If a newcomer to John Henry Newman is looking for an entry into the great theologian’s thought, it’s difficult to know where to begin, as both the primary and secondary literature are so quantitatively daunting. John T. Ford has helped to ease this conundrum with his publication of select spiritual writings from Newman’s vast corpus. Of particular assistance for budding Newmanists will be Father Ford’s brief (about 30 pages) biography of Newman contained at the beginning of the book. While there are a number of excellent biographies of Newman in print (e.g., Vincent Ferrer Blehl, 2001; Sheridan Gilley, 2002; Ian Ker, 2009, 2nd ed.), Father Ford’s treatment will demand from the reader only an hour or so of effort—as opposed to a few days—yet he still manages to hit the high points of Newman’s life, thereby providing indispensable historical context for the material that follows.
Father Ford is also to be commended for the keenness of his eye in the selection of source material from Newman’s writings. He does a fine job, for instance, of balancing content from the Anglican and Roman Catholic periods of Newman’s life. In some cases Father Ford’s selections provide a window into a particular phase of Newman’s life (e.g., “Tutor of Oriel College” or “Crisis Years of the Oxford Movement: 1839-1845”), while in other cases the selections are intended to give an overview of a specific theological theme (e.g., “Advocate for the Laity,” “Defender of Belief,” “Champion of Conscience”). As with any work of this kind, comprehensiveness must be sacrificed for the sake of brevity, and, as a result, some readers might fail to grasp the intricate texture of Newman’s theology. Obviously, those students who are interested in an advanced understanding of Newman’s thought will want to move onto a broader engagement with his various writings.
Father Ford’s monograph could serve as an excellent text for an undergraduate course on Newman’s theology or for a general survey of spirituality. What makes the book so attractive for such use is the way in which it blends original source material with insightful commentary from Father Ford, who prefaces each selection with a brief note about the context in which it was composed. The list price for the work is a bit steep for a paperback of this length, though more affordable copies, both new and used, can easily be tracked down online. More seasoned Newman scholars would likely not benefit from adding this title to their library, but for all others this purchase will be money well spent.