John Mason Neale (1818-1866)

The following brief sketch of the work of John Mason Neale was contributed by parish member Kyle Williams, who is at work on a longer study of Neale for Earth and Altar.

John Mason Neale was a priest in the Church of England whose wide-ranging interests and prolific work in ecclesiastical history, theology, liturgy, church architecture and ritual, and English monasticism made him one of the most remarkable pastor scholars of the nineteenth century. He is remembered best today for his exceptional work as a hymnologist as well as hymn writer and translator. Consider, for example, that of the 600 hymns contained in the original The Hymnal 1940, thirty-nine of them were either translated or written by Neale — far more than any other contributor.

The best way to understand Neale’s massive (and sometimes eclectic) body of work is with reference to this life-long passion for hymnody. The hymns point to two things about his life. The first is that Neale was driven primarily by pastoral motivations, which can be seen most acutely in the hymns that he wrote and translated for congregations to sing, the multiple volumes of hymn books he compiled especially for children, and the pious and catechetical short stories and fables that he wrote for children. Neale wasn’t insulated from the needs and everyday life of ordinary churchgoers. Rather, he seemed to be motivated by the quotidian realities of church life.

The second is that Neale was primarily interested in retrieval. He was no Tractarian. But he came of age as a priest during a revival in the Church of England and at a time when the Oxford Movement’s catholic sensibilities had taken root among a generation of priests. Neale’s drive to retrieve ancient and medieval hymns for congregational singing, just like his interest in Eastern Orthodoxy or Christological interpretations of the Psalms, came out of a genuinely catholic desire to recover the riches of the whole church for the benefit of the common life of the contemporary church.

John Mason Neale, expressed some of his views about the state of English hymnody in the mid-nineteenth century in “English Hymnology: Its History and Prospects,” published in the periodical The Christian Remembrancer in  1849. The following paragraphs are taken from that article:

“Among the most pressing of the inconveniences consequent on the adoption of the vernacular language in the office-books of the Reformation, must be reckoned the immediate disuse of all the hymns of the Western Church. 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, which had solaced anchorets on their mountains, monks in their cells, priests in bearing up against the burden and heat of the day, missionaries in girding themselves for martyrdom — henceforth became as a sealed book and as a dead letter. The prayers and collects, the versicles and responses, of the earlier Church might, without any great loss of beauty, be preserved; but the 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. One attempt the Reformers made — the version of the VENI CREATOR SPIRITUS in the Ordinal; and that, so far perhaps fortunately, was the only one [see the Book of Common Prayer, p. 543 for this ancient hymn]. Cranmer, indeed, expressed some casual hope that men fit for the office might be induced to come forward; but the very idea of a hymnology of the time of Henry VIII may make us feel thankful that the prelate’s wishes were not carried out.

“The Church of England had, then, to wait. She had, as it has well been said, to begin over again. There might arise saints within herself, who, one by one, should enrich her with hymns in her own language; there might arise poets, who should be capable of supplying her office-books with versions of the hymns of earlier times. In the meantime the psalms were her own; and grievous as was the loss she had sustained, she might be content to suffice herself with those, and expect in patience the rest.”

In The Hymnal 1940 Companion, we read : “His character was a happy mixture of gentleness and firmness, with an unbounded charity which, with his liturgical studies and literary achievements, won him world-wide love and respect.” Neale’s pious and scholarly orientation did not prevent him from somewhat lighter moments. A. G. Lough’s The In­flue­nce of John Ma­son Neale recounts this episode in his life.

“[Neale] was in­vit­ed by Mr. [John] 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 [Keble’s own volume of hymns] 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 this orig­in­al, 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.”

Hymns by John Mason Neale in our Hymnal

The first translation into English of the hymn “O come, O come, Emmanuel” appeared in John Mason Neale’s The Hymnal Noted (1851). In Neale’s version, the first verse began with the words, “Draw nigh, draw nigh, Emmanuel.” Later translators changed the opening words (and several other minor details). Our Hymnal uses a later translation, and so Neale’s name is not listed at the bottom of the page for this great Advent hymn. But it is Neale to whom credit is due for bringing this medieval hymn into our experience of worship, and each Advent, we should give thanks for the gifts this thought cleric brought into our lives.

As author

Art thou weary, art thou laden (#406)

Good Christian men, rejoice (#31)

O thou, who through this holy week (#73)

O very God of very God (#442)

As translator

All glory, laud, and honor (#62)

Alleluia, song of gladness (#54)

Blessed city, heav’nly Salem (#383)

Blessed feasts of blessed martyrs (#135)

Brief life is here our portion (#596)

Christ is made the sure foundation (#384)

Christian, dost thou see them (#556)

Come, Holy Ghost, with God the Son (#160)

Come, ye faithful, raise the strain (#94)

Creator of the stars of night (#6)

The day is past and over (#184)

The day of resurrection (#96)

Draw nigh and take the Body of  the Lord (#202)

For thee, O dear, dear country (#598)

A great and mighty wonder (#18)

Jerusalem the golden (#597)

Jesus, Name all names above (#342)

Let us now our voices raise (#136)

Light’s abode, celestial Salem (#587)

Now that the daylight fills the sky (#159)

O blest Creator of the light (#163)

O God, creation’s secret force (#162)

O God of truth, O Lord of might (#161)

O sons and daughters let us sing (#99)

O Trinity of blessed light (#171)

O what their joy and their glory must be (#589)

O wondrous type! O vision fair (#119)

Of the Father’s love begotten (#20)

Stars of the morning, so gloriously bright (#121)

Those eternal bowers Man hath never trod (#581)

Thou hallowed chosen morn of praise (#93)

To thee before the close of day (#164)

The world is very evil (#595)