Thursday, 3 April 2008

Not Quite the End of the World

400 years ago, Bucks was a Puritan county. Yesterday I went to Water Stratford to help arrange a service on 7 June to celebrate a wonderfully eccentric piece of our puritan heritage. The glory of St Giles’ Church is its Norman architecture, on a par with Stewkley — Amazing 11th Century doorways North & South:
John Mason was Rector from 1674-94, a godly puritan pastor, pious and eloquent — “a light in the pulpit and a pattern out of it.” He wrote hymns much admired by Isaac Watts and Richard Baxter. One of his hymns (“Mercy, good Lord, mercy I ask”) was said by Joseph Belcher, Nonconformist Divine, to be ideal for public executions and “equally appropriate for sinners of every class.” Hymn writing ability is plainly inherited — John Mason Neale, his descendant, was named after him.

Here by the Great Ouse River, near where this Wheely-bin stood yesterday, sprang up in 1694 an extrordainary millenarian movement — thousands, some say tens of thousands, camping out for years awaiting the End together. Only Lucinda Lambton or John Betjeman could do it justice, but let the parish website take up the tale:
Towards the end of his life John Mason suffered from nightmares, delusions and hyper-sensitivity to sound; his condition worsened after the death of his beloved wife Mary, and he came to believe he was appointed to proclaim the imminent Second Coming of Christ, which would take place at Water Stratford. His passionate preaching was so convincing that many people sold their property and came here, taking up residence in houses and barns or in tents, thinking that only here would they be preserved – everywhere else was about to be destroyed. Water Stratford was known to these followers as “Sion”, and for a time there was dancing and hymn-singing day and night. Contemporary accounts tell of the vast quantities of provisions that were held in common; of the shrieking of, “Appear, appear!” during the wild dancing; of the man with a wooden leg who made a great noise with this during the dancing, and believed his original leg was soon to be restored at the Second Coming.

John Mason became increasingly ill and when he died his followers expected that he would rise from his grave after three days, as he had prophesied; when this did not happen they assumed they had misunderstood and settled down to wait for this to happen. The new Rector had the grave exhumed in order to show that the prophecies had been false; nevertheless, some of the followers stayed here for about fifteen years, “until they were dispersed by the Military.”

Very few of Mason’s hymns made it beyond the 19th century, but they are visionary and striking in their context. Best known is this “General Song of Praise to Almighty God.” The verses in Red are not usually sung these days and you can see why, but it’s fun to imagine the man with the wooden leg belting them out lustily as he awaited the miraculous re-growth of his stump, with ten thousand friends gathered on the water meadow by the Great Ouse in 1694!

How shall I sing that Majesty
Which angels do admire?
Let dust in dust and silence lie;
Sing, sing, ye heavenly choir.
Thousands of thousands stand around
Thy throne, O God most high;
Ten thousand times ten thousand sound
Thy praise; but who am I?

Thy brightness unto them appears,
Whilst I Thy footsteps trace;
A sound of God comes to my ears,
But they behold Thy face.
They sing because Thou art their Sun;
Lord, send a beam on me;
For where heaven is but once begun
There alleluias be.

Enlighten with faith’s light my heart,
Inflame it with love’s fire;
Then shall I sing and bear a part
With that celestial choir.
I shall, I fear, be dark and cold,
With all my fire and light;
Yet when Thou dost accept their gold,
Lord, treasure up my mite.

How great a being, Lord, is Thine,
Which doth all beings keep!
Thy knowledge is the only line
To sound so vast a deep.
Thou art a sea without a shore,
A sun without a sphere;
Thy time is now and evermore,
Thy place is everywhere

How good art thou, whose Goodness is
Our parent, nurse and guide;

Whose Streams do water Paradise

And all the Earth beside!

Thine Upper and thy Nether Springs

Make both thy Worlds to thrive:

Under thy warm and sheltering Wings

Thou keep’st two Broods alive.

Thy Arm of Might, most mighty King,
Both Rocks and Hearts doth break:
My God, thou canst do every thing
But what would shew thee Weak.
Thou canst not cross thy self, or be
Less than thy self, or poor;
But whatsoever pleaseth Thee,
That canst thou do, and more.

Who would not fear thy Searching Eye,
Witness to all that’s true?
Dark Hell and deep Hypocrisy
Lie plain before its view.
Motions and Thoughts before they grow,
Thy Knowledge doth espy;
What unborn Ages are to do,
Is done before thine Eye.

Thy Wisdom, which both makes and mends,
We ever much admire:
Creation all our Wit transcends;
Redemption rises higher.
Thy Wisdom guides stray’d sinners home,
’Twill make the dead World rise,
And bring those Prisoners to their Doom,
Its Paths are Mysteries.

Great is thy Truth, and shall prevail
To Unbelievers shame:
Thy Truth and Years do never fail;
Thou ever art the same.
Unbelief is a raging wave,
Dashing against a Rock:
If God doth not his Israel Sa
Then led Egyptians mock.

Most Pure and Holy are thine Eyes,
Most Holy is thy Name;
Thy Saints, Thy Laws, and Penalties,
Thy Holiness proclaim.
This is the Devil’s Scourge and Sting,
This is the Angels’ Song,
Who Holy, Holy, Holy Sing,
In Heavenly Canaan’s Tongue.

Mercy, that shining Attribute,
The Sinner’s Hope and Plea!
Huge Hosts of Sins in their Pursuit,
Are drown’d in thy Red Sea:
Mercy is God’s memorial,
And in all Ages prais’d;
My God, thine only Son did fall,
That Mercy might be rais’d.

Thy Bright Back-parts, O God of Grace,
I humbly here Adore;
Shew me thy Glory and Thy Face,
That I may praise Thee more.
Since none can see thy Face and live,
For me to die is best;
Thro’ Jordan’s Streams who would not dive,
To Land at Canaan’s rest?

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