Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Mason, John (1646?-1694)

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MASON, JOHN (1646?–1694), enthusiast and poet, probably born in Northamptonshire, belonged to a family of clergymen of the established church living in the neighbourhood of Kettering and Wellingborough. In the registers at Irchester are the baptisms of Thomas and Nicholas, sons of Thomas and Margaret Mason (3 Aug. 1643 and 2 Feb. 1644), and in March 1646 there is a defective entry respecting a son of the same couple, which, as it is almost certainly a baptism, may well refer to John. He was educated first at Strixton in Northamptonshire, and was admitted a sizar of Clare Hall, Cambridge, on 16 May 1661, graduated B.A. in 1664, and M.A. in 1668. After acting as curate at Isham in Northamptonshire, he was presented on 21 Oct. 1668 to the vicarage of Stantonbury in Buckinghamshire, which he quitted for the rectory of Water Stratford in the same county on 28 Jan. 1674.

Mason was a Calvinist, leaning towards antinomianism, but his sympathies were wide. Under the influence of James Wrexham, a puritan preacher at Haversham, formerly vicar of Kimble Magna and of Woburn, Mason's thoughts turned to the prospect of the millennium, and during the last years of his life his views on the subject grew increasingly extravagant. His natural tendency to melancholy greatly increased after the death of his wife in February 1687. In 1690 he preached a sermon on the parable of the ten virgins, which was an attempt to interpret apocalyptic passages of scripture in the light of recent events. The sermon, which was repeated in other places, made some stir, and was published in the following year. About the same time he ceased to administer the sacrament in his church, and preached on no other subject than that of the personal reign of Christ on earth, which he announced as about to begin in Water Stratford. His teaching spread, and attracted some believers and many onlookers, to whom he expounded an extreme form of predestination doctrine. An encampment of his followers was formed on the plot of ground south of the village, called the 'Holy Ground,' where a rough life on communistic principles was carried out. Noisy meetings took place in barns and cottages, and a constant service of dancing and singing was kept up day and night in the parsonage. He described to a crowd from a window in his house on Sunday, 22 April 1694, a vision of the Saviour, which he had experienced, he said, on Easter Monday, 16 April. From that time he used no more prayers, with the exception of the last clause of the Lord's Prayer, but announced that his work was accomplished, as the reign on earth had already begun. He died of a quinsy in the following month, and was buried in the church of Water Stratford on 22 May 1694. The belief in the coming millennium, and in the immortality of their prophet, was so firmly rooted in the minds of his followers that they refused to credit his death. The succeeding rector, Isaac Rushworth, had the body exhumed, and exhibited to the crowd, but many remained unconvinced, and had finally to be ejected from the 'Holy Ground.' Meetings in a house in the village continued for sixteen years afterwards.

Mason constantly suffered from pains in the head, and was frequently so sensitive to noise that he retired to an empty house, where even the sound of his own footsteps and his low voice when he prayed caused him pain. He was liable to vivid and terrifying dreams, and subject to visual hallucination. The parish register of Water Stratford records the baptisms of four sons and one daughter of 'John Mason and Mary his wife ' between 1677 and 1684. John (born 1677) became a dissenting minister at Daventry, Northamptonshire, at Dunmow, Essex, and at Spaldwick, Huntingdonshire, successively. He died at Spaldwick in 1722-3, and was father of John Mason (1706-1763) [q. v.] William (born October 1681) was B.A. of King's College, Cambridge, in 1704, instituted to the vicarage of Mentmore-with-Ledburne, Buckinghamshire, on 23 Dec. 1706, and was also rector of Bonsall, Derbyshire, from 1736 to 1739. He died on 29 March 1744, and was buried at Mentmore. An elder daughter, Martha, was born at Stantonbury. Mason left no will; administration was granted to his brothers Thomas and Nicholas, curators during the minority of his children.

Mason was one of the earliest writers of hymns used in congregational worship, and was apparently more influenced in style by George Herbert than by Quarles or Wither. Though his phraseology is quaint and sometimes harsh, he displays much devotional feeling. Some of his lines were undoubtedly well known to Pope and Wesley, and Watts borrowed freely from them. Entire hymns by him are often found in early eighteenth-century collections (see Multum in Parvo, London, 1732, p. 199). His work, altered by later hands, still finds a place in modern collections; the hymns beginning 'A living stream as crystal clear' (as adapted by Keble), 'Blest day of God, how calm, how bright/ ' Now from the altar of our hearts,' and stanza vii. Of 'Jerusalem, my Happy Home,' are perhaps the most familiar.

His published works include: 1. 'Funeral Sermon for Mrs. Clare Wittewronge,' London, 1671. 2. 'Spiritual Songs, or Songs of Praise,' London, 1683, 1685 (with a sacred poem on Dives and Lazarus), 1692, 1701, 1704 (8th edit.), 1708 (10th edit.), 1718 (11th edit.), 1725, 1750 (14th edit.); Booking, 1760 (?); London, 1761 (16th edit.), 1859. All editions but the last published anonymously. The later issues contain also ' Penitential Cries,' by T. Shepherd of Braintree. 3. 'The Midnight Cry. Sermon on the Parable of the Ten Virgins,' London, 1691, 1692, 1694 (5th edit.) 4. 'Remains, in Two Sermons,' published by T. Shepherd, London, 1698. 5. 'Select Remains,' published by his grandson, John Mason, with a recommendation by Isaac Watts, London, 1741, 1742; Boston, 1743; London, 1745, 1767 (5th edit.), 1790; Bridlington, 1791; Booking, 1801 (9th edit.); Leeds, 1804 (12th edit.); London, 1808 (18th edit.), 1812; Wellington, Shropshire, 1822; Scarborough, 1828; London, 1830. 6. 'A Little Catechism, with Little Verses and Little Sayings, for Little Children,' London, which had reached an eighth edition in 1755. His grandson mentions a manuscript, 'Short Paraphrase and Comment ... on Revelation,' written before his thoughts were infected with the notion of the millennium, and which greatly dissatisfied him afterwards; and 'Critical Comments,' in Latin, which he commenced to write upon passages in all the books of Scripture, but proceeded no further with than 2 Samuel.

[The fullest information respecting Mason's enthusiasm is in An Impartial Account, by the Rev. H. Maurice, rector of Tyringham, who was well acquainted with him, London, 1694, 1695, Newport Pagnell, 1823; see also Letter from a Gentleman near Water Stratford to his Brother, Mr. Thomas Pickfat, 1694; Some Remarkable Passages in the Life and Death of John Mason, drawn up by a Rev. Divine; Tryal and Condemnation of the Two False Witnesses to the Midnight Cry, 1694; Strange News from Bishop's Stafford, near Buckingham, 1694; Prefaces to Works; Mason's Self-Knowledge, 1818, p. x; Memoir by John L. Myres in Records of Buckinghamshire, vol. vii. No. 1, 1892, pp. 9-42; information from the Rev. L. E. Goddard of Water Stratford, and Daniel Hipwell,esq.; copies of parish registers from Nathaniel H. Mason, esq.; Lipscomb's Buckinghamshire, ii. 348, iii. 138, 422-3, 637, iv. 349; Browne Willis's Hundred of Buckingham, pp. 343-5; Clare Coll. Admission Reg., per the Master; Admon. 14 June 1694. Arch. Bucks. Act Book, fol. 165; Grad. Cantabr.; Montgomery's Christian Poet, 1828, p. 338; Miller's Singers and Songs of the Church, pp. 89-91; Julian's Dict. of Hymnology, pp. 348, 582, 717; Brooke's edit, of Fletcher's Christ's Victory, p. 208; Creamer's Methodist Hymnology, pp. 402-3; Holland's Psalmists of Britain, ii. 128-9.]

B. P.