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Little more than a century ago—in the year 1818, to be exact—there was born in the great city of London a child who was destined to become an unusual scholar. He was christened John Mason Neale, a name that may be found today throughout the pages of the world’s best hymn-books.

When he was only five years old, his father died, and, like so many other men who have achieved fame, he received the greater part of his elementary training from a gifted mother.

At Cambridge University, which he entered at an early age, he became a brilliant student, leading his classes and winning numerous prizes. After his graduation he was ordained as a minister in the Church of England.

His interest in the ancient hymns of the Christian Church led him to spend much time in the morning lands of history, particularly in Greece. To him, more than any one else, we owe some of the most successful translations from the classical languages. By his sojourn in eastern lands, he seems to have been enabled to catch the spirit of the Greek hymns to such a degree that his translations read almost like original poems. For instance, in order to do justice to the famous Easter hymn of John of Damascus, written some time during the eighth century, Neale celebrated Easter in Athens and heard the “glorious old hymn of victory,” as he called it, sung by a great throng of worshipers at midnight. The result is his sublime translation:


The day of resurrection!

Earth, tell it out abroad!

The Passover of gladness,

The Passover of God!

From death to Life eternal,

From earth unto the sky,

Our Christ hath brought us over,

With hymns of victory.

Another very famous translation from the Greek by Neale is the hymn:

Art thou weary, art thou languid,

Art thou sore distressed?

“Come to me,” saith One, “and, coming,

Be at rest.”

This hymn is often regarded as an original by Neale, but the author was St. Stephen the Sabaite, a monk who received his name from the monastery in which he spent his life, that of St. Sabas, near Bethlehem, overlooking the Dead Sea. St. Stephen, who was born in 725 A.D., had been placed in the monastery at the age of ten years by his uncle. He lived there more than half a century until his death in 794 A.D.

Neale was equally successful in the translation of ancient Latin hymns. Perhaps the most notable is his rendering of Bernard of Cluny’s immortal hymn:

Jerusalem, the golden,

With milk and honey blest!

Beneath thy contemplation

Sink heart and voice oppressed:

I know not, O I know not,

What blissful joys are there,

What radiancy of glory,

What light beyond compare!

So facile was Neale in the art of writing either English or Latin verse, that he often astounded his friends. It is 319 said that on one occasion John Keble, author of “The Christian Year,” was visiting him. Absenting himself from the room for a few minutes, Neale returned shortly and exclaimed: “I thought, Keble, that all your poems in ‘The Christian Year’ were original; but one of them, at least, seems to be a translation.” Thereupon he handed Keble, to the latter’s amazement, a very fine Latin rendering of one of Keble’s own poems. He had made the translation during his absence from the room.

But Neale did not confine himself to translations. He also wrote a large number of splendid original hymns. He was fond of writing hymns for holy days and festivals of the church year. The hymn printed in connection with this sketch is for Advent. “Oh Thou, who by a star didst guide,” for Epiphany, and “Blessed Saviour, who hast taught me,” for confirmation, are among his other original hymns.

Because of his “high church” tendencies, accentuated no doubt by the influence of the “Oxford Movement,” Neale incurred the suspicion of some that he leaned toward the Church of Rome. However, there is nothing of Roman error to be found in his hymns. The evangelical note rings pure and clear, and for this reason they will no doubt continue to be loved and sung through centuries yet to come.

Neale died August 6, 1866, at the age of forty-eight years, trusting in the atoning blood of Christ, and with the glorious assurance expressed in his version of St. Stephen’s hymn:

If I still hold closely to Him,

What hath He at last?

“Sorrow vanquished, labor ended,

Jordan passed.”

If I ask Him to receive me,

Will He say me nay?


“Not till earth and not till heaven

Pass away.”

Another Englishman who gained renown by translations of the old classical hymns of the Church was Edward Caswall. He was a contemporary of Neale, and, like the latter, came under the influence of the “Oxford Movement,” which cost the Church of England some of its ablest men. While Neale, however, remained faithful to his own communion, Caswall resigned as a minister of the English Church and became a Romanist. He was made a priest in the Congregation of the Oratory, which Cardinal Newman had established in Birmingham, a position he continued to fill until his death in 1878.

Two of the most beautiful hymns in the English language—“Jesus, the very thought of Thee” and “O Jesus, King most wonderful”—were derived by Caswall from the famous Latin poem, De Nomine Jesu, by Bernard of Clairvaux. Of the former hymn Dr. Robinson has said: “One might call this poem the finest in the world and still be within the limits of all extravagance.”

Among other fine translations from the Latin by Caswall are “Hark! a thrilling voice is sounding” and “Glory be to Jesus.” He also has given us some hymns from the German, including the exquisite morning hymn, “When morning gilds the skies.” This is such a free rendering, however, that it may rather be regarded as an original hymn by Caswall. Three of its stanzas read:

When morning gilds the skies,

My heart, awaking, cries,

May Jesus Christ be praised!

Alike at work and prayer,

To Jesus I repair;

May Jesus Christ be praised!


In heaven’s eternal bliss

The loveliest strain is this,

May Jesus Christ be praised!

Let air, and sea, and sky

From depth to height reply,

May Jesus Christ be praised!

Be this, while life is mine,

My canticle divine,

May Jesus Christ be praised!

Be this the eternal song

Through all the ages on,

May Jesus Christ be praised!

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