John Mason Neale was an Anglican priest, scholar and hymn writer who is mostly remembered for his contributions to Christmas hymns and carols. Neale was born in London on 24thJanuary 1818 to clergyman Cornelius Neale (1789-1823) and Susannah. Neale’s younger sister Elizabeth (1822-1901) went on to found the Anglican religious order The Community of the Holy Cross.
Neale attended the independent boarding school Sherborne School in Dorset, followed by Trinity College, Cambridge where he failed to achieve an honours degree due to his lack of ability in mathematics. Nonetheless, by 22, Neale was the chaplain of Downing College, Cambridge and helped to found the Cambridge Camden Society. The society aimed to promote more Gothic architecture in churches.
In 1842, Neale was ordained and became incumbent of Crawley in Sussex. Unfortunately, he did not hold this position for long because he was forced to resign due to chronic lung disease. To ease his condition, Neale spent the winter in the Madeira Islands where he concentrated on writing his theological book History of the Eastern Church. By 1846, Neale was fit to work once more and became the warden of Sackville College, a Jacobean almshouse in East Grinstead.
In East Grinstead, Neale set up the Society of Saint Margaret, which was dedicated to nursing the sick. The society was run by nuns and spread throughout Britain and eventually to the USA, Haiti and Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, Protestants were suspicious of the society because they associated nuns with Catholicism. In 1857, Neale was attacked at a funeral for one of the society’s sisters; however, he received little sympathy in England. Fortunately, he was better respected in the USA and received a doctorate from Trinity College, Connecticut.
Due to his interest in the Eastern Church, Neale founded the Anglican and Eastern Orthodox Churches Union in 1864. Although he endured a lot of opposition for this, he dedicated his time to translating Eastern liturgies into English. He also translated ancient, medieval, Greek and Latin hymns into English. These include All Glory, Laud and Honour, O come, O come, Emmanuel and Of the Father’s Heart Begotten.
All Glory, Laud and Honour was a hymn written by Theodulf of Orléans in 820. Based on Psalm 2:1-11, the hymn was intended to be sung on Palm Sunday. Theodulf, who had once been Bishop of Orléans under the rule of Charlemagne, was in prison at the time he wrote the hymn. His imprisoner, Louis the Pious, heard Theodulf singing the song and ordered his release. He also ordered the song to be sung every Palm Sunday thereafter.
Neale translated O come, O come, Emmanuel from the original Latin in 1851. The first verse began, “Draw nigh, draw nigh, Emmanuel,” but ten years later, Neale modernised the hymn, so it began, “O come, O come, Emmanuel.” The version we sing today was updated in 1906 by T. A. Lacey.
O come, O come, Emmanuel is traditionally sung in the week preceding Christmas day, although some churches have adopted it as a hymn to sing throughout Advent. There are two other Christmas hymns that Neale is remembered for:
During his lifetime, Neale wrote more books than he did hymns. By his death on 6thAugust 1866, at the age of 48, Neale had written or contributed to at least twenty books. After his death, Neale was commemorated in the Calendar of the Saints of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Anglican Churches.
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon