If St. John Henry Newman were alive today, the very sermon we would hear him preach would be “Jeroboam.” Newman used the complex story of Jeroboam and Jeroboam’s sins against God to illustrate a point about which he felt deeply: that accommodating the Church to the world will never end well for those in authority who lead astray by false teaching.
To understand Newman’s point, we must turn to the story of Jeroboam, which he summarized at the beginning of his sermon. Jeroboam was the first king of the northern kingdom of Israel, which included ten of Israel’s twelve tribes. Jeroboam was not from the line of David. He was one of Solomon’s administrators, but through a prophet, God compelled him to rebel, promising to give him a dynasty as lasting as David’s—so long as he obeyed God.
Instead of obeying God, Jeroboam led Israel astray into rebellion against Him. In fact, Jeroboam is remembered throughout the books of Kings as the one who made Israel sin (2 Kings 17:22). His reign became a blot on Israel’s history, and his family was cursed. Near the end of Jeroboam’s rule, God spoke to him through the prophet again, but this time He delivered a strong rebuke, recorded in 1 Kings 14:9 “You have done more evil than all who lived before you.” What had Jeroboam done to lead Israel astray?
He promoted idolatry. Newman explains that because of the Law of Moses, all the men of Israel “ … should go up to Jerusalem to worship three times a year; but Jerusalem was, at this time, the capital of the kingdom of Judah, the rival kingdom; and Jeroboam clearly saw that if his new subjects were allowed to go up thither, they could not remain his subjects long, but would return to their former allegiance. He knew that the Israelites had to return to Jerusalem to make their sacrifices at the temple there. He was worried that if they would soon leave him, stay in Jerusalem, and turn against him.” So Jeroboam made two golden calves, placing one in Bethel and one in Dan.
Jeroboam’s intention was not to oppose worship of the One True God in setting up the idols; indeed, “. . . the words he used on the occasion, and the course of the history, show this. He thought he was only altering the discipline of the Church, as we should now call it, and he might plausibly ask, What did that matter? he was but putting another emblem of God in the place of the Cherubim. He made merely such alterations as change of circumstances and the course of events rendered indispensable. He was in difficulties, and had to consider, not what was best, or what he himself should choose, had he to choose, but what was practicable.”
How very contemporary this sounds! But unfortunately, how very often it has occurred throughout history. When St. John Henry preached this sermon, he was worried about innovations and other problems he discerned within the Anglican Church: the problems he and the other Tractarians intended to address in the Oxford movement. His conclusion makes this clear. He writes that leaders, by means of “innovation in doctrine” with “a counterfeit priesthood” causing “sacrilege,” are “sins so heinous” … “that there is no judgment too great for them.” These are extremely strong words that we should take to heart today.
And so in following those in authority, we must ever be informed about the true teaching of Holy Mother Church in order that we not be fooled ourselves.
Newman ended the sermon with a prayer: “May God give us the will and the power to realize to our minds this most serious truth, and fairly to follow it out in its necessary consequences! And may He of His mercy have pity upon our poor distracted Church, rescue it from the dominion of the heathen, and grant that ‘the world’s course may be so peaceably ordered by His governance,’ that it and all branches of the One Church Catholic ‘may joyfully serve Him in all godly quietness!’”
Newman treated this same topic in his poem, “The Patient Church,” which ends with the hope that “True Seed! Thou shalt prevail!” Even when all around us false doctrine is taught and embraced, and so many are fooled by those who call themselves Catholic even as they actively work against the Church; nevertheless, we must pray, offer daily sacrifices and be patient trusting the Holy Spirit who will sustain His Church and raise new saints among the hierarchy and the faithful.