John Mason Neale was born in London in 1818 and studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was imbued with High Church ideals. Ordained to the presbyterate in 1842, he was presented with the living of Crawley, West Sussex, but ill health prevented his being instituted, and he spent the next three winters in Madeira. From 1846 until his death he held the wardenship of Sackville College, East Grinstead, dividing his activities between his literary work and the Sisterhood of Saint Margaret, which he founded in 1855. This community, which developed into one of the leading religious communities in the Church of England, was founded with particular care for the education of girls and the care of the sick. Its rule was framed on Saint Francis de Sales’ Visitation and the rule of Saint Vincent de Paul’s Sisters of Charity, and the order met with strenuous and even violent opposition to the point of rioting from Protestant quarters in the Church.
Neale was both a scholar and a creative poet whose skills in composing original verse and in translating Latin and Greek hymns into fluid and effective English verse were devoted to the Church. Composer of many original hymns and translations, he greatly enriched English hymnody. His Hymns of the Eastern Church (1862) included a number of Easter hymns, and their inclusion in a number of English hymnals introduced an important Eastern emphasis on the Resurrection into Anglican worship. Despite his poor health he was a prolific writer and compiler as well, and his output included such works on hymnody as Medieval Hymns and Sequences and Hymns of the Eastern Church as well as Liturgiology and Church History and a four volume commentary on the Psalms. He also founded, with longtime Cambridge friend and colleague Benjamin Webb, the Cambridge-Camden Society, later known as the Ecclesiological Society, the arm of the Oxford Movement devoted to recovering (sometimes going behind historic precedent) Catholic practice in Anglican church architecture, vestments, and liturgical acts.
Gentleness combined with firmness, good humor, modesty, patience, devotion, and “an unbounded charity” describe Neale’s character. Though he never received preferment in England, his contributions were recognized in the wide inclusion of his hymns in Anglican and other hymnals and in such actions as the presentation to him by the Metropolitan of Moscow of a rare copy of the Old Believers’ liturgy. He died on the Feast of the Transfiguration in 1866, having left a lasting mark on worship in the English-speaking world.
Most hymnals since the late nineteenth century have included many of Neale’s compositions and translations. “Come, ye faithful, raise the strain”, “Creator of the stars of night”, “All glory, laud, and honor”, “Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle”, “Jerusalem the golden”, and “O come, O come, Emmanuel” are just a few of the hymns that will long remain in the corpus of English hymnody.
adapted from Lesser Feasts and Fasts and
The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church
Grant, O God, that in all time of our testing we may know your presence and obey your will; that, following the example of your servant John Mason Neale, we may with integrity and courage accomplish what you give us to do, and endure what you give us to bear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen
The propers for the commemoration of John Mason Neale, Priest, are published on the Lectionary Page website.