Anglican priest, scholar and hymnologist (also spiritual godfather to this blog) John Mason Neale was born today in London in 1818. His father, the Reverend Cornelius Neale, was a staunch Evangelical who was ordained in 1822, only a year before his death.
Neale studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was considered to be "the cleverest man of his year" but since he had avoided any study of mathematics he was not allowed to graduate with honours, but only a regular degree. While at Cambridge he developed an interest in the Oxford Movement, taking him away from his Evangelical roots. While many in the movement were mostly concerned with doctrine and, to a lesser extent, liturgy, Neale was also interested in church architecture, and how church buildings could be restored to the layouts of the early Roman Catholic church.
Following his ordination to the priesthood in 1842, his Oxford tendencies as well as his poor health limited his career opportunities. He was under the authority of Charles Sumner, Bishop of Winchester (also an Evangelical), who prevented him from taking a curacy in Guildford and eventually installed him as the warden (not even the chaplain) of Sackville College, which was actually an almshouse. While at Sackville, Neale spent his own money to restore the chapel, which has fallen into disrepair, but in following some of the architectural and design principles he had come to prefer (including open benches and candles on the altar), he again attracted the attention of the bishop, who placed him under inhibition for thirteen years, meaning that he could not function as a priest (and that the Sackville inmates could not receive the sacraments in their own chapel). Though Neale remained firmly in the Church of England, it was believed by many that he would eventually leave and join the Roman Catholic Church, as many of the Oxford Movement followers (or Tractarians, as they were known) had already done.
He published more than a hundred books in the following years at Sackville, including his sermons, stories for children, and his great History of the Holy Eastern Church, for which he learned Russian in addition to the Greek he already knew. Eventually he would master nearly twenty languages.
Neale's tremendous contribution to English language hymnody stemmed from his Tractarian sympathies. In an article published in 1849, he wrote about the great heritage of hymns in the Catholic Church from centuries past which had been taken from the people when the Church adopted the vernacular during the Reformation.
That treasury, into which the saints of every age and country had poured their contributions, delighting, each in his generation, to express their hopes and fears, their joys and sorrows, in language which would be the heritage of their Holy Mother until the end of time--those noble hymns, (...) whether of the sevenfold daily office, of the weekly commemoration of creation and redemption, of the yearly revolution of the Church's seasons, or of the birthdays to glory of martyrs and confessors--those hymns by which day unto day had uttered speech, and night unto night had taught knowledge--could not, by the hands then employed in ecclesiastical matters, be rendered into another, and that a then comparatively barbarous, tongue.
Neale took it upon himself to translate or paraphrase many dozens of hymns from Latin, Greek, Syrian, and Russian, publishing them in several different collections, including
The Hymnal Noted (1851)
Medieval Hymns and Sequences (1862)
Hymns of the Eastern Church (1870)
He also wrote original hymn texts, published in Hymns for Children (1843), Hymns for the Sick (1843) and elsewhere, though they are far less known as his translated texts, which appear in most hymnals up to the present day. Today's short hymn of praise and trust in God is one of his originals.
Great Creator, you have taught us
We should live to you alone;
Year by year, your hand hath brought us
On through dangers oft unknown.
When we wandered, you have found us,
When we doubted, sent us light;
Still your arm has been around us,
All our paths were in your sight.
We would trust in your protecting,
Wholly rest upon your arm,
Follow wholly your directing,
You, our only guard from harm;
Therefore, God, we come believing
You can give the power we need,
Through the prayer of faith receiving
Strength, the Spirit’s strength, indeed.
John Mason Neale, 1844; alt.
Tune: REX GLORIAE (18.104.22.168.D.)
Henry T. Smart, 1868
Neale died on August 6, 1866, the Feast of the Transfiguration, so when he was later added to the Anglican calendar of notables, his day was moved to August 7.
As I have mentioned several times before, John Mason Neale's translation of a long text by Bernard of Cluny we now sing as Jerusalem the golden, which contained the phrase which names this blog. Though technically the first post here was on January 23, 2008, today we celebrate our eighth anniversary and embark on our ninth year on the occasion of Neale's birthday.
P.S. The stained glass window honoring Mason is from the church of St. Swithuns East Grinstead, which is located near Sackville College, and in which churchyard Neale is buried.
Seven Years Ago: John Mason Neale
Six Years Ago: John Mason Neale
Five Years Ago: John Mason Neale
Three Years Ago: John Mason Neale