When we think of giants of the Victorian era we can muster the names of Gladstone, Disraeli, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Florence Nightingale, Matthew Arnold and Charles Dickens among others. In this roll of honour John Henry Newman should surely have a place. Although first and foremost a churchman who made a decisive contribution to theology, in particular the development of Christian doctrine, he also contributed in a more subtle way to the elevation of the moral and spiritual tone of his age.

In our own time, too, we have need of his energetic, confident and original mind, most especially in the religious/scientific debate. How Newman would have deplored the contemporary polarisation of this debate, with creationists rejecting scientific evidence as blasphemous on the one hand and neo-Darwinians such as Richard Dawkins, dismissing religious enquiry as mere opinion on the other.

For Newman was not perturbed by The Origin of Species, published in 1859; indeed, he was open to the possibilities of natural evolution. His own two lectures on the relationship between science and religion had been published in 1858 and in them he had made it clear that both were branches of knowledge, the one knowledge of nature and the other knowledge of God. He firmly believed the latter knowledge was as intellectually legitimate as the former. He had the prescience to recognise that if these two distinct disciplines overstepped their boundaries they would stray into territory which they were not equipped to understand – just as is the case today.

This book is the first of a two-volume project and presents Newman in relation to the long era in which he lived, while the second will explore aspects of his theological writing in greater detail. As such, it is aimed at a general readership rather than a scholarly one. Newman would have rejoiced at this, not because he cared for fame for its own sake but because, unusually for his times, when lay people were perceived as subordinate within a dominant clerical culture, he recognised the pressing need for an educated, informed, confident and articulate Catholic laity.

Twelve writers have contributed chapters that discuss both the places that are associated with Newman – Oxford, Littlemore, Rome, Birmingham and Dublin – and the different facets of his richly varied and productive life. For those who know something of Newman’s place within the Oxford or Tractarian movement and his celebrated conversion in 1845 which shook the Anglican establishment to its core, but who are not familiar with the latter half of his life, it will provide an excellent introduction to a fascinating and attractive figure.

For Newman comes alive in these chapters, most especially, it seems to me, as a pastor and a poet. By pastor I mean that behind all his activities and his writings lay one overriding concern: his zeal for souls; by poet I mean not so much his actual writing of verse but the beauty, rhythm and musicality that touched his pen when he wrote in prose and which so forcibly struck his listeners when he preached.

As a young tutor at Oriel College, Oxford, Newman recognised that the tutorial office “possessed an inherent moral, spiritual and pastoral dimension”. This was almost a revolutionary idea at a time when the university still allowed ‘gentlemen commoners’ – the sons of the rich and titled – to treat their colleges as worldly finishing schools. It was Newman’s gentle but determined influence, and that of his friends, such as John Keble, within the Oxford movement, that gradually brought about both the reform of the tutor/student relationship and the raising of academic standards, for which Oxford and Cambridge have been justly famous among universities.

Unusually for a cleric and distinguished academic of those times, he also took his responsibilities for his small, poor and entirely undistinguished parish of Littlemore, a village outside Oxford, with great seriousness, believing “I have the responsibility of souls on me”. He visited his parish, either on horseback on in a fly, two or three times a week, despite his other onerous duties and was greatly loved by his parishioners. Years later, the parish clerk of Littlemore visited the celebrated Oratorian priest in Birmingham, to be greeted warmly with “Come in, come in and tell me about my dear people.”

Leaving Littlemore in 1846 was a painful but necessary parting. Newman, a man of great sensibility, evidenced by the motto he chose as cardinal, “Heart speaks to heart”, kissed the bed and mantelpiece of the place that had given him refuge and where he had been received, without pomp or ceremony, into the Church.

Why the Oratorian Order – and, a greater curiosity, why Birmingham? Newman had thought of joining other Orders but when he finally encountered the charism of St Philip Neri it was decisive: “An Oratory is a family and a home; a domestic circle”, he wrote. As St Philip resided in Rome, so Newman resided in Birmingham. For Newman, the great city at the heart of the industrial revolution was where providence had placed him; some years later he was to issue a stern rebuke to Mgr George Talbot who had wanted him to come and preach in Rome: “Birmingham people have souls.” Thousands responded to this loyalty by lining the streets to pay their last respects as his funeral procession passed by.

A chapter on Newman the preacher gives the reader a glimpse of the magnetic effect the man had on those privileged to listen to him. Preaching was not considered an important part of university life when Newman started out; but from the time when he instituted a 4 o’clock sermon on Sunday afternoons at St Mary’s university church in Oxford to a congregation which swelled from a few people to nearly 600 as his fame spread, to the sermons he preached later in the Oratory church and to the boys of the Oratory School in Edgbaston, all the recorded reminiscences of his listeners echo the same response.

Matthew Arnold’s description of “that spiritual apparition, gliding in the dim afternoon light” bears eloquent testimony, but there are many less well-known people who recorded similarly moving impressions of the musicality, the poetry, timbre of voice, aura and intensity of the preacher. Newman used vivid, concrete illustrations; he was steeped in Scripture and possessed acute psychological insights; above all he had the gift of seeming to address each listener personally as if he understood their inner travail.

For his times Newman’s ideas on education were highly original. In Dublin and later at the Oratory School which he founded, Newman emphasised trust, friendship, pastoral care, a close rapport between staff and parents and the need for relaxation as well as academic work. The boys referred to him affectionately as “Old Jack” and he, in turn, interested himself in every aspect of their school life, directing the Latin plays and sometimes playing second violin in the school orchestra. He believed in educating laymen, “fit for this world while it trained them for another”, in contrast to the junior seminaries and to the great Anglican public schools of the period. Lord Salisbury, the Anglican prime minister, was loath to send his own sons to Eton because of the brutality of the milieu. Newman, who had enjoyed unusually happy schooldays at Ealing School, intended to create a different model of schoolboy life than that which was on offer during the period for the sons of gentlemen.

Such a brief summary cannot do justice to what this book manages to achieve: without introducing new material it brings together so much of what made Newman the exceptional person he was. His life – 1801 to 1890 – had spanned almost the whole of the 19th century, from before the Battle of Trafalgar to almost the advent of the motor car, and he had exercised a huge influence on the spiritual and serious life of the Victorian era. He was also a deeply lovable human being.

Perhaps the most moving tribute to his memory I have met with and one which shows most clearly the universality of his appeal comes from a devout, working-class family from the Oratory parish in Birmingham. The proud parents of 14 children, one of their sons was born with Down’s syndrome. What did they choose to christen him? John Henry.

Francis Phillips writes from Bucks in the UK.