for Commemoration of John Mason
God of all
times and places,
Water Stratford’s most famous rector, was a dedicated pastor and an important
early hymn-writer, but the sensational events surrounding the end of his
life have tended to obscure his earlier achievements. Water Stratford
may not be where one would expect to find the church’s big stars, but he
seems to have been widely known and appreciated. There is no indication
of where he was buried, but the Bishop of Buckingham dedicated the tablet
above in his memory on the outside of the church tower on 7th June 2008.
The order of service may be seen here.
A major figure in 17th Century Protestantism, Revd Richard Baxter, is quoted as calling Mason “the glory of the Church of England” and saying, “The frame of his spirit was so heavenly, his deportment so humble and obliging, his discourse of spiritual things so weighty, with such apt words and delightful air, that it charmed all that had any spiritual relish.” There is some disagreement about the extent to which he knew Mason and encouraged him in his writing and use of hymns, but if these quotations are correctly attributed, Baxter must surely have known him well.
Mason’s friend Revd Thomas Shepherd referred to him as “a man of true piety and humility; known for eminent prayerfulness; faithful, experimental, effective preaching; a light in the pulpit and a pattern out of it.” Another friend, Revd Henry Maurice, said of him, “He was a person of as great devotion as ever I met with, and his main aim was to make all he conversed with to be religious. He was not only true and just, but kind and charitable; very affable in his carriage, meek in his converse and never over earnest but (where he thought he could not exceed) for God.” Maurice was, however, very critical of Mason’s later preaching.
Mason was on the margin between the established church and the dissenters and had he been a little older (he was still at school at the time of the Restoration in 1660) might have suffered, like Baxter and many others, ejection from a parish under the 1662 Act of Uniformity. Most accounts refer to him as the son of a dissenting minister, but this legal concept did not exist when he was born. His sons’ careers reflect this, one becoming an Anglican clergyman and another a non-conformist minister. Like Baxter, Mason seems to have been tolerant of different approaches to prayer and worship.
The Dictionary of National Biography says that John Mason was probably the third son of Thomas and Margaret Mason, christened in Irchester, Northants in March 1646, though the records do not show his name. He attended nearby Strixton School and then Clare Hall (now College) Cambridge, gaining his BA in 1665 and his MA in 1668. He served his curacy in Isham, Northants, and in 1668 became Vicar of Stantonbury, Bucks. His marriage to Mary probably occurred at that time, as their first child was christened in Stantonbury in 1674. He was appointed Rector of Water Stratford that year and the baptisms of his five remaining children are in its church registers, as are the deaths of his wife in 1688 and John himself in 1694.
In 1683 Mason produced a book of thirty-five Songs of Praise to Almighty God upon several Occasions that included some of the earliest hymns to be sung in Anglican churches. By the third edition these were published with thirty-six Penitential Cries, six by Mason and thirty by Thomas Shepherd, and this joint book passed through at least twenty editions and was still in print in late Victorian times. Twelve of the hymns were still sufficiently well-known to be listed in John Julian’s Dictionary of Hymnology in 1907, and six are still to be found, much shortened, on the internet today. The first of Mason’s Songs, ‘How shall I sing that majesty’, is still in general use.
Mason influenced later hymn-writers: images and phrases from his hymns can be found in the works of Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, John Newton and John Keble. His book of sayings and letters, The Select Remains of Rev John Mason, was published by his grandson and recommended by Watts, who used to give it to those in need of spiritual guidance. In a letter of 1741, Watts wrote of this book, “The letters to his friends show the reader that the writer’s heart was always in heaven, and may teach him upon every occasion to bring religion into his converse with his friends, whether by writing or speaking.” We have 1791 and 1812 editions and a reduced version printed since decimal currency arrived!
Mason’s physical health was never good and his mental health declined after his wife’s death. By 1691 his letters had become incoherent and ecstatic. A belief in the imminent Second Coming of Christ was common amongst Protestants of his time, and Mason proclaimed it in a sermon, The Midnight Cry, that he first preached in 1690. Although no date was mentioned in the published version, word spread that the Second Coming would take place in Water Stratford in 1694, and Mason started to acquire some followers he would have been better without.
Between autumn 1693 and Easter 1694, hundreds of people sold their possessions and moved to the village, where they occupied the rectory, local houses and barns, and tents on a field they called Mount Pleasant or Beersheba, just across the river from the church. They believed that this was where they would be preserved when everywhere else was destroyed. They called Water Stratford Sion, and there was dancing and hymn-singing day and night. Vivid contemporary accounts tell of the shrieking of “Appear, appear!” during the wild dancing, and of the man with a wooden leg who made a great noise with this during the dancing and believed his original leg would be restored at the Second Coming.
John Mason became increasingly ill and his dying words were, “I am full of the loving-kindness of the Lord.” His followers believed that he would rise from his grave after three days; when this did not happen they assumed they had misunderstood and settled down to wait. The new Rector had the grave exhumed in order to show that their expectations had been false, but some of the followers stayed for about fifteen years, until dispersed by the militia.
At least three of his descendants achieved fame in religious circles: his grandson, John Mason III, his great great grandson, John Mason Good, and his great great great great grandson John Mason Neale. It is especially pleasing to learn that our John Mason, one of the earliest hymn-writers, is a direct ancestor of John Mason Neale, one of the most famous hymn-writers of all.
descendants of Revd John Mason I and others
Mary Mason (1679-? – daughter) received a legacy in 1724, together with her two brothers above, at which time her name was given as Mary Evance. It seems likely that this was a variant of Evans and that she married John Evans in Haversham, Bucks in 1698, thus giving a clue as to where the family lived after their father’s death.
Revd John Mason III (1706-1763 – grandson) was a Presbyterian minister at Dorking, 1729 and Cheshunt, 1746 and published his grandfather’s The Select Remains of Rev John Mason. His own works covered elocution, number theory and musical harmony, but the most successful was A Treatise on Self-Knowledge, which remained popular into the next century and went through over twenty editions. Its preface states, “The great end of all philosophy, both natural and moral, is to know ourselves and to know God. The highest learning is to be wise, and the greatest wisdom is to be good.”
Sarah Peyto (1736-1766 – great granddaughter) was a daughter of Revd Henry Peyto, independent minister of Great Coggeshall, Essex, and “favourite niece” of John Mason III, with whom she lived for most of her short life. She was married in his church at Cheshunt rather than that of her father at Coggeshall or her husband (Revd Peter Good) at Epping. She was noted for “the elegance and solidity of her acquisitions, the soft and gentle fascination of her manners, and for the most decided piety”. Her younger sister, Elizabeth, married Stephen Unwin and their descendants (and thus John Mason’s) include the founder of the printers Unwin Bros, and the publishers Thomas Fisher Unwin, Sir Stanley Unwin (JRR Tolkien’s publisher) and his sons, Rayner Unwin, who famously recommended publication of The Hobbit to his father when he was ten, and David, who was a popular children's author in the 1940s and 50s under the pseudonym David Severn.
Dr John Mason Good (1764-1827 – great great grandson) was a practising doctor who wrote extensively on medical, classical and theological matters. He seems to have been a true polymath, with his Study of Medicine, Translation of the Book of Job and Translation of Lucretius all being highly regarded in their day.
Dr John Mason Neale (1818-1866 – great great great great grandson) rebelled while at Cambridge against what he considered the excessive Puritanism of his mother, Susanna Good (his father, Revd Cornelius Neale, died in 1823), and so he became the first Anglican priest in the extended family for many generations. His sympathies were with John Keble (who adapted Mason’s Song XXIV into ‘A living stream, as crystal clear’) and the ‘Oxford Movement’. He was one of the most important hymn-writers of Victorian times: the first edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern contained over sixty of his hymns, many of which were based on early mediaeval and Eastern church texts. Those still popular today include ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’, ‘Good Christian men, rejoice’, ‘All glory, laud and honour’, and ‘Good King Wenceslas’. He was discriminated against by the church establishment, attacked by the mob, and prone to ill-health. When warden of a group of almshouses, Sackville College, he founded a community of nurses to minister to the sick in their homes, an orphanage, and a girls’ school.
Revd Richard Baxter (1615-91) was a successful pastor in Kidderminster and is still famous for his writings, which include the original version of 'Ye holy angels bright'. The events of his life highlight the turbulent times he and Mason lived through. Ordained into the Church of England, he had Puritan sympathies and was a chaplain in the Parliamentary army during the Civil War. But he disliked extremism of any kind, calling himself an “Episcopal-Presbyterian-Independent”. After the Restoration of the monarchy, he worked to promote religious toleration and an inclusive national church, and was offered the Bishopric of Hereford in 1660. But he declined and, unable in conscience to accept the 1662 Act of Uniformity, he left the Established Church, becoming a non-conformist minister under the Act of Indulgence in 1672. Later he was unjustly tried for sedition before Judge Jeffreys and imprisoned. His marriage to Margaret Charlton in 1662 was a great benefit to him and he was one of the first clergymen to write of the value of a helpmate in ministry.
Revd Henry Maurice (1650-99) became friendly with Mason when he was Curate, later Rector, of Tyringham-cum-Filgrave, near Stantonbury. A High Anglican, he visited Water Stratford in Mason’s final weeks and deplored what he found, but sought to excuse his friend, though not his followers. He gathered evidence from Mason’s past and about the events leading up to his death and his account is regarded as the fairest guide to what happened and why.
Revd Thomas Shepherd (1665-1739) was a son of William Shepherd, sometime Vicar of Tilbrook, Beds. He was ordained in the Church of England and served first in St Neots and then as Curate of Haversham (near Stantonbury), but later became a non-conformist. In 1694 he became pastor of the Independent Castle Hill Baptist Meeting, Northampton, then very successfully led an independent congregation at Bocking, Essex from 1700 until his death. He may have been Mason’s cousin.
Revd Henry Peyto (c1710-c1785) was minister of the independent church in Great Coggeshall, Essex for many years and was visited by John Mason Good when he was about to enter medical practice in Sudbury in the early 1780s. A Henry Petto married a Love Mason on 29 October 1734, which seems the most likely explanation for Henry's daughter Sarah being described as John Mason III's 'favourite niece'.
Revd Mordecai Andrews I (c1715-49) probably succeeded Thomas Shepherd as independent minister in Bocking (Braintree, Essex) on the latter's death in 1739. In 1743 he was brought in as a 'young man' to take over a moribund congregation in Petticoat St, London, and expanded the congregation so much that they took over bigger premises in Artillery Row.
Revd Mordecai Andrews II (1740-c1819) was christened at Bocking Independent Church (where Thomas Shepherd was minister from 1700 to 1739) on 22 August 1740, the son of Mordecai Andrews I. He became minister of the independent church in nearby Great Coggeshall, probably being the immediate successor of Henry Peyto. His wife was John Mason II's granddaughter, who was probably called Elizabeth Rutt.
More detailed information on Richard Baxter, John Mason I, John Mason III, John Mason Good and John Mason Neale is contained in the Dictionary of National Biography. Our research will continue to be added to this site.
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