Walking with the Saints

John Mason Neale

John Mason Neale, an eminent English clergyman, author, hymn writer and translator, was born in London on January 24, 1818. Neale was named after the Puritan cleric and hymn writer John Mason, of whom his mother Susanna was a descendant. He was educated at Shelbourne Grammar school and by private tutors before he entered Trinity College at Cambridge in 1836.

While studying at Cambridge, he was deeply affected by the Oxford Movement and developed an extraordinary interest in church archeology, especially in architecture. In 1839, he, along with a few others, organized the Cambridge Camden Society, afterwards known as the Ecclesiological Society, which exercised an immense influence on the architecture and ritual of the English Church. Neale and his friends looked back to the Middle Ages as a time when the Church met the needs of its parishioners both religiously and aesthetically. Their periodical promptly addressed itself to the dilapidated condition of many English church buildings and their recommendations were very influential in the Victorian campaign of church construction. Americans apt to think affectionately of the tastefulness and charm of English churches would be impressed by the descriptions of ruinous buildings encountered by Neale and his contemporaries.

Neale graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge in 1840, was ordained deacon in 1841, and a priest in 1842. This was also the year he married Sarah Norman Webster. For the first few months of 1842 he was the incumbent of Crawley in Sussex, but after six weeks his health broke down due to a chronic lung disease and he was compelled to resign.

The next winter he went to live in the Madeira Islands off the northwest coast of Africa. Fortunately for Neale, there was a fine library in connection with the cathedral from which he drew materials for his History of the Eastern Church, Commentary on the Psalms, and the liturgical studies for which he became so well known.

He finally returned to England in 1845, and in 1846 he became warden of Sackville College, an almshouse in East Grinstead. This was the appointment he held until his death.

Neale was an enthusiastic supporter of the Oxford Movement, and was an outspoken and consistent champion of Puseyism (named after Edward Pusey, a prominent leader of the Oxford Movement). However, this won him not only suspicions, since many Anglicans in his day were afraid that anyone such as Neale was an agent of the Vatican, assigned to destroy Anglicanism by subverting it from within, but also condemnation. He was under the "inhibition" of his bishop, the Bishop of Chichester, from 1846 to 1863, three years before his death (that is, he was prohibited from performing any ministerial duties). In 1857, Neale was attacked and mauled at a funeral of one of the Sisters. From time to time unruly crowds threatened to stone him or to burn his house. He received no honour or preferment in England, as his doctorate was bestowed by Trinity College (Connecticut). However, his fundamental kindness eventually won the confidence of many who had fiercely opposed him.

In 1854 Neale co-founded the Society of Saint Margaret, an order of women in the Church of England, dedicated to nursing the sick. He was also the principal founder of the Anglican and Eastern Churches Association, a religious organization founded as the Anglican and Eastern Orthodox Churches Union in 1864. A result of this organization were the Hymns of the Eastern Church, edited by Neale himself and published in 1865.

Neale is best known as a hymnwriter and translator, having enriched English hymnody with many ancient and mediaeval hymns translated from Latin and Greek. More than anyone else, he made English-speaking churches aware of the centuries-old tradition of Latin, Greek, Russian, and Syrian hymns. The 1875 edition of the Hymns Ancient and Modern contains 58 of his translated hymns; The English Hymnal (1906) contains 63 of his translated hymns and six original hymns by him.

His translations include: All Glory, Laud and Honour; A Great and Mighty Wonder; O come, O come, Emmanuel; Of the Father's Heart Begotten; Sing, My Tongue, the Glorious Battle; To Thee Before the Close of Day.

Neale died on the 6th of August, 1866, the day of the Festival of the Transfiguration. He is commemorated by the Anglican churches the following day. In the Episcopal Church he shares this feast with Catherine Winkworth, who also translated hymns into English. Neale was buried in St Swithun's churchyard, East Grinstead.