John Samuel Bewley Monsell was born on March 2, 1811, at St Columb’s, Londonderry, Ireland. His father was the Archdeacon of Londonderry, and young John followed into Clerical ministry in his footsteps.
Monsell attended Trinity College in Dublin, gaining his BA in 1832 and LLD in 1856.
He was ordained in 1834 and following his holy orders he ministered in Surrey and Guildford in England. During the latter ministry, as Rector of St. Nicholas, Guildford, he was accidentally killed during renovations to his church.
Monsell was a prolific poet and hymn-writer. He published 11 volumes of poems, of which almost 300 were hymns which came from his pen.
“We are too distant and reserved in our praises,” he wrote. “We sing not as we should sing to Him and of Him who is Chief among 10,000, the Altogether Lovely.”
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Among his best known contributions to the world of hymnody are … “O Worship the Lord in the Beauty of Holiness” and “Fight the Good Fight with All Thy Might”.
One of Monsell’s hymns, ‘Awake, glad soul, awake, awake” was written according to the preface to his ‘Spiritual Songs‘, “amid the orange and olive groves of Italy during a winter spent (for the sake of his health) upon the shores of the Mediterranean Sea”.
In the title page and introduction to the 1864 Fourth Edition of ‘Spiritual Songs’, Monsell identified himself as Vicar of Egham, Surrey and Rural Dean, and Author of ‘Parish Musings’. The collection provided a poem for each of the Sundays and Holy Days throughout the year. Monsell saw this English Ritual of the liturgical religious calendar as an expression of the “mind of Christ”.
A distinction among hymns, which can be seen in Monsell’s music, is between the hymn and the Processional. The inclusion of a repetitive chorus was a feature of Processionals, and so Monsell modified some of his hymns to create a chorus for processional use, such as using the first four lines of the first verse as a chorus for the other verses. Hymns with choruses became the principal style of hymn in the twentieth century.
Monsell’s death occurred on 9 April, 1875 when he fell from the roof of the church as it was being rebuilt.
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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