In January 1864, the Protestant pastor and novelist Charles Kingsley reviewed an English history book for Macmillan’s Magazine. The review began innocently enough. Kingsley critiqued the author’s handling of English figures like Mary Tudor and Queen Elizabeth. However, it quickly devolved into potshots against Catholicism in general, and against one of its most ardent supporters, John Henry Newman. Newman was confused and hurt by Kingsley’s remarks, especially this one:
“Truth, for its own sake, had never been a virtue with the Roman clergy. Father Newman informs us that it need not, and on the whole ought not to be.”
To translate into modern parlance, Kingsley basically said: “All priests are liars and Newman is the worst.” Or into leetspeak: “Newman’s a n00b.”
So how did Newman respond? Well, the same way any of us would. The internet is flooded with slander and personal attacks—if you doubt that, go on Facebook and comment on any religious or political issue—and the typical response is to fight fire with more fire. If they dish it out, you serve it right on back. Newman was of the same mindset, so here’s how he responded:
Dear Mr. Kingsley,
Your amateur review, which contains unneeded and demonstrably fallacious accusations, hardly deserves a reply. The charges within are no mere error—they’re simply idiotic. They betray your lack of intellect more than my lack of virtue, as a simple reading of any of the Church’s most Holy Scriptures—you do read, don’t you?—would affirm the primacy of Truth. I can only assume your density precludes such understanding, or it may be your arrogance which renders comprehension impossible. Whatever the source, be assured that you have my deepest sympathies and prayers. I can only hope the smoke of Satan stops clouding your already pitiable intellect.
Your dear brother in Truth and charity,
John Henry Newman
Newman’s response would have sailed right along the modern stream of vitriol which flows through our comboxes, Facebook discussions, and Twitter diatribes.
But there’s only one problem.
That’s not exactly how Newman responded. His actual reply was much more kind and humble. Here’s the actual letter, which was directed not toward Kingsley but to the editors of Macmillan’s Magazine:
Dr. Newman to Messrs. Macmillan and Co.
The Oratory, Dec. 30, 1863
I do not write to you with any controversial purpose, which would be preposterous; but I address you simply because of your special interest in a Magazine which bears your name. That highly respected name you have associated with a Magazine, of which the January number has been sent to me by this morning’s post, with a pencil mark calling my attention to page 217.
There, apropos of Queen Elizabeth, I read as follows:
“Truth, for its own sake, had never been a virtue with the Roman clergy. Father Newman informs us that it need not, and on the whole ought not to be; that cunning is the weapon which Heaven has given to the saints wherewith to withstand the brute male force of the wicked world which marries and is given in marriage. Whether his notion be doctrinally correct or not, it is at least historically so.”
There is no reference at the foot of the page to any words of mine, much less any quotation from my writings, in justification of this statement.
I should not dream of expostulating with the writer of such a passage, nor with the editor who could insert it without appending evidence in proof of its allegations. Nor do I want any reparation from either of them. I neither complain of them for their act, nor should I thank them if they reversed it. Nor do I even write to you with any desire of troubling you to send me an answer. I do but wish to draw the attention of yourselves, as gentlemen, to a grave and gratuitous slander, with which I feel confident you will be sorry to find associated a name so eminent as yours.
I am, Gentlemen,
Your obedient Servant,
John H. Newman
I think we can learn a few things from the way Newman handled his critics:
1. Don’t feed the trolls. Instead of taking Kingsley’s bait and returning one personal attack with another, Newman answered through a gracious open-letter to the Magazine. The letter eventually bloomed into Newman’s classic memoir, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, his book-length defense of Catholicism against Kingsley’s arguments. Newman understood that sometimes the best way to diffuse antagonism is to battle it on your own terms, not to sink down to the critic’s own nastiness and venom.
2. Compliment vigorously. It’s hard for people to hate you when their fire is chilled with kindness. Note the warmth and unwavering charity in Newman’s letter. Next time you get into a combox debate, find something in your interlocutor’s position to compliment before you begin a critique.
3. Assume the best. Newman clearly gave the magazine the benefit of the doubt. He praised its “highly respected name” and repeatedly referred to the editors as “gentleman.” These words were not passive-aggressive taunts. They were marks of true sincerity, signs that Newman was totally uninterested in slander or ad hominem attacks.
What else do you think we can learn from Newman’s reply?