A Short Account of the Conversion of the Hon. and Rev. George Spencer to the Catholic Faith
Written by himself, in the English College at Rome, in the year 1831
[“The following account (says the Editor of The Catholic Magazine, who obtained the original MS. from Mr. Spencer) was written by the Honourable and Reverend Gentlemen at the request of the Bishop of Oppido, a small town at the lowest extremity of Italy; who had come to Rome to pay homage to the present Pope, then recently elected. In that retired spot, Catholic charity had excited an interest about this conversion among the flock of this excellent Prelate; and, to satisfy their feelings, the Bishop visited the English College, and requested Mr. Spencer to write him some details of it for the use of his people, as they had received a bare report only of the fact. The MS. was translated into Italian by Dr. Gentili, now Professor at Prior Park:”]
I took orders in the Protestant Episcopal Church of England; Dec. 22nd; 1822, and for seven years I had the care of a parish containing about eight hundred inhabitants, in which is situated my father’s principal residence. I never was very bigoted in my attachment to the doctrines and discipline of the Church of England, but seeing no cause to doubt of their being truly in agreement to the word of God, I was from the beginning of my ministry desirous of bringing back into communion with her those Protestant sectaries; who under various denominations, had separated from her; and I used to have frequent discussions with such as were to be met within my neighbourhood, and particularly in my own parish; The chief of these were Methodists, Baptists, and Independents. The more I spoke with them the more persuaded I was, that the principles on which they defended their separation from the Church were unsound; but, when I began to attend with candour to what they had to say, I hardly had a conversation with any of them which did not show me more clearly than before, that the Church of England herself yet needed improvement and correction.
The professed fundamental principle of all Protestants is to adhere to the Scriptures as the only rule of faith and morals. I soon discovered that in the constitution of the Church of England there were many things which I could not clearly defend by the simple Scriptures; but these generally were points to which I was not required to declare my direct consent; they seemed matters of discipline: but at last I found a difficulty in one of the Thirty-nine Articles of religion, to which all the clergy are required to subscribe, which I could not fairly answer, and on account of which I determined that I would never subscribe to them again. This was the eighth Article; in which I found myself called upon to affirm that the three Creeds received by the Church of England, i.e. the Apostles’, the Nicene; and the Athanasian, might be clearly proved by Scripture. I had some years before had scruples about the condemning clauses in the Athanasian Creed; but I had been satisfied again by reading what Protestant divines had to say in defence and explanation of them. My scruples returned after a sermon which I preached on Trinity Sunday, 1827 in defence of that very creed. I observed that the arguments by which I defended the doctrine of the Trinity itself were indeed founded on Scripture but that in attempting to prove to my hearers that a belief of this doctrine was absolutely necessary for man’s salvation, I had recourse to arguments independent of Scripture, and that no passage in Scripture could be found which declares, that whosoever will be saved must hold the orthodox faith on the Trinity. I had this difficulty oh my mind for eight or nine months; after which, finding that I could not satisfy myself upon it, I gave notice to my superiors, that I could nut conscientiously declare my full assent to the Thirty-nine Articles. They attempted, at first, to satisfy me by arguments but the more I discussed the subject the more convinced I became that the article in question was not defensible, and, after fifteen months’ further pause, I made up my mind to leave of reading, the Creed in the services of my Church, and informed my bishop of my final resolution; but he thought it more prudent to take no notice of my letter, and thus I remained in possession of my place till I entered the Catholic Faith.
The point on which I thus found myself opposed to the Church of England appears a trifling one; but here was enough to hinder all my prospects of advancement, and to put it in the power of the Bishop, if at any time he had chosen to do so, to call on me to give up my benefice. It is easy to conceive that under these circumstances, my mind was set free, beyond what could be imagined in any other way, to follow without prejudice my researches after truth. I lost no opportunity of discoursing with ministers of all persuasions. I called upon them all to join with me in the enquiry where was the truth, which could be but one, and therefore could not be in any two contrary systems of religion; much less in all the variety of sects into which Christians are divided in England. I found little encouragement in any quarter to this way of proceeding, at least, among Protestants. Those sectarians of a contrary persuasion to myself, to whom I proposed an enquiry with me after truth, I found generally ready to speak with; but they did not even pretend to have any disposition to examine the grounds of their own principles, which they were determined to abide by without further hesitation. My brethren of the Established Church equally declined in joining me in my discussions with persons of other persuasions, and disapproving of my pursuit, saying that I should never convert them to our side, and that I only ran the risk of being shaken myself. Their objections only excited me to greater diligence. I considered that, if what I held were truth, charity required that I should never give over my attempts to bring others into the same way, though were I to labour all my life in vain. If, on the contrary, I was in any degree of error, the sooner I was shaken in it the better. I was convinced by the numberless exhortations of St Paul to his disciples; that the object what I had before me, that is the re-union of the differing bodies of Christians, was pleasing to God, and I had full confidence that I was in no danger of being led into error, or suffering any harm in following in it up, as long as I studied nothing but to do the will of God in it, and trusted in his Holy Spirit to guide me.
The result of all these discussions with different sects of Protestants was a conviction that no one of us had a correct view of Christianity. We all appeared right thus; in acknowledging Christ as the Son of God, , whose doctrines and commandments we were to follow as the way to happiness, both in time and eternity; but it seemed as if the form of doctrine and discipline established by the Apostles had been lost sight of all through the church. I wished therefore to see Christians in general united in the resolution to find the way of truth and peace, convinced that God would not fail to point it out to them. Whether or not others would seek his blessing with me, I had great confidence that, before long, God would clear up my doubts, and therefore my mind was not made uneasy by them. I must here notice a conversation which I had with a Protestant minister about a year before I was a Catholic, by which my views of the use of Scripture were much enlightened, and by which, as it will be clearly seen, I was yet farther prepared to come to a right understanding of the true rule of Christian Faith, proposed by the Catholic Church. This gentleman was a zealous defender of the authority of the Church of England against the various sects of Protestant Dissidents, who have of late years gained so much advantage against her. He perceived that, while men were allowed to claim a right of interpreting Scripture according to their own judgement there never could be an end of schism; and, therefore, he zealously insisted on the duty of our submitting to ecclesiastical authority in controversies of faith, maintaining that the Spirit of God spoke to us through the voice of the Church, as well as in the written Word. Had I been convinced by this part of his argument, it would have led me to submit to the Catholic Church; and not to the Church of England; and, indeed, I am acquainted with one young man who actually became a Catholic through the preaching of this gentleman; following these true principles, as he was bound to do, to their legitimate consequences. But I did not, at this time, perceive the truth of the position; I yet had no idea of the existence of Divine unwritten Tradition in the church. I could imagine no way for the discovery of the truth but persevering study of the Scriptures, which, as they were the only Divine rule of faith with which I was acquainted, I thought must of course be sufficient for our guidance; if used with a humble and tractable spirit; but the discourse of this clergyman led me at least to make an observation which had never struck my mind before, as being of any importance; namely, that the system of religion; which Christ taught the apostles, and which they delivered to the Church, was something distinct from our volume of the Scriptures. The New Testament perceived to be a collection of accidental writings; which, as coming from the pens of inspired men, I was, assured must, in every point, be agreeable to the true faith; but they neither were, nor anywhere professed to be, a complete and systematic account of Christian faith and practice. I was, therefore, in want of some further guidance on which I should depend. I knew not that it was in the Catholic Church that I was at length to find what I was in search of; but every Catholic will see, if I have sufficiently explained my case, how well I was, prepared to accept with joy the direction of the Catholic Church; when once I should be convinced: that she still preserved unchanged and inviolate the very form of faith taught by the Apostles; the knowledge of which is, as it were, the key to the right and sure interpretation of the written Word.
It is now time, then, to state the principal steps by which it pleased God gradually to overcome my prejudices against the Catholic Church. In my early education I heard very little about the Catholic Church. I had been taught in general terms, that it was full of errors and superstitions; that at the glorious era of the Reformation, Luther had begun the work of dispelling the darkness with which the spiritual tyranny of the Popes had covered the world; and that England was one of the favoured nations which had shaken of the yoke, and had adopted the most admirable system of faith and worship of any of the Reformed Churches. This is the general statement of the case, which has been handed down from father to son since the days of Queen Elizabeth. If it be asked how people can suffer themselves to be so imposed upon, I can only answer, that men will readily believe what flatters their personal or their national vanity, and therefore the English have received this tale with ready credulity; and hardly one in a thousand stops to doubt what comes confirmed by such a weight of authority, and what he naturally desires to be true. As it was under these impressions that I looked on what I saw of the Catholic religion when I was in Italy ten or twelve years ago, it is no wonder that I went home only confirmed in my prejudices.
After I had taken orders, I began to make theology a study; I read some Protestant Commentaries on the Apocalypse, applying to what are called the errors of Popery what is there revealed of the great defection from the truth to take place in the latter days; and I put it down for certain, that in whatever body of men the truth was to be found, the last place to seek it in was among the Catholics. Protestants, in general; would consider Catholics not only as misguided; but as incorrigible in their errors; and if any of them should entertain the thought of a future healing of the divisions of the Church, and its reestablishment as one united body, they would not look forward to this being to take place by the return of Protestants within the pale of the Catholic Church, after a reformation of her abuses. Their idea is, that God’s people must come out from her; that she is prefigured by the spiritual Babylon, and that her end is not to be corrected, but utterly destroyed.
At one time; perhaps, I should have assented to principles like these; but I did not hold them long, when I began to think for myself. The first circumstance by which it pleased God in some degree to open my eyes, was a correspondence into which I entered with a person who withheld his name; but who professed to be a young man of the Protestant Church, who had been some time in a Catholic town abroad, where conversations he had had with some Catholics, and his observation of their worship and character had led him to doubt the truth of what he had been taught in his childhood about Popery and the Reformation. He professed to be under great suspense and misery, and entreated me, as a well-informed Protestant, to satisfy him on a few questions which he proposed. I entered with joy on this correspondence; which continued for six months. I expected easily to convince him that the Catholic Church was full of errors; but he answered my arguments, and I perceived that he became more and more disposed to join it. I discovered; by· means of this correspondence; that I had never duly considered the principles of our Reformation; that my objections to the Catholic Church were prejudices adopted from the sayings of others, not the result of my own observation. Instead of gaining the advantage in this controversy, I saw, and I owned to my correspondent, that a great change had been produced in myself. I no longer desired to persuade him to keep in the communion of the Protestant Church; but rather determined and promised to follow up the same enquiries with him, if he would make his name known to me, and only pause awhile before he joined the Catholics but I heard no more of him till after my conversion and arrival at Rome, when I discovered that my correspondent was a lady who had herself been converted a short time before she wrote to me. I never had heard her name before, nor am I aware that she had ever seen my person; but God moved her to desire and pray for my salvation, which she also undertook to bring about in the way I have stated, I cannot say that I entirely approve of stratagem to which she had recourse but her motive was good, and God gave success to her attempt for it was this that first directed my attention particularly to inquire about the Catholic religion, though she lived not to know the accomplishment of her prayers and wishes. She died at Paris a year before my conversion, when about to take the veil as a nun of the Sacred Heart and I trust I have in her an intercessor in Heaven, as she prayed so fervently for me on earth,
After this period, I entertained the opinion that the Reforms had done wrong in separating from the original body of the Church; at any rate I was convinced that Protestants who succeeded them were bound to make attempts at re-union with it. I still conceived that many errors and corruptions had been introduced amongst Catholics, and I did not imagine that I could ever conform to their faith, or join in all their practices, without some alterations on their part; but I trusted that the time might not be distant when God would inspire all Christian with a spirit of peace and concord, which would make Protestant anxiously seek to be reunited to their brethren, and Catholics willing to listen to reason and to correct those abuses in faith and discipline which kept their brethren from joining them. To the procuring such a happy termination to the miserable schisms which had rent the Church I determined to devote my life. I now lost no opportunity of conversation with Protestants or Catholics. My object with both was to awaken them to a desire of unity with each other; to satisfy myself more clearly where was the exact path of truth in which it was desirable that we should all walk together; and then to persuade all to correct their respective errors, in conformity with the perfect rule, which I had no doubt the Lord would in due time point out to me, and to all who were at length willing to enter with me on these discussions with candour, they would at once begin to see the errors which to me appeared so palpable in their system; but I was greatly surprised to find them all so fixed in their principles, that they gave me no prospect of reunion except on condition of others submitting unreservedly to them; and, at the same time, I could see in their ordinary conduct and manner of disputing with me nothing to make me suspect them of insincerity, or of want of sufficient information of the grounds of their belief. These repeated conversations increased more and more my desire to discover this true road, which I saw that I, at least for one, was ignorant of; but I still imagined that I could see such plain marks of difference between the Catholic Church of the present day and the Church of the primitive ages as described in Scripture, that I repeatedly put aside the impression which the arguments of Catholics, and yet more my observation of their character, made upon me; and I still held up my head in the controversy.
Near the end of the year 1829, I was introduced to young Mr Phillipps, eldest son of a rich gentleman of Leicestershire; whom I had often heard spoken of as a convert to the Catholic religion. I had for a long time been curious to see him, that I might observe the mode of reasoning by which he had been persuaded into what I still thought so great an error. We spent five hours together in the house of the Rev Mr. Foley, Catholic Missionary in my neighbourhood, with whom I had already had much intercourse. I was interested by the ardent zeal of this young man in the cause of his faith. I had previously imagined that he must have been ignorant on the subject of religion, and that he had suffered himself to be led blindly by others; but he answered all my objections about his own conversion with readiness and intelligence I could not but see that it had been in him the result of his own diligent investigations. I was much delighted with what I could observe of his character. I was more than ever inflamed with a desire to be united in communion with persons in whom I saw such clear signs of the Spirit of God; but yet my time was not fully come. I fancied, by his conversation, that he had principles and ideas inconsistent with what I had learned from Scripture; and in a few days I again put aside the uneasiness which this meeting had occasioned, and continued to follow my former purpose, only with increased resolution to come at satisfaction. He was in the meanwhile much interested with my case. He recommended me to the prayers of some religious communities, and soon after invited me to his father’s house, that we might continue our discourses. I was happy at the prospect of this meeting, and full of hopes that it would prove satisfactory to me; but I left home without any idea of the conclusion to which it pleased God to bring me so soon.
On Sunday, the 24thof January, 1830, I preached in my church, and in the evening took leave of my family for the week, intending to return on the Saturday following to my ordinary duties at home. But our Lord ordered better for me. During the week I spent on this visit I passed many hours daily in conversations with Phillipps, and was satisfied beyond all my expectations: with the answers he gave me to the different questions I proposed about the principal tenets and practices of Catholics. During the week, we were in company with several other Protestants, and among them some distinguished clergymen of the Church of England, who occasionally joined in our discussions: I was struck with observing how the advantage always appeared on his side in the arguments which took place between them; notwithstanding their superior age and experience; and I saw how weak was the cause in behalf of which I had hitherto been engaged; I felt ashamed of arguing any longer against what I began to see clearly could not be fairly disproved. I now openly declared myself completely shaken, and though I determined to take no decided step till I was entirely convinced, I determined to give myself no rest till I was satisfied, and had little doubt now of what the result would be. But yet I thought not how soon God would make the truth clear to me. I was to return home, as I have said, on the Saturday. Phillipps agreed to accompany me on the day previous to Leicester, where we might have farther conversation with Father Caestryck, the
Catholic Missionary established in that place. I imagined that I might probably take some weeks longer for consideration. But Mr. Caestryck’s conversation that afternoon overcame all my opposition. He explained to me and made me see that the way to come at the knowledge of true religion is not to contend, as men are disposed to do, about each individual point, but to submit implicitly to the authority of Christ, and of those to whom he has committed the charge of his flock. He set before me the undeniable but wonderful fact of the agreement of the Catholic Church all over the world in one faith, under one head; he showed me that the assertions of Protestants that the Catholic Church had altered her doctrines were not supported by evidence. He pointed out the wonderful unbroken chain of the Roman Pontiffs: he observed to me how in all ages the Church, under their guidance; had exercised an authority undisputed by her children; of cutting of from her communion all who opposed her faith and disobeyed her discipline. I saw that her assumption of this power was consistent with Christ’s commission to his apostles to teach all men to the end to the world; and his declaration that those who would not hear the pastors of his Church rejected him. What right then, thought I, had Luther and his companions to set themselves against the united voice of the Church? I saw that he rebelled against the authority of God when he set himself up as an independent guide. He was bound to obey the Catholic Church: how should I then not be equally bound to return to it? And need I fear that I should be led into error, by trusting myself to those guides to whom Christ himself thus directed me? No! I thought this impossible. Full of these impressions, I left Mr, Caestryck’s house to go to my inn, whence I was to return home next morning. Phillipps accompanied me, and took this last occasion to impress on me the awful importance of the decision which I was called upon to make. At length I answered, “.I am overcome. There is no doubt of the truth: one more Sunday I will preach to my congregation, and then put myself into Mr. Foley’s hands and conclude this business:’
It may be thought with what joyful ardour he embraced this declaration, and warned me to declare my sentiments faithfully in these my last discourses. The next minute led me to the reflection; Have I any right to stand in that pulpit, being once convinced that the Church is heretical to which it belongs? Am I safe in exposing myself to the danger which may attend one day’s travelling, while I turn my back on the Church of God, which now calls me to unite myself to her for ever? I said to Phillipps, if this step is right for me to take next week, it is my duty to take it now. My resolution is made; to-morrow I wilt be received into the Church, We lost no time in dispatching a messenger to my father, to inform him of this unexpected event: as I was forming my last resolution, the thought of him came across me: will it not be said, that I endanger his very life by so sudden and severe a shock? ought I not, in deference and in tenderness towards him, at least, to go home and break it gently to him? The words of our Lord rose before me, and answered all my doubts: “He that hateth not father and mother, and brothers, and sisters, and houses, and lands, and his own life, too, cannot be my disciple:’ To thee Lord, then, I trusted for the support and comfort of my dear father under the trial; which in obedience to his call, I was about to inflict upon him. I had no further anxiety to disturb me: God alone knows the peace and joy with which I laid me down that night to rest. The next day, at nine o’clock, the Church received me for her child.
To this account given of my conversion, I need only add that I am now in the English College at Rome, studying for holy orders; and have already received the order of subdeacon. I had inquired after the truth, not only for my own sake, but for that of others, who already were looking or might hereafter look up to me for instruction; and my first wish, when the knowledge of it broke upon my mind, was to communicate to others what I had discovered, and persuade them to follow it with me. I proposed myself, therefore, to the Catholic Vicar Apostolic of the district in which I resided, as desirous of ordination, and would willingly have entered immediately on the work of a missionary. I was soon convinced, however, that God required of me to submit implicitly to the judgment of my superiors, and to leave myself at their disposal. In obedience to them I am in my present situation, where every new enquiry in which the course of my studies lends me, and every conversation I have with my Protestant brethren, whom I occasionally meet in this place, assure me more and more that if there is a true religion upon earth, it is the Catholic Church, and that in joining that Church I have done what, if I live according to its holy precepts, insures to me in this life the possession of true peace of heart, and will lead to eternal happiness in the next.