The Reverend Professor Owen Chadwick: Scholar hailed as one of the greatest religious historians of his age

Chadwick's range extended far beyond Christianity

Wednesday 22 July 2015 23:42

Owen Chadwick was one of the great religious historians of our time. Remarkable for the wide variety of subjects he treated, he wrote extensively on Christianity and the nature of religion but on many other topics too, including biography and general history. "History tells of the experience of the human race," he believed, and furthermore, because so much of Western historical thought is grounded in religion, "modern historical consciousness arose within Christendom".

He was born in 1916 in Bromley, the third of six children. Under the threat of Zeppelins he was evacuated to his grandparents' home in Lancashire. He was educated at Tonbridge School, where he became captain of the rugby team. He continued playing rugby at Cambridge University and was captain in his third year. He joined an informal Lions team which toured Argentina in 1936, winning all their 10 games, including a 23-0 victory against the Argentinian national side, in which Chadwick played in his favoured position as hooker.

Interviewed in 2008, a remark he made about his time as a rugby player hints at his approach to academia as much as to sport: "In the scrum you can do your good anonymously, with no sense of display on the field where people could watch you doing noble things..."

Chadwick had not considered himself a Christian, but in 1938 he came under the influence of the "two Martins": Martin Charlesworth, a Christian who had guided and inspired Chadwick in his choice of vocation while he was an undergraduate at St John's College; and Martin Niemöller, the anti-Nazi pastor arrested in Germany that year and considered by Chadwick to be "the European conscience standing on moral principle against tyranny".

He recalled: "I thought that was about the most hellish thing possible, so suddenly I woke up to Hitler; it coincided with the change from classics to history so I wanted to know something, for the first time really; there seemed to be a curious parallel between this barbarism in central Europe with the 5th century AD, which I wanted to know badly about..." This sense of moral direction taken from history would remain with him for the rest of his life.

Graduating with a First in History, he went on to Cuddesdon College and was ordained into the Church of England in 1941. He later wrote a history of the college which had meant so much to him, The Founding of Cuddesdon (1954). Curacies at Huddersfield and Wellington College followed; the latter he considered as his contribution to the war effort, given the college's then strong military connections.

After the war he was made Dean of Chapel of Trinity Hall, and published his first book, John Cassian: A Study in Primitive Monasticism, in 1950. He discusses how early Christianity transformed itself from a sectarian movement whose practitioners lived separately from the wider world, into the dominant ideology of the West. He depicts Cassian, a 5th century monk who founded religious communities for men and women in southern Gaul, as one of the catalysts.

Chadwick was appointed Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge in 1956, when it was not yet fully part of the University. He led it into full college status and commissioned extensive renovation and building works. By the time he retired in 1983 he had doubled the College's roster of Fellows and postgraduates.

In 1958 he was elected Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Cambridge, a position he held for 10 years. It provided, he recalled, "the advantage of giving me a place on both the Divinity Board and the History Board." He was elected Regius Professor of History in 1968.

His younger brother, the Very Rev Henry Chadwick (later Sir), was a distinguished scholar and the first in more than four centuries to lead a college at both Oxford and Cambridge. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, described him as an "aristocrat among Anglican scholars". The brothers collaborated on the Oxford History of the Christian Church (2010). His elder brother John, also a keen rugby union player, became Ambassador to Romania.

Chadwick's writing was not only on academic religious matters. One of his finest and most fascinating works, Victorian Miniature (1960), details 19th century life in a Norfolk village and documents the tension between an evangelical parson and a liberal squire, informed by Chadwick's extraordinary discovery of the diaries of each of the protagonists.

His best-known work is probably The Victorian Church, published in two volumes in 1966 and 1970, a wide-ranging and personal perspective on the Christian experience during a time of considerable change in religious and scientific thinking. He suggests that Darwin's search for truth remained compatible with Christian doctrine and that clergymen had already questioned much of the historical context of the Bible before his evolutionary theory had been developed.

The Secularisation of the European Mind (1975) was based on the 1973-74 Gifford Lectures he gave in Edinburgh, their flowing, conversational style translating well into print. He looked at secular responses to Christianity, from influences such as Marx and Engels, and despite the challenges he remained optimistic about the church's intellectual credibility in facing these challenges.

"Christian conscience was the force which began to make Europe 'secular'," he writes, "that is, to allow many religions or no religion in a state, and repudiate any kind of pressure upon the man who rejected the accepted and inherited axioms of society. My conscience is my own."

Rev Mark Richard Dorsett laments that Chadwick's contributions to history beyond the Victorian era were too sparse. "Chadwick has written comparatively little about the 20th century", he writes. "This is regrettable as many of the secularising forces he analysed earlier reached a certain culmination in the 20th century." But, he so rightly adds, "his works on religious matters will continue to be read for their religious insight, intelligence and generosity of mind."


William Owen Chadwick, theologian and historian: born Bromley, Kent 20 May 1916; KBE 1982; Order of Merit 1983; married 1949 Ruth (died 2015); died 17 July 2015.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in