Owen Chadwick Remembered

When the church historian Owen Chadwick died last July at the age of 99, still writing almost to the end, still with ideas to share, still pondering the historical and moral lessons of a lifetime, he seemed a figure from an earlier, more heroic age of Christian scholarship. His life had been laden with honors—at various times he was Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge; Regius Professor of History at the same university; the Ford and Herbert Hensley Henson lecturer at Oxford; the Gifford lecturer at Edinburgh; a Fellow of the British Academy; a member of the Order of Merit—but these badges somehow fail to capture the full measure of the man. He conferred dignity on them, not they on him. As a writer, his name seems to belong inside his books and not on the cover of them. Chadwick would not have been out of place among his own subjects, a figure stamped with the kind of greatness that, a modest man, he would have been first to disclaim.

Acton and HistoryLord Acton was his hero, tolerant and humane, astonishingly erudite, a man in love with archives and unafraid of what they might contain, a scholar with an “extraordinary mind” and remarkable habits of “thoughtfulness, patience, clearness and confidence.” Chadwick, in so describing him, could have been describing himself. The range and elegance of his writing, the power and penetration of his intellect, the generous amplitude of his friendships, the moral seriousness of his life: there was, about these things, a kind of Victorian high-mindedness that makes him seem from a different and, frankly, more compelling era. From Bossuet to Newman was the title of one of his books. Another historian, comparably gifted, should now write From Acton to Chadwick. That is the kind of company he kept.

The titles convey the range: John Cassian: A Study in Primitive Monasticism; The Popes and the European Revolution; The Victorian Church (his two-volume masterpiece); The Secularization of the European Mind in the 19th Century; The Early Reformation on the Continent. Comfortable with grand narratives (this making him unfashionable among today’s postmodernists), he was also a delightful miniaturist. Indeed, his 1961 book Victorian Miniature—which unpacks the life of an early nineteenth century Norfolk parish through the double-diaries of its parson and its squire—is a gem. In everything he wrote a voice may be heard—measured, calm, unflustered, detached (almost to a fault), delighting in curiosity and eccentricity, always providing the telling detail of a bigger story. (“The Holy Office was hard-boiled about women who went into ecstasies,” he wrote in his History of the Popes 1830-1914; as well it might be.) Chadwick loathed fanaticism and it showed, not only in the gentlemanly conduct of life but also in the balance and judiciousness of his prose. (The imprisonment of Pastor Martin Niemöller at the hands of the Nazis showed him the face of tyranny, and he remembered it, as a warning, for the rest of his days.) In The Victorian Church he did not conceal his admiration for country clergymen with their “reasonable, quiet, unpretentious sober faith in God and way of worship.” Here he was again, a very English Englishman, an Anglican priest and a scholar at home among his subjects.

Catholicism and HistoryThat intimacy was deliberate. Chadwick was the kind of historian he was because he was the kind of man he was. The life and the work were inseparable. When in 1968 he came to occupy the Cambridge chair held by Acton in 1895, his inaugural lecture encapsulated a philosophy of history that Acton himself could have endorsed and the rest of us would do well to ponder. Saint Augustine, he told his audience, had a saying, nemo nisi per amicitiam cognoscitur: you need to be a friend of a man before you understand him:

So by analogy is our relationship to men of the past, societies of the past, even documents in the archives… You need no white paint, you need to see things as they were. But you need to be inside their minds and to forget the future which they could not know, and to come towards them with the openness of mind, the readiness to listen, which a man gives to a friend.

Chadwick had an extraordinary gift for friendship—look at the tributes that followed his death—but the gift was not confined to the living. What made him such a fine historian was not only his intellectual honesty—the demand to know, famously articulated by Ranke, “what actually happened”—but also his understanding that such discovery was more likely precisely by friendship than by enmity. Sympathy, not suspicion, is how to get to the heart of things. To know the inside story, he seems to say, get to know the insiders.

He was never embarrassed, as an historian, by his Christian commitments. In the first place, it would have been absurd to deny them. In the second place, they made him a better historian. In the third place, he knew that faith and reason are not enemies (and he was, himself, the most faithful and reasonable of men). Only the most witless rationalist and the most bone-headed fundamentalist—two types who deserve each other because they so resemble each other—think that they are. Chadwick knew enough about European secularization to know both the claims and the limitations of the secular mind.

The Popes and European RevolutionMore profoundly, he also understood that Christianity itself is inescapably historical, a religion, as he said in his Hensley Henson lectures, “in which history matters.” (It might help to state the obvious at this point: History matters to Christians because Christ entered it.) Shorn of its context, Chadwick’s remark seems little more than a truism—although truisms, of course, have the distinct advantage of being true. Trying to understand the past explains why some of the early modern founders of history as a profession—Mabillon, Tillemont, Muratori—were dedicated priests. But there was more to their interest than cultural curiosity. Tradition, Chadwick knew, “was important to the structure of doctrine which fed men’s faith”—manifestly so in the case of Bossuet (for whom tradition had a kind of glacial, frozen magnificence) but also for Newman (who allowed for the development of doctrine and so helped modern man understand beliefs that were both old and ever new). The idea of development had more than one ground, Chadwick wrote, and was variously expressed: “but the momentous part of it was the recognition that history makes a difference to the religious understanding of the world.”

There is the heart of the matter; and there, too, is the heart of the man. Over nearly a century of life, Chadwick helped us understand the world. Among historians, he was as impressive, as learned, as up-to-date, as his much-admired predecessor, Acton. Among churchmen, he was as quietly holy as those Victorian parsons he extolled. Among students, he was a revered teacher. Among teachers, he was still in his old age a student willing to learn. Owen Chadwick taught many lessons, but his best lecture was himself.

(Top photo credit: Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge)

Dermot Quinn


Dermot Quinn is Professor of History at Seton Hall University. He is the author of several books including Patronage and Piety: The Politics of English Roman Catholicism, 1850-1900 (1993) and The Irish in New Jersey: Four Centuries of American Life (2004). He earned his doctorate in History from the University of Oxford in 1986.