Monday, March 13, 2017

An agent of Popery? The persecution of John Mason Neale and his family

John Mason Neale from the
frontispiece of The Letters of
John Mason Neale
as compiled
by his daughter, Mary Sackville
Lawson in 1909.
Though little remembered today, John Mason Neale (1818-1866) was a 19th century Anglican clergyman. He was a poet, hymnodist, novelist, scholar of the ancient classics, and is perhaps best known for writing or translating the lyrics of several familiar hymns and Christmas carols, Good King Wenceslas, Good Christian Men Rejoice, and O Come, O Come, Emmanuel among them.

Neale was associated with the Oxford Movement of the mid-19th century which sought to re-introduce ancient practices of the Catholic Church into the Church of England. With a keen interest in patristics and as founder of the Sisterhood of Saint Margaret in 1854--a community of Anglican sisters that survives to this day--Neale regularly faced accusations of being too sympathetic to the Catholic Church. Sometimes, these accusations transcended mere verbal disagreement from his peers. The persecution he endured from this position was lasting and occasionally furious. His daughter would later write:
"To us, familiar as we were with his stories of the persecutions of the Church, it perhaps seemed to be the natural lot of a Christian, especially as our parents bore it in a quiet matter-of-fact way. When abusive language was shouted at her outside our window, our mother would pull down the blind and send one of us to practise the piano." 
Anti-Papist hooligans attempted to burn down his home at Sackville College in November of 1848: 
"The disturbances last night reached a climax. There were two incendiary fires the night before. Last night we had an attempt to set the College on fire in three different places; and a man knocked me down in the kitchen, and yet escaped, though we had five watchers at the time! Anonymous letters are now the order of the day; also pictures of me. This is all part of the same attempt to force us out; but they have mistaken their man. I sometimes really think they will try a bullet before they have done, and so murder me..." 
In March of 1851, he and his wife were roughly handled as "agents of popery." Here is a description of the incident from Neale's own letters:
"Now that the unhappy excitement which has recently prevailed in the town seems in some measure abated, I think that perhaps a few words of comment on and explanation of, late circumstances, may not be out of place. And therefore I adopt the only method in my power of addressing you, namely, a printed letter.
I shall be very glad if you will spend a few minutes in considering with me what has lately happened... 
The facts are these: That on a certain Tuesday night a mob of about 150 persons, many of them disguised, paraded the town; that they carried torches, firepans, oil, shavings, straw, and other combustibles; that they disturbed the place with their rough music; that they came up to this College, burnt a bier, a pall, and crosses in our field; smashed many of our windows, the stones being thrown with such force as to indent the wall on the opposite side; lighted a fire against our house, which absolutely melted the lead of one of the windows, and the flame of which was seen above the roof; that the mob retired two or three times, and returned to the assault, after having had beer in the town; that, when I went out to speak to them, they first attacked me, and had afterwards the cowardice to attack Mrs. Neale; that this took place when my children were, and were known to be, lying seriously ill; and that their illness was very much aggravated by the fear and excitement, and the dense smoke with which the house was filled. The fact also is that, during this riot, which lasted nearly three hours, of the thirty or forty respectable tradesmen in this town not one volunteered to come to our assistance."
In a later letter, Neale paid tribute to his wife's bravery:
"You have no idea of my wife's courage, for she persisted in speaking to the rabble, even after they had pelted her, and at last they listened."
Despite such indignities and outright cruelty from his co-religionists, John Mason Neale remained an Anglican to his death. Unlike Cardinal Newman, he never swam the Tiber despite his obvious affinity toward Catholic practices.

Click for more information.
Nevertheless, as an immensely prolific writer, he scattered numerous little literary gems in his wake which may well be appreciated by modern audiences, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. His gifts as a classicist give these works a wonderfully authentic flavor, which allow the reader a familiarity and intimacy with the characters even though the events described are set nearly 2,000 years ago. Several of these works which are set in patristic times, are thoroughly enjoyable for young Catholic readers in particular, including The Egyptian Wanderers, Exiles of the Cebenna, The Quay of the Dioscuri, and the soon-to-be-republished Daughters of Pola from Arx Publishing.

1 comment:

vetusta ecclesia said...

He made wonderful translations of many traditional office hymns.