How Cambridge and John Mason Neale Continued the Oxford Movement

By Joel West

The Oxford Movement began with John Keble’s sermon on the National Apostasy in 1833 and continued in Oxford through the efforts of Keble, Edward Pusey, Richard Froude and John Henry Newman. The first phase of the movement ended after Froude’s death in 1836 and Newman’s 1845 conversion to Catholicism. However, the work of the Tractarians continued elsewhere — in Cambridge, London, and eventually throughout England.

One key contributor was Rev. John Mason Neale (1818-1866). Neale is best known for his unique contributions to Anglo-Catholic hymnody as the “one name [that] towers above all others” and “that greatest of all translators.”1  Often forgotten is the role of Neale and the other leaders of the Cambridge Camden Society (CCS) in promoting traditional church architecture and liturgy in the remainder of the 19th century.

Neale was the son of Rev. Cornelius Neale, a strict evangelical who died when he was only five. Neale enrolled at Trinity College Cambridge, graduating in 1840. He was ordained in May 1842 and two months later he married Sarah Webster (1814-1873), who raised four daughters and a son. 

In 1846 he became warden of Sackville College, an almshouse in East Grinstead (Sussex), but was inhibited by the local bishop from 1848-1860 for his “Puseyite” tendencies. In 1855, he founded the Society of St. Margaret, a religious order that trained nuns to minister to the poor, which, after relocating to East Grinstead in 1856, had Neale as chaplain until his death. 

At Trinity, he made lifelong friends of two future clergymen and CCS leaders. One was Edward Jacob Boyce (1811-1897), who later married Sarah’s older sister Mary Ann. The other was Benjamin Webb (1818-1845), two years behind Neale, who with Neale and Boyce led the formation of the CCS. The society disseminated its ideas from 1841-1868 through The Ecclesiologist, a magazine edited by Neale and Webb. In 1846, it moved to London and was renamed the Ecclesiological Society. 

While the Oxford men had pushed a renewed interest in patristic writings and apostolic succession with The Tracts for the Times, “there is good evidence that [they] were not interested in aesthetics.”2 Instead, it was the Cambridge men who built upon these earlier Tractarian efforts to transform the practice of worship:

“[The] Tractarians… enhanced enormously the beauty and impressiveness of worship, so that even their most inveterate enemies were ultimately shamed into putting some of their ideas into practice. … [T]he details of Tractarian worship were worked out primarily by the Cambridge Camden Society.”3 

From 1837-1838, Neale and Boyce used their holidays and longer vacations to visit hundreds of older churches, both nearby and elsewhere in Great Britain.4 Thus, the founding objective of the CCS in 1839 was “to promote the study of Ecclesiastical Architecture and Antiquities, and the restoration of mutilated Architectural remains.”

The Ecclesiologist regularly reviewed architecture of churches — good and bad, old and new — beginning with evidence of the neglect and ruin of once-beautiful rural medieval churches. From this, it quickly began a decades-long campaign to restore medieval catholic principles of church architecture and liturgical ornamentation. 

Two years after its founding, the CCS published a booklet of recommendations largely written by the 23-year-old Neale. As with all their efforts, the Cambridge men were not tentative in their conclusions (emphasis in original):

“THERE ARE TWO PARTS, AND ONLY TWO PARTS WHICH ARE ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL TO A CHURCH—CHANCEL AND NAVE. If it have not the latter, it is at best only a chapel; if it have not the former, it is little better than a meeting-house. The twelve thousand ancient churches in this land, in whatever else they may differ, agree in this, that every one has or had a well-defined Chancel.”5 

The next year, CCS published Neale and Webb’s translation of a 13th century treatise on the symbolism of churches, along with their 130-page preface.6 

These CCS efforts brought a century-long Gothic revival in Anglican church architecture. After its 1846 relocation to London, the CCS had an immediate impact on the design of Victorian churches there, including St. Andrew’s, Wells Street (1847) — where Webb was the rector from 1862-1881 — St. Barnabas, Pimlico (1850), St. Stephen’s, Westminster (1850), and St. Mary Magdalene, Munster Square (1852). 

The peak of the society’s influence was its decade-long supervision of the construction of All Saints’, Margaret Street (1859), which the Ecclesiologist then termed a “model-church”.7 A decade later, its once controversial architectural principles had set the pattern not only for the Church of England, but also for thousands of churches throughout the world.

The Cambridge men also brought their aesthetic sensibilities into liturgical practice. As with architecture, they adopted an anti-anti-Catholic stance in seeking to restore beauty to worship. They had to overcome the suspicion of medieval practices held not only by the Evangelical party, but also the Oxford Tractarians.

Between CCS, the Ecclesiologist and his own personal research and ministry, Neale led these efforts to reinstate formal practices into Anglican worship  — personally “frustrated with the doctrines that lacked outward expression."8 A history of the High Church movement notes:

“It was Cambridge rather than Oxford, and more especially John Mason Neale, who first treated ceremonial seriously, ‘as an indispensable and important part of worship, instead of something to be apologized for and left to the weaker brethren.’”9 

As part of traveling to warmer climates for his health, Neale found and studied liturgies (and hymns) in the libraries of Continental Europe. From 1849-1859, he published editions of Gallican, German, Spanish and Portuguese liturgies, as well as the earlier liturgies of St. Mark, St. James, St. Clement, St. Chrysostom and St. Basil.

In the 1840s, Pusey and Neale were among those Tractarian priests who secretly heard confessions “to keep the practice hidden from hostile parents, spouses, or bishops.”10 Over the initial opposition by Pusey, Neale sought the restoration of liturgical vestments: in 1850, he was one of the first three Anglican clergymen of his era to wear a chasuble.11 Within three years of launching services at St. Margaret’s interim chapel, the Sacrament was reserved on the altar, Stations of the Cross were observed, the altar was stripped for Good Friday and censed for Easter.12 

It is hard to appreciate how controversial later mainstream practices were in the mid-19th century. In the 1850s and 1860s, low church critics attacked “Romish” practices of the Tractarians, including genuflection, intoning, crossing, and vestments.13 In 1868, the Royal Commission on Ritual concluded that while vestments and candles were legal, incense and hymns during the Eucharist were almost certainly illegal. By 1900, more than 2,000 English churches utilized three or more “Ritualist” practices and 40% of the churches in England and Wales had adopted Ad Orientem (celebrating the Mass facing East).14  

Overall, Neale made his most unique contributions to congregational singing. When he began his career, hymns were common in Nonconformist worship — Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist — but banned from Anglican liturgy. 

Raised in an evangelical household, Neale developed an almost visceral dislike for the irreverence of the popular Watts and Wesley hymns. In an 1842 letter to Webb, he promised he would “free our poor children from the yoke of Watts.” The first result was three books of original hymns for children, as well as hymnbooks for the sick and industrial laborers.

He is best known for his translations: from 1851-1862, he published Hymnal Noted, Carols for Christmas-tide, Carols for Easter-tide, and Hymns of the Eastern Church. The most influential of these was Hymnal Noted: with Thomas Helmore (1811-1890), he adapted texts and melodies from the Sarum Missal and other Salisbury and medieval sources. This included “All glory, laud and honor,” “O come, O come Emmanuel,” “Christ is made the sure foundation,” “Of the Father’s love begotten,” and “O sons and daughters, let us sing.” The book sparked a revolution in the English church:

“It is easy today, when so much of Neale’s work is widely familiar, to forget quite how daringly new these hymns must have seemed when the book appeared, yet his translations made an enormous impression. His skill managed, for the most part, to commend the hymns to churchmen despite their party allegiance. Indeed, the surprising thing is not there were objections to the hymns but that so many of them quickly became accepted.”15 

Beyond Hymnal Noted, from the Greek liturgy he translated “The Day of Resurrection.” His two books of carols gave us “Good Christian men, rejoice,” “Come, ye faithful, raise the strain,” and “That Easter day with joy was bright.” He also authored the original carol “Good King Wenceslas.”

Neale is credited with 63 of the 643 hymn texts in the 5th edition of Hymns Ancient & Modern in 1904, more than any other author or translator — and more than Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley and Catherine Winkworth combined; 35 of these were from Hymnal Noted. Of the 656 hymns in The English Hymnal (1906), 72 are credited to Neale, 63 of these being translations. The hymnal featured 39 hymns from Hymnal Noted, including Webb’s translation of “O Love, how deep, how broad, how high” that we sing today.

Although some translations have been altered, Neale’s influence also extended to America: 26 of the hymns from Hymnal Noted were published in 24 American Protestant and Catholic hymnals from 1905-1991.16 Overall, Neale is credited with 39 hymn texts in Hymnal 1940 and 28 in Hymnal 1982 — and, in this century, 19 texts in the Reformed Episcopal Church’s 2017 Book of Common Praise.

When Neale died at Sackville at age 48 on the Feast of the Transfiguration, his coffin successively rested in the chapel of St. Margaret’s and at Sackville. On August 10, 1866, he was carried across town to the cemetery in a procession that included (in order) some sixty clergy (including Boyce and Helmore), choristers from three parish churches, probationers and nuns from St. Margaret’s, pallbearers, family, almshouse residents and other friends. 

The Guardian concluded: “Its like has not often been witnessed in England since the days of medieval processions; and it may be doubted whether any great man in modern times, has had a more imposing funeral.”


1. Barry A. Orford, “Music and Hymnody” in Stewart J. Brown, James Pereiro, and Peter Nockles, eds., The Oxford Handbook of the Oxford Movement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), p. 378; Kenneth R. Long, The Music of the English Church (New York: St. Martin’s, 
1971), p. 332.
2. James F. White, The Cambridge Movement: the Ecclesiologists and the Gothic Revival. (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 
1962), p. 20.
3. Nicholas Temperley, The Music of the English Parish Church (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1979), pp. 250-251.
4. Eleanor A. Towle, John Mason Neale, DD: A Memoir (London: Longmans, Green, 1907), pp. 35-36, URL:
5. J.M. Neale, A Few Words to Church Builders (Cambridge: Cambridge Camden Society, 1841), p. 5; URL:
6. J.M. Neale and Benjamin Webb, The Symbolism of Churches and Church Ornaments (London: T.W. Greene, 1843), URL:
7. White, pp. 191-197, 256-258.
8. Scott D. de Hart, “The Influence of John Mason Neale and the Theology of Symbolism,” Project Canterbury, 2002, URL:
9. Kenneth Hylson-Smith, High Churchmanship in the Church of England, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1993), p. 213. 
10. John Shelton Reed, Glorious Battle: The Cultural Politics of Victorian Anglo-Catholicism (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1996), 
p. 49.
11. White, pp. 22-23, 211.
12. Reed, pp. 55.
13. Reed, pp. 44-46.
14. Nigel Yates, Anglican Ritualism in Victorian Britain, 1830-1910 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 223-
235, 278-280. See also John Himes, “Ad Orientem or Ad Populum,” Forward in Christ 8, 6 (Nov. 2016), pp. 5-6.
15. Orford, p. 380.
16. Joel W. West, “Neale’s Hymnal Noted and its Impact on Twentieth-Century American Hymnody,” The Hymn, 69, 3  (Summer 2018).

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