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History of Political Economy 33.4 (2001) 825-842

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John Henry Newman, Nassau Senior, and the Separation of Political Economy from Theology in the Nineteenth Century

Paul Oslington

John Henry Newman's Idea of a University contains a significant but neglected discussion of the new science of political economy, where Newman responds to the 1826 inaugural lecture of Nassau Senior, the first Drummond Professor of Political Economy at the University of Oxford. Apart from Senior's importance as the occupant of the first university chair of political economy, his inaugural lecture on the scope and method of political economy set the parameters of much of the subsequent methodological debate in the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A. M. C. Waterman (1994, 59), reaffirming the earlier verdict of Marian Bowley (1937), states that “it was Senior … who was the most important writer on scope and method among the classical economists, and the one whose work was most influential for the twentieth century development of economic methodology.”

This exchange between Senior and Newman occurs at a critical moment for scholars interested in the relationship between economics and religion, as it was during this period that political economy in Britain cut [End Page 825] its explicit ties with Christian theology. Despite a recent revival of interest among historians in religious influences on nineteenth-century political economy (see, for instance, Hilton 1988; Brent 1993; and Waterman 1991, 1994), Newman's critique of the emerging discipline of political economy has been passed over with minimal comment. It has been similarly neglected by economists, perhaps because Newman wrote very little on economic issues and Newman never names Senior, despite quoting extensively from Senior's inaugural lecture.

The purpose of this article is to present the exchange between Senior and Newman in context and assess the validity of the model of the relationship between economics and theology offered by Newman in his critique of Senior. It also briefly contrasts the model with the influential alternative account given by Richard Whately, a mutual friend and Senior's successor in the Drummond Chair.


Some background information on Newman, Senior, and the links between the two is helpful in understanding their exchange over the relationship between political economy and theology. John Henry Newman (1801–1890) was one of the major figures of the nineteenth century, and the breadth of his writings make him of interest to historians, theologians, philosophers, and literary critics, among others.1 After an evangelical upbringing, Newman became a Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, and vicar of the University Church of St. Mary in 1828, building a considerable reputation as a teacher, writer, and preacher. His Sermons (1871) from this period are famous. After participating in what became known as the Oxford movement in the 1830s and 1840s, he resigned his Oxford positions and was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1845. From 1851–58 he was rector of the newly established Catholic University of Ireland, then spent the remainder of his life working in the oratory he founded in Birmingham. Newman continued to write letters, sermons, tracts on various issues, and a number of major books, including his autobiographical Apologia Pro Vita Sua in 1864, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent in 1870, and the final compilation of the Idea of a University in 1873. He was made a cardinal before he died in 1890. [End Page 826]

Nassau Senior (1780–1864) is familiar to many economists as the first holder of the Drummond Chair at Oxford (he held the chair from 1825–30, and again from 1847–52). Senior's place in the history of economic thought comes from his lectures on the scope and method of political economy,2 some innovations within the Ricardian system, and his involvement as an economist in several controversial policy questions.

Information about connections between Newman and Senior is elusive. They were contemporaries at Oxford, but Senior is only mentioned twice and fairly incidentally in the thirty-one volumes of Newman's letters and diaries...


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