Saturday, December 20, 2014

Sharing My Birthday: Edwin Abbott Abbott

Edwin Abbott Abbott was born on December 20, 1838, 120 years before I was. He was a critic of John Henry Cardinal Newman because Newman believed in miracles, that the miracles attributed to Jesus Christ in the Gospels were true, and he thought Newman had betrayed Reason by becoming a Catholic.

He wrote  Philomythus: An Antidote against Credulity in 1891, and The Anglican Career of Cardinal Newman in 1892. In the first book he argued against Newman's Essays on Miracles which he wrote while at Oriel College in 1825-26 and 1842-43--Newman edited them for publication 1870, making changes "simply of a literary character".

In the second book (two volumes) he wants to cast doubts on Newman's truthfulness in the Apologia pro vita sua by using the sermons and letters that Newman wrote as an Anglican to trace Newman's progress to the Catholic Church--a progress that Abbott considers totally regressive and superstitious. Abbott proclaims in his preface that Newman's "imagination dominated his reason, even more than his spiritual fears perverted his imagination". He further proclaims that Newman's sermons are "deficient in the Pauline spirit of hope and love, and inconsistent, as well as inadequate, in their expositions of the meanings and claims of faith and reason" and finally that Newman wanted to love God but did not know the meaning of the word love! Flatly stated (remember that Abbott wrote Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions) Abbott wanted to destroy any admiration anyone might have for Newman's intellect, religious faith, or love of God and His Church!

The Most Reverend Philip Boyce, OCD, Bishop of Raphoe, wrote about the "Tokens of Holiness in Blessed John Henry Newman" in 2012, noting that at the time of his death in 1890 many Catholics and non-Catholics praised Newman's holiness, love of God, devotion and piety. Bishop Boyce mentions Abbott's book on the Anglican Newman and Newman's brother Frank's attack on his personality and how they contributed to a change in opinion about Newman:

It is surprising then, that the idea of holiness in Newman’s life began to fade in public perception for over fifty years after his death. This was partly explained by some publications that propagated less than favourable interpretations of his character and his works. His brother Francis who had abandoned the Christian faith published a book about John Henry a year after his death. It was a reaction to the outburst of praise his deceased brother had received and it portrayed him in a very hostile manner, as being duped by organised religion and arrogant in his personal life.[Contributions chiefly to the Early History of Cardinal Newman (1891)] In the following year, 1892, another publication by Edwin Abbott, an Anglican, was also critical of Newman. He censured him for sacrificing his reason to the demands of an unfounded and irrational faith.

What such critics of Newman have to do is revive Kingsley's argument--Newman does not tell the truth, particularly about himself or his conversion! Both Frank and Abbott tear into Newman's character. That's why reading Edward Short's two books on Newman and His Contemporaries and Newman and His Family is so instructive. In those books, referencing Newman's correspondence (also Peter G. Wilcox's book on Newman as Spiritual Director) we can see how sensitive and attentive he was to others: friends, family, acquaintances, his Oxford friends, his Oratory companions, etc. I'm certain that Edward Short will include Edwin Abbott Abbott in his third book, Newman and His Critics! So although we share birthdays, E.A.A. and I don't share the same view of Blessed John Henry Newman!


  1. I've been reading your blog for a few months, but this is the first time I've commented. How exciting to see such an interesting man who shares my birthday as well :)

    December 20th FTW! :)

  2. Thanks for reading--and commenting--and belated happy birthday wishes!