Born: January 24, 1818, Conduit Street, London, England.
Died: August 6, 1866, East Grinstead (near London), England.
Buried: St. Swithun’s Church, East Grinstead, England.
We know John Mason Neale today as a hymnographer, the translator or adapter of ancient and medieval hymns. It is by the hymns below and similar hymns that most of us know Neale, if we know him at all. But Neale’s achievements in other areas as well deserve our recognition.
Neale was the son of a clergyman, his father dying when he was five years old.
At Cambridge (1836–40), Neale became a High Churchman, and developed a fascination with church architecture. Even at this youthful age, Neale participated in the catholic revival of the Established Church, as he and some friends founded the Cambridge Camden Society of antiquarians.
Their periodical promptly addressed itself to the dilapidated condition of many English church buildings. Their recommendations were very influential in the Victorian campaign of church construction, and they came to have many supporters in Church ranks.
Americans apt to think affectionately of the tastefulness and charm of English churches will be impressed by the descriptions of ruinous buildings encountered by Neale and his contemporaries.
Neale also crusaded against the ugly stoves that were placed in some churches to heat them. One issue of The Ecclesiologist, for example, recorded
a large Arnott stove in the middle of the chancel, whose flue rose to the height of the priest and crossed his face before exiting the building via a hole in the glass of the north window.
Neale especially raged against the high walled box pews—
pens, the Society called them—where wealthy families sequestered themselves in the midst of the common people. In their pews, they might recline at their ease upon sofas, and one local aristocrat even ate lunch during the service.
The Cambridge Society championed the cause of
Victorian Gothic. The edition of a medieval text on ecclesiastical symbolism that Neale and a friend prepared set forth their convictions about architectural details.
Neale’s health prevented his remaining a parish priest (he was ordained in May 1842), but, in his semi-invalidism, he had much time for antiquarian and scholarly endeavor. From May 1846 on, he was Warden of Sackville College, an institution resembling that of a fictional Victorian clergyman, Anthony Trollope’s
Warden, Septimus Harding. Like Harding, Neale gave much thought to church music.
Neale held that the hymns of Isaac Watts and other popular composers imparted erroneous doctrine, as well as offending against taste. So in 1842, for example, Neale produced Hymns for Children.
However, aside from his carol Good King Wenceslas, it is not Neale’s original compositions that are most widely recognized, but his translations and adaptations of ancient and medieval works, on which he labored on throughout his life.
The various editions of the annotated hymnal he and his associates prepared—the Hymnal Noted—and his hymns of the Orthodox churches have contributed hymns such as those listed above. It is estimated Neale and his collaborators produced over 400 hymns, sequences and carols.
Another object of Neale’s interest was the history of the Eastern Churches. Neale’s book on the Patriarchate of Alexandria appeared in 1847. In 1850, it was followed by a General Introduction to the Orthodox church of the East. A third volume, edited by George Williams, came out in 1873.
One aspect of Neale’s outlook not dwelt upon much by his biographers is his conviction that divine judgment was the lot of those who appropriated property that had been consecrated. With an associate, in 1846 he published, anonymously, an updated edition of Sir Henry Spelman’s History of Sacrilege.
The book shows how disasters, the failure of the male line, and/or great excesses of moral depravity came upon persons who took land that had been given to the Church, or their successors.
When such lands had belonged to the Church, revenues from these lands had been employed to feed the hungry as well as to support the sometimes luxurious way of life of certain clergymen. Here we see the antiquarian and the man of Christian compassion united.
Such a union is very evident in Neale’s foundation of the Society of St. Margaret, one of the first Anglican conventual sisterhoods (1855). As Warden of Sackville College at East Grinstead, Neale came to know the poverty of some of the nearby villagers. Fever victims might die unattended.
So his sisters of charity began their work, with Neale as their pastor-confessor-administrator. However, the sisterhood was verbally and even physically attacked as a wedge of
Romanism in the English Church.
In 1857, the
Lewes Riot occurred, instigated by an Evangelical clergyman whose daughter had been one of the Sisters, and who had died of scarlet fever, bequeathing 400 pounds to the Society.
Neale was used to opposition by then. Years before the Society’s foundation, Neale had been inhibited by the Bishop of Chichester from exercising his priestly duties in the village, evidently on account of the bishop’s resentment of Neale’s church furnishings, etc., at Sackville College.
John Mason Neale had his lighter side, too, as evidenced by a joke he once played on John Keble. As related by Neale’s associate Gerard Moultrie and quoted in A. G. Lough, The Influence of John Mason Neale (London, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge: 1962), p. 95:
[Neale] was invited by Mr. Keble and the Bishop of Salisbury to assist them with their new Hymnal, and for this reason he paid a visit to Hursley Parsonage [Keble’s residence]…[Keble] related that having to go to another room to find some papers he was detained a short time. On his return, Dr. Neale said,Why Keble! I thought you told me that the Christian Year was entirely original!Yes,he answered,it certainly is.Then how comes this?And Dr. Neale placed before him the Latin of one of Keble’s hymns for a Saint’s day—I think it was for St. Luke’s.
Keble professed himself utterly confounded. There was the English, which he knew that he had made, and there too no less certainly was the Latin, with far too unpleasant a resemblance to his own to be fortuitous. He protested that he had never seen thisoriginal,no, not in all his life! etc. etc. After a few minutes, Neale relieved him by owning that he had just turned it into Latin in his absence.
Never in his lifetime was Neale adequately appreciated in his own church. His Doctor of Divinity degree was conferred by Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, in 1860. At Neale’s funeral, the highest ranking clergymen were Orthodox.
Neale could never have guessed how much he accomplished for the church and for generations of Christians who would sing the hymns he gave them.
Biography © 1997 Dale J. Nelson. Used by permission. To request permission to reproduce this text, or to get the full version of the article, click here.