The aims of the Oxford Movement were to combat the influence of the state over the Church and to establish a foundation of doctrine for the Church of England by teaching its descent from the early Church and its Catholic traditions. The movement emphasized the historic continuity of the church. It didn’t directly oppose the Evangelicals, but was regarded as strongly anti-liberal.
The movement was named after Oxford University, where John Henry Cardinal Newman and others were based when they began the Tracts for the Time in 1833. Because the Tracts for the Times were the basis for their argument, it was also deemed the Tractarianism Movement. The Tractarianism movement began about 1833 and ended in 1845 with Newman's conversion to Roman Catholicism.
The movement essentially began with J.H. Newman’s response to Rev. John Keble's sermon "National Apostasy". Keble’s 1833 sermon was mainly against a common-sense plan to reduce the number of Irish bishops. Keble’s sermon also attacked Parliament's plan to do away with the official status of the Anglican Church of Ireland in that primarily Roman Catholic country. Liberals argued that since most Irishmen were Roman Catholics, their taxes should not support the Anglican Church. In contrast, Keble, E.B. Pusey, and the other Tractarians held that since the Christian religion was superior to government, secular powers had no right to interfere in spiritual matters whatever the cause.
The Oxford Movement also appeared to be a direct reaction to the Utilitarian movement. The Utilitarian movement began to take hold in the mid Victorian era, due to the efforts of Jeremy Bentham and his disciple James Mill. The movement attracted people who wanted social change and a new view toward the strict propriety being expected from the middle class. Utilitarians discounted religious dogma in favor of mathematically determining what derived the most pleasure and were accused of being atheists. Sir Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (and later Charles Darwin’s The Origin of the Species) was published, which put forth a theory on how long the earth may have actually existed. The ideas presented in the book contrasted the Bible and the writer was accused of being an agnostic.
After a period of time, many people believed that the Evangelicals were too enthusiastic by many and the Broad Church was too generalized to have any meaning. Many doctrines taught in the Catholic Church prior to the 19th century, such as the sacramental system and apostolic succession, had been abandoned by most Anglicans. The Low Church argued that priests were unnecessary because Christ was the only true priest and there was no need for any other ones. The High Church disagreed and made the claim that Old Testament figures counted as priests and came before Christ.
The 90 tracts in Tracts for the Times attacked what were seen as the main weaknesses of the church, particularly "liberalism." The Tractarians believed that The Church was going to lose its esteemed position because it no longer paid tribute to its rich history and was too lax in its doctrines. The Tractarians respected some of the medieval ways of church worship and designed the tracts to wake up what they saw as a lazy and inefficient modern church.
Most of the tracts were by Newman, who was convinced by now that the Roman Catholic Church had held onto much original Christian doctrine that the Protestants had abandoned; but he still believed that Rome had added doctrines and practices that could not be reconciled with the Gospel. The importance placed on the saints the Pope were still obstacles to him when he tried to embrace their beliefs. The Anglican hierarchy’s disapproval of the Tractarian’s teachings made many of Newman’s followers leave for Rome. By the early 1840’s, Newman was trying to keep Anglicans from becoming Catholics, but it might have been his own tracts that led them to do so.
The Church of England had prided itself on being middle road between Roman Catholicism and a more radical Protestantism since the 16th century. Newman broke off the Tracts for the Times after number 90. ‘Tract 90’ was by far the most controversial of the tracts for both sides of the church issue. Newman argued that the Thirty-Nine Articles, the main document that the English Church used to distinguish itself from the Catholic, did not entirely conflict with Roman Catholic doctrines. He claimed that Henry VIII had framed them with enough vagueness that he could avoid having conflict and still fulfill the needs of society.
The tract aroused a storm of controversy and the bishop of Oxford ordered the series suspended. The movement then began to flounder largely because Evangelicals and others suspected that the high-church Tractarians were actually promoting Roman Catholicism. However, by 1880 colorful High Church ceremonial worship was beginning to replace Low-Church long sermons and drabness and the idea of the reserved sacrament was also reintroduced. The movement was over, but the movement had succeeded in evoking major change in the Church of England.
The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th ed.