Hopkins - Oxford and Conversion

Gerard Manley Hopkins - Life at Balliol

At the end of 1862, Hopkins won an exhibition (or scholarship) to Balliol College, one of the colleges of Oxford University. He began Balliol College, photo by Tom Page, avainable through Creative Commonsstudying there in the April of 1863. His main course of study, lasting four years, was in Humanities (or Literae Humaniores, to give the course its full title), and consisted of:

  • the study of Latin and Greek
  • some history, philosophy and logic
  • religious education.

Hopkins really enjoyed Oxford life, writing a considerable amount of poetry, and studying art, perhaps with the idea of becoming an artist-poet. He had excellent teachers there, including:

  • T.H.Green, one of the leading philosophers of the day
  • Benjamin Jowett, a theologian and Greek scholar with some unorthodox ideas
  • Walter Pater, a well-known literary critic and writer on aesthetics (the study of the beautiful).

Hopkins turned out to be an excellent student and at his degree exams gained a ‘double first’, the highest classification possible.

Hopkins's changing religious outlook

 When Hopkins arrived at university, he was a devout and committed High Church Anglican. He even started to go to confession, which was not at all obligatory for Anglicans, though it was for Roman Catholics.

The Oxford Movement

Oxford was the centre of belief and practice of the Oxford Movement, especially under its leading theologians, Edward Pusey, Professor of Hebrew, and John Keble. However, several leading Oxford High Church Anglicans had become Roman Catholics, including John Henry Newman. The shock waves caused by these moves were still subsiding when Hopkins came to Oxford.

Hopkins’ doubts

Hopkins was essentially an idealist, and as he read some of the debate about these issues, he became Benjamin Jowettincreasingly convinced that the Church of England was a compromise between Catholicism on the one hand, and fully fledged Protestantism on the other- a compromise that he found it difficult to hold on to logically. He also seems to have been attracted to several Catholic teachings, especially the doctrine of transubstantiation which is concerned with the meaning of Communion or Mass, the central act of Christian worship. High Church Anglicanism was not just losing the battle with the Catholics, but also with the Latitudinarians, led by Benjamin Jowett. Hopkins began to question his own attitude to Anglicanism.

The repercussions of change

In these days, it is difficult to imagine the cost of conversion from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism. To most people to-day, it might seem no more significant than choosing which supermarket to shop at. At the time, however, it was as significant as changing from one religion to another might be today, an action which can still bring rejection by one’s family or community.

This was the risk Hopkins was running when, in July 1866, he decided to enter the Roman Catholic church. He was so afraid of what his family would think that he delayed telling them till the very last moment.

They were deeply shocked. His father asked Hopkins’ Anglican mentor to persuade him against such a move. In the end, he accepted Hopkins back into the family, though only under the condition he did not try to convert his brothers and sisters.

Hopkins' new direction

Hopkins had been helped greatly in his conversion by John Henry Newman, who was based in Birmingham, at the Oratory Church, which he had founded. When Hopkins graduated, he went to the Oratory School to do some teaching.

Whilst there, he felt a real urge to become a priest. He could have trained to become a parish priest, but instead became attracted to the Jesuits, or the Society of Jesus as they are officially called. This meant becoming part of a religious order, living in highly disciplined semi-monastic conditions during and after a long training, and being sent wherever the Order chose.

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