John Mason Neale was born on January 24, 1818 in Cockney London.
He has been described as “one of the most prolific and certainly one of the greatest hymn writers the Church of England has ever produced.” Another writer describes him as “the most learned hymnologist … of his time.”
“A brilliant scholar,” (the most gifted Cambridge undergraduate of his time) a third biographer informs us, “Neale had a knowledge of 20 languages; he authored books on church architecture, church history, etc.; he translated many hymns from the Latin and more from the Greek than any other hymnologist, and he wrote some hymns of his own”.
His parents gave him an evangelical upbringing, his father being an evangelical priest. After John’s father died in 1823 John left the city and went with his widowed mother to the village of Shepperton. There his tutor gave him a Greek New Testament and assisted John to memorise a verse each day.
Next he went to Blackheath and on to Sherborne, where he enjoyed extensive walks and became a proficient horseman.
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At Cambridge, he became High Church in his sympathies, including respect for the Tractarians.
After taking ‘holy orders’ at the age of 23, he ministered at Crawley, in Sussex, for six weeks … and left “for health reasons”. Ill health challenged him for the rest of his life.
In 1842 he married Sarah Norman, the daughter of an Anglican minister. And Neale’s love for church architecture, which he shared with his life-long friend Benjamin Webb, prompted them both to establish the Camden Society, to record and celebrate England’s religious architecture.
In 1854 Neale co-founded an Anglican order of women dedicated to nursing the sick, the Sisterhood of St. Margaret.
Neale spent three years of study in Madeira, Spain, where he pored over musty volumes of hymns and ancient Eastern liturgies. This made a lasting impression on him.
His interest in ancient liturgies prompted fears among his peers that he was a Catholic agent intent on subverting Anglicanism back to the Romish fold. Less than a decade before, John H. Newman had encouraged Catholic practices, then defected to the Roman Church. Suspicions thus abounded toward anyone who appeared to be of similar inclination.
At 28 years of age we find him as warden of Sackville College, an elderly men’s home (a charitable residence for the poor). His chapel services “with liturgies at variance with the Anglican tradition” caused the local bishop to forbid him to continue “debasing the minds of these poor people with his spiritual haberdasheries!” He was accused – and probably rightly so – of ‘Romish practices.’
For the next 14 years he not only had a verbal war with his bishop, but opposition from many people who lived in East Grinstead, Sussex. He was charged with misappropriating funds. Arson was attempted on his home. A riot at a funeral he was conducting for one of the Sisters of St Margaret necessitated police intervention …
In the midst of all this he continued his translation of ancient hymns: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel and Jerusalem the Golden were originally written in Latin in the 12th century. Art Thou Weary? was written in Greek in the 8th century.
Neale noted that the English Reformation and the break with Rome also caused a loss of much of the Latin and other hymn traditions of the Roman church, which were, none-the-less the heritage of the whole church. Archbishop Cranmer had previously seen the need to have these works translated for the English tongue, but no-one had achieved the task until Neale came along with appropriate interest and superlative qualifications to mine the rich hymnal heritage for the English church.
A glimpse of the names of hymn writers in the rear of most hymn-books will reveal a surprising number of Neale’s contributions.
Among his own compositions were Good King Wenceslas and Good Christian men, Rejoice! Neale also wrote historical fiction, among other efforts to inform his readers and illuminate their understanding. His time working among the poor and illiterate caused him to develop remarkable skills in unpacking truth so that simple folk could comprehend.
One biographer notes, “Excessive work killed this remarkably gifted son of the Church at the early age of forty-eight, in 1866.” He died on 6 August, 1866.
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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com