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An innovator in word and sacrament

05 August 2016

Michael Wheeler reassesses J. M. Neale, priest and hymn writer

Innovator: J. M. Neale

Innovator: J. M. Neale

PRIEST, hymn-writer, 1866: thus Common Worship commemorates John Mason Neale, the author of so many favourites from Hymns Ancient and Modern and The English Hymnal, where Neale’s contributions — mainly translations from ancient hymns — far out­number those of Charles Wesley.

Hymns such as “Christ is made the one foundation”, “Jerusalem the golden”, and “Stars of the morning”, carols such as “Good King Wenceslas”, and “A great and mighty wonder” — as the list rolls on, we hum the familiar settings, by Thomas Helmore and others, to words that are in the very blood­stream of Anglicanism.

So who was J. M. Neale, and why should we remember him tomor­row, on the 150th anniversary of his death?

He was born on 24 January 1818 in London, the son of the Revd Cornelius Neale, a literary clergyman who died when Neale was five years old, and of Susanna Good, the daughter of a literary physician, who brought up her son and three daughters on her own, but with few financial worries. Between the ages of six and 11, he was tutored by an intelligent clergyman, alongside Benjamin Jowett, the future Master of Balliol and a leading Oxford liberal.

The energy and fervour of Tractarianism reflect the fact that several of its leaders had been brought up in Evangelical households. Neale was one of them, but he honoured his father’s memory in matriculating at Trinity College, Cambridge, rather than the Oxford of Keble, Pusey, and Newman. An outstanding classicist, like Jowett, Neale was ordained deacon in 1841, and became tutor and chaplain at Downing College — which, to his dismay, had no altar in the chapel.

Neale’s deepening sacramentalism manifested itself in the founding in 1839 of the Cambridge Camden Society (CCS), in collaboration with his friends Benjamin Webb and Edward Jacob Boyce. These were not simply earnest young men who were “randy for antique”, as Philip Larkin put it. Their “bagging” of country churches and recording of the minutiae of ecclesiastical architecture and furnishings had a higher purpose.

The archaism in the title of Neale’s History of pues (1841) caught the eye of potential readers; so that his booklet attacking high box-pews as “abortions of a puritanick age” was reprinted three times. The CCS, pilloried for its popish views on stone altars, moved to London in 1846, and became the Ecclesiological Society.

Meanwhile, having been priested in 1842, Neale married Sarah Webster, a clergyman’s daughter, and was offered the living of Crawley. He soon wore himself out, having inherited the consumption that had killed his father. Whisked away to Madeira to recover his strength, Neale realised that parish work was beyond him, and that he must write.

He was to channel his formidable intellectual and emotional energy into writing for a cause: the recovery of the English Church’s identity as Catholic and reformed, through the reordering of its churches, its services, and its pastoral ministry, all in the name of the beauty of holiness.

Novels were vehicles for such a programme in the mid-19th century, and among Neale’s was Ayton Priory; or, The restored monastery (1843). Having published a book on ecclesiastical architecture, Hierologus; or, The church tourists (1843), Neale embarked on a multi-volume History of the Holy Eastern Church (1847-73). As he explored the glorious but largely neglected tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy, Neale opened a route not only to further research, but also to ecumenism and rapprochement, a project that has gathered further momentum in our own time.

He needed a secure base, however, and this he found as warden of the little community of Sackville College. For 20 years, these almshouses in East Grinstead, in Sussex, were to be his home, together with his wife and five children.

When a neighbouring Evangelical drew the Bishop’s attention to the reordering of the chapel, Neale was inhibited from the exercise of his clerical functions, although he gained the support of most of the pensioners. (One of them, however, insisted on throwing bricks through the chapel window.) He soldiered on when a riot broke out over his burial practices, which were only his way of improving the grotesque traditions that were regarded as decent at the time.

Neale founded the nursing Sisterhood of St Margaret during the Crimean War, partly in response to the poor conditions that he found among his neighbours. By 1861, there were 15 Sisters, crammed into the house near the college; so Neale’s friend George Edmund Street was asked to design a dedicated religious house.

No bishops were present at the laying of the foundation stone, and Neale died before it was completed in 1870, the year in which his Sermons on the Blessed Sacrament were published at the request of the Sisterhood. Neale’s theme was the spiritual dangers of daily communion, which he had instituted long ago in the chapel, together with other Ritualist innovations.

Neale’s translations of hymns from the Early Church, and especially his innovative translations from Greek, are his legacy. Their emphasis on heaven and their visions of the new Jerusalem appealed to a devout priest who lived with a killer disease.

Even the hymns that he wrote himself, such as “Around the throne of God a band”, and “O happy band of pilgrims”, encourage worshippers to “Look upward to the skies”. Neale’s sacramentalism, however, expressed in his love of symbolism and typology, also rooted him firmly in this world.

He died on the feast of the Transfiguration. His biographer, Michael Chandler, quotes from the convent diary: “He looks perfectly calm, in cassock, surplice and stole, with a Crucifix in his hands.” According to a local reporter, the funeral procession was watched respectfully, but with wonderment at “the vestments and paraphernalia used”.


Dr Michael Wheeler is Chairman of Gladstone’s Library, and a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton. Among his books are Heaven, Hell and the Victorians (CUP, 1994) and The Old Enemies: Catholic and Protestant in nineteenth-century English culture (CUP, 2006).

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