The History of John Mason, 1645 to 1694
Water Stratford may not be where one would expect to find the church’s big stars, but John Mason seems to have been widely known and appreciated. 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, Shepherd's father 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 marginality, William becoming an Anglican clergyman and John 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 are disfigured and no Christian name can be seen. He attended nearby Strixton School and then Clare Hall (now College) Cambridge, being awarded his BA in 1665 and his MA in 1668. After serving a curacy in Isham, Northants he became Vicar of Stantonbury, Bucks in 1668 and his marriage to Mary probably occurred between then and 1674. However the village of Stantonbury was virtually deserted at this time and there was no vicarage, so it seems probable that his actual role was chaplain to Sir John Wittewronge. The sermon he gave on 22nd October 1669 at the funeral of Mrs Clare Wittewronge (Sir John's daughter-in-law, aged 25) was entitled The waters of Marah sweetned, and in 1671 it was published - probably his first work to be printed. It is still available as a modern paperback of 46 pages - sermons are not what they were!
An unknown later writer noted that, "Hardly a mile across the river from the church of Stantonbury (now ruined) and the Wittewronge mansion (almost completely gone) lies the village of Haversham, commanded by its fine church (now ruined) on the high ground beyond. Mason used very frequently to minister to the people beyond the water meadows in default of parishioners of his own. Haversham was his 'beloved place', and his affection was returned by those whom we only know as the 'Haversham Christians'." On 28th January 1674 Mason was appointed Rector of Water Stratford and the baptisms of his five later children are in its church registers, as are the deaths of his wife in 1688 and John himself in 1694. But John and Mary returned to Stantonbury for the baptism of their first child, Martha, on 11th October 1674, which suggests that Mary may have been one of the 'Haversham Christians' or perhaps a connection of the Witteronges. Furthermore, as their daughter Mary seems to have married John Evans in Haversham in 1698, the children may well have returned there after their parents' deaths.
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 1971.
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. He uses the phrase 'The Midnight Cry' in the third verse of his Song 29.
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”. He was buried in the church or churchyard on 22nd May 1694. 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, Isaac Rushworth, 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.
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