John Mason Neale


John mason neale (24 January 1818—6 August 1866) was a Church of England priest, liturgical and ecclesiological scholar, linguist and translator, writer, and founder of several ecclesiastical organizations. He is best known today for his many outstanding translations of hymns from the Greek, Latin, Russian, Syriac, and other languages.

Neale was the son of an evangelical Anglican clergyman (himself a distinguished Cambridge scholar), and was the oustanding student of his year at Trinity College, Cambridge, though a disinclination to mathematics prevented him graduating with the distinction he deserved as a classical scholar. During this period he seems to have read not only classical and medieval literature, but also English drama and novels, voraciously, and he won the Seatonian Prize for poetry eleven times.

He served as chaplain of Downing College, Cambridge, briefly after his ordination as deacon, and served a vicariate for a year following his marriage and ordination to the priesthood, but his health was always delicate, and he was forced to resign, spending a few years in Madeira. Upon his return to England he became warden of Sackville College, a charity home for pensioners, and there he spent the rest of his life. This minor position allowed him the time to study and write; he turned down the one main offer of ‘advancement’, the provostship (deanery) of St Ninian’s, Perth.

And a prolific writer he was (his publications number 140), not only of hymns and translations of hymns; he translated the Eastern liturgies and other ecclesiastical texts of many kinds and tongues (he was said to have mastered as many as twenty) into English; wrote a multi-volume commentary on the Psalms and a multi-volume history of the Eastern Churches; published many sermons, songs, and poems; and wrote both learned and popular works – articles, historical fiction and stories for children – on many other aspects of Church history, ecclesiology, liturgiology, church architecture and liturgical space, devotional practice, and travel and foreign parts. He was also an enthusiastic correspondent with people all across Europe.

This is not to say that he neglected his duties at Sackville; he spent much energy and not a little of his own money improving the dilapidated fabric of the place, and his sermons given there, as well as his more popular writings – if they strike us today as perhaps a bit patronizing in tone – certainly show his concern for the spiritual needs of the poor and unlearned persons in his care. His lifelong, and ultimately successful, campaign against pews (that is, purchased or rented seating) in churches also meant a great deal for the position of poor persons in the Church, and his founding of the Society of St Margaret, a religious order in the Church of England devoted to nursing (of which one of his daughters became the Reverend Mother), is evidence his concern for their physical well-being as well.

At Cambridge he had come under the influence of the Oxford Movement, which advocated a reclaiming of the catholic (through the lens of the medieval) heritage of the Church of England. Neale and his friend Benjamin Webb took up the mostly doctrinal concerns of the Oxford group and translated them into physical, aesthetic, and ritual form. While serving his chaplaincy, he helped to found the Cambridge Camden Society (now the Ecclesiological Society), which promoted ‘the study of Gothic Architecture, and of Ecclesiastical Antiques’ and has to this day had an impact on the design and renovation of Anglican houses of worship that would be difficult to overstate – an influence and legacy at least as great as that of Neale’s hymnody.

The catholic revival in the Church of England was a very divisive issue for many decades, and Neale found himself in the thick of controversy, in which those with catholicizing tendencies could even be suspected of being agents of the Vatican. He and the Sisters of St Margaret were physically attacked at least once and threatened repeatedly, and he was inhibited by his bishop (Turner of Chichester) from sacramental ministry for fourteen years. Despite his massive contributions to the life of the Church, he never received any official recognition or honor in his native land; Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, which awarded him the D.D. in 1860, was the only institution to honor him.

Neale was also, somewhat less controversially but no less characteristically, the principal founder of the Eastern Church Association (now the Anglican and Eastern Churches Association), which prays and works for the reunion of the Eastern Orthodox and Anglican Churches. His concern for the unity of the Church, and his scholarship of the Eastern Churches, brought him recognition and gifts from the Czar of Russia and the Metropolitan of Moscow.

It is fitting indeed that Neale, with his many sympathies and connections with Eastern Orthodoxy, reposed on the Feast of the Transfiguration, which is of utmost importance in that communion. Because of the primacy of this feast, he is commemorated one day later.

One-eighth of the contents of Hymns Ancient and Modern, and one-tenth of the English Hymnal, came from his pen. Four hymns are mentioned by name in the 1979 Prayer Book, two listed by Latin and two by English incipit; for the latter, it is Neale’s translations that are cited (‘Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle’ and ‘All glory, laud, and honor’). The Hymnal 1982 contains the following works of his:

Original hymns

Good Christian friends, rejoice
O very God of very God


All glory, laud, and honor
     Gloria, laus, et honor (Theodulf of Orleans)
Alleluia, song of gladness
     Alleluia, dulce carmen
Blessed city, heavenly Salem
     Urbs beata Jerusalem
Blessed feasts of blessed martyrs
     O beata beatorum
Christ is made the sure foundation
     Angularis fundamentum
Come, ye faithful, raise the strain
     Asômen pantes laoi (St John of Damascus)
Draw nigh and take the Body of the Lord
     Sancti, venite, Christi corpus sumite (Bangor Antiphoner)
Gabriel’s message does away
     Angelus emittitur (Piae Cantiones)
Jerusalem the golden
     from De contemptu mundi (Bernard of Cluny)
Let us now our voices raise
     Tôn hierôn athlophorôn (Joseph the Hymnographer)
Light’s abode, celestial Salem
     Jerusalem luminosa
Now that the daylight fills the sky (st. 1)
     Jam lucis orto sidere
O God, creation’s secret force (st. 1,2)
     Rerum Deus tenax vigor (St Ambrose)
O God of truth, O Lord of might (st. 1,2)
     Rector potens, verax Deus (St Ambrose)
O sons and daughters, let us sing
     O filii et filiae (Tisserand)
O Trinity of blessed light
     O lux beata Trinitas (st. 1,2)
O what their joy and glory must be
     O quanta, qualia sunt illa sabbata (Abelard)
O wondrous type! O vision fair
     Caelestis formam gloriae
Of the Father’s love begotten
     Corde natus ex parentis
Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle
     Pange lingua gloriosi (Fortunatus)
The great forerunner of the morn
     Praecursor altus luminis (The Venerable Bede)
The day of resurrection
     Anastaseôs hêmera (St John of Damascus)
The Lamb’s high banquet called to share
     Ad cenam Agni providi
The Word whom earth and sea and sky
     Quem terra, pontus, aethera
Thou hallowed chosen morn of praise
     Hautê hê klêtê (St John of Damascus)
When Christ’s appearing was made known (st. 2–5)
     Hostis Herodes impie (Caelius Sedulius)

Grant unto us, O God, that in all time of our testing we may know thy presence and obey thy will; that, following the example of thy servant John Mason Neale, we may with integrity and courage accomplish what thou givest us to do, and endure what thou givest us to bear; through Jesus Christ our Lord...