _The Christian Year_.  By its tone as much as by its content, it advocated a sober, even sombre, godliness which was somewhat lacking in emotion and music. It did not aspire to being great literature: it was written as a commentary on the Book of Common Prayer and as a guide to devotion, and as such it was to be of immense help and comfort to thousands.  It also contained poems which where to win permanent fame, including the Whitsun hymn, ‘When God of old came down from Heaven’, and the evening hymn ‘Sun of my soul’.  There is little in it which can be regarded as specifically Tractarian or High Church, although it has always been regarded as a central work in the life of the Oxford movement.  It was probably its ethos, its close identity with the teaching of the Prayer Book, and its encouragement to a restrained, but profound and deep holiness which appealed to Tractarians and High Churchmen in general, as well as to a much wider readership.

Keble’s widespread popularity because of _The Christian Year_ meant he was chosen as a candidate for the Oriel provostship when it fell vacant.  “Perhaps much to his regret in later life, Newman voted for [the other candidate] Hawkins, defending his choice with the remark ‘You know we are not electing an angel but a Provost.’ … Keble’s natural distaste for a struggle, and his genuine Christian humility made him resolve to avoid a contested election, and he quickly withdrew in favour of Hawkins.

“In 1829 Keble for the first time expressed his Tory principles in a political campaign when he joined with Newman and Froude to attack Peel because of his reversal of policy in declaring his support of Catholic Emancipation. It marked the first public concerted action of the triumverate [sic] who were to combine as leaders of the Oxford movement.  [Keble] seemed unable even to contemplate the injustice done to Roman Catholics in withholding emancipation in his passionate concern to protect the interests of the Church of England.  [But he saw the Catholic Emancipation Act as a threat to the basis of the Church of England’s authority, which would no longer be upheld by] a Parliament which might soon admit men of all Christian traditions or no religion at all.  It was his response to this challenge which motivated and formed the substance of his 1833 Assize Sermon.  His heart was full of foreboding for the future.  England appeared to be drifting from its Christian heritage, and the call of Christians was to resist the national apostasy.

“… In 1835 he was offered, and accepted … the living of Hursley, and within a few months he had married Charlotte Clarke.  In January 1836 he was inducted as Vicar and settled down to his cherished life of devotion, counsel, writing and service, for his lot was now permanently fixed.

“Hursley was a community of about thirteen hundred people located between the high Hampshire chalk downs and the heavily wooded country bordering the New Forest, in which the generous and devout Churchman, Sir William Heathcote, ruled as squire and worked in close and happy partnership with the parson for the betterment of the parish.  For thirty years Keble attempted to put the principles of the Oxford movement into practice. He laid a great stress on the duty of church-going as a ‘service’ due to God rather than as primarily a means of edification.  Comparatively little emphasis was laid on the sermon, although teaching was regarded as of paramount importance.  Thus, at Sunday Evensong there was no sermon, but Keble catechized the children, boys on one Sunday, girls the next, and after the catechizing he summed up questions and answers in a brief, practical manner for the benefit of the listening adults.  Daily Mattins and Evensong was introduced, there was an increase in the number of celebrations of Holy Communion, and a rise in the number of communicants.  In contrast to most parishes where confirmation candidates were given little or no preparation beforehand, Keble attached great importance to confirmation and took the utmost pains with his candidates, giving them instruction every week for a period of six months to a year before the actual confirmation.  … Keble’s care of his parishioners became proverbial, and it was not all gentleness, for he was stern where necessary.  The children were his special concern and delight, and no matter what the pressures of work might be, he spent one hour each morning and afternoon teaching in the village school.  He controversially adopted the practice of private confession, because he regarded it as an essential part of  his pastoral ministry, in order to really know the minds and souls of his parishioners, and also vital for the enforcement of discipline.  In the matter of morality he was, however, not severely and harshly restrictive.  He did not try to enforce a repressive piety.  Indeed, he attracted some criticism for allowing penny-readings throughout the solemn season of Lent, and introduced certain Sunday games such as cricket after Evensong, for he wished Sunday to be a cheerful day….

“During his time at Hursley Keble … joined with Pusey and Newman in editing the _Library of the Fathers_, … translations of the works of the early Fathers of the Church…. 

“In September 1865 [the year, incidentally, in which Newman’s serialized version of his Apologia pro vita sua was published in book form] the aged trio, Newman, Pusey and Keble met at Hursley.  It was an encounter which brought as much pain as pleasure to each of them, yet they were happy to feel that at last they were at peace with each other.  Keble died very peacefully less than a year later, in the early hours of Maundy Thursday, 29 March 1866 ….  So many people wanted to do him honour that the necessary money was soon subscribed for a very considerable memorial, Keble College, Oxford.  It was a response to the memory of a man who had a brilliant intellect, but who was most loved for his wisdom, wholesomeness, idiosyncrasies, limitations and holiness.”

Non-Online Sources:

Battiscombe, Georgina.  _John Keble: A Study in Limitations_.  Knopf, 1964.

Hylson-Smith, Kenneth. _High Churchmanship in the Church of England: From the Sixteenth Century to the Late Twentieth Century_. T&T Clark, 1993.

Nockles, Peter Benedict.  _The Oxford Movement in Context: Anglican High Churchmanship, 1760-1857_.  Cambridge University Press, 1994

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