John Chapman (priest)

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John Chapman

John Chapman.jpg
ChurchLatin Church
In office1929–1933
Personal details
Birth nameHenry Chapman
Born25 April 1865
Died7 November 1933 (1933-11-08) (aged 68)
DenominationRoman Catholic
Previous postAbbot of Downside
Alma materChrist Church, Oxford

John Chapman OSB (25 April 1865 – 7 November 1933) received into the Roman Catholic Church at the age of 25, was a Roman Catholic priest, the 4th Abbot of Downside Abbey of the English Benedictine Congregation from 1929 until his death, an internationally respected New Testament and patristics scholar, a defender of the priority of the Gospel according to Matthew and a spiritual writer enjoying enduring appreciation.

He is best known for having founded one of the elite independent schools in Britain: Worth, in West Sussex.

Anglican background[edit]

Henry Palmer Chapman was born in Ashfield, Suffolk, the son of an Anglican canon of Ely Cathedral. Because of delicate health, Henry was, at first, educated privately at home, and then later at Christ Church, Oxford (1883–1886), where he received a first-class degree in Classical Greats. He stayed for a subsequent year at Oxford studying theology, in which he took a third (cf. the "gentleman's C" in the U.S.).[1] It was an important year for him, however, because in this time he decided to be ordained in the Church of England.[2]

Having trained at Cuddesdon near Oxford, Chapman was ordained as a deacon in the Church of England in 1889 and began a curacy in the parish of St Pancras, London. He found himself increasingly troubled during this time about the position of the Church of England and left the parish soon after Trinity Sunday.[3]

Conversion to Catholicism[edit]

In December 1890 Chapman was conditionally baptized in the Catholic Church at the Brompton Oratory. In April 1891 he entered the Jesuit novitiate at Manresa House, Roehampton (now Parkstead House), but after eight months had determined that his vocation was not to the Society of Jesus.[4]

He subsequently entered the Benedictine Maredsous Abbey in Belgium, where he had been preceded by a friend from Cuddesdon, Bede Camm. Chapman was given the religious name of "John", and professed simple vows on 25 March 1893. He made his solemn vows on Whitsuntide 1895. After his priestly ordination in 1895, he went to Erdington Abbey, near Birmingham, where he stayed until 1912, serving the community as novice master and later as prior,[5] but also frequently visiting the library of St Mary's College in nearby Oscott.

Having spent nine months at Maredsous, in February 1913 Chapman was made temporary superior of the Caldey island community (now based at Prinknash Abbey), when it was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1913-14.[5]

On the outbreak of World War I (1914–1918), Chapman first became a Professor of Theology at Downside Abbey, joining the many monks who had fled Maredsous to England.[6] In early 1915, when these monks moved to Ireland, he became army chaplain to the British forces. After initial training, his brigade arrived in France in July 1915. He lived in the trenches in autumn 1915, until a persistent knee injury led to him being hospitalized in November 1915. After leaving the hospital, he first was stationed at Boyton Camp, Wiltshire, for several months, and then returned to France. At the end of 1917, he was transferred to Switzerland, where multilingual chaplains were needed for the POW camps. He remained there until the Armistice.[7]

4th Abbot of Downside[edit]

In 1919 Chapman transferred his monastic stability to Downside Abbey. He spent most of 1919 to 1922 in Rome, though, working on a commission on the revision of the Vulgate translation of the Bible.[8] He returned to Downside in 1922, where in 1929 the community elected him as abbot.[5]

As 4th Abbot of Downside, during his short term of four years, cut short by his death on 7 November 1933, he carried on the work of abbots Cuthbert Butler and Leander Ramsay. He completed the transformation of Downside into a modern abbey in the mainstream of the Benedictine tradition and in 1933 became the founder of Worth Priory (which became independent of Downside in 1957 and Worth Abbey in 1965) when he bought the property, then called "Paddockhurst", from Viscount Cowdray.

New Testament and patristics scholar[edit]

John Chapman was thought by competent critics to be the greatest patristics scholar of his time. Reputedly he had read all 378 volumes of Migne. He not only read both Greek and Latin with facility, but also read and wrote French, Italian and German with ease. Many of his contributions to biblical scholarship and patristics have proved of lasting value, especially his work on Cyprian, John the Presbyter, and on the priority of the Gospel according to Matthew that, so Chapman argued in support of the early Church tradition, was the first Gospel account to have been written (see also Synoptic Problem).

Among the novices that Chapman clothed in the monastic habit was in 1932 John Bernard Orchard, who soon felt drawn to follow his Abbot into researching the priority of the Gospel according to Matthew in the light of the patristic evidence, and eventually, after also constructing a synopsis of the four Gospel accounts in Greek and English for the easier study of the compositional sequence Matthew-Luke-Mark-John that is supported by certain early Christian writers, produced what by hindsight may be considered a synthesis of his and his mentor's insights.

Spiritual director[edit]

In his day Chapman was a much sought-after spiritual director and authority on prayer, the spiritual life and mystical theology. His writings remain of perennial value, especially his Spiritual Letters. An oft quoted advice of his was: "Pray as you can, not as you cannot!".

Man of many talents[edit]

According to his contemporaries, Chapman had a brilliant mind and was a fascinating conversationalist. He was also a talented pianist and a Christian humanist in the finest tradition.


Chapman made a number of contributions to the Catholic Encyclopedia on the Early Church Fathers and Councils.[9]

  • "St Irenaeus and the Dates of the Gospels", JTS 6 (1904-5): 563-9.
  • Notes on the Early History of the Vulgate Gospels, Oxford 1908.
  • John the Presbyter, Oxford 1911.
  • "St Paul and the Revelation to St Peter", Rev. Ben. 29 (1912): 133-47.
  • Studies on the Early Papacy (1928, repr. 1971).
  • Spiritual Letters, posthumously, London 1935.
  • Matthew, Mark, and Luke, posthumously (ed. J. M. T. Barton), London 1937.
  • 'The Condemnation of Pope Honorius' (London, Catholic Truth Society, 1907).


  1. ^ Henley, Jon (5 July 2012). "Don't judge a job applicant by their degree". The Guardian.
  2. ^ Roger Hudleston, "A Memoir of Abbot Chapman" in The Spiritual Letters of Dom John Chapman OSB, London: Sheed and Ward, 1938, p. 3.
  3. ^ Hudleston OSB, p. 5.
  4. ^ Hudleston OSB, p. 8.
  5. ^ a b c Rees, Daniel. "Chapman, John (1865-1933)", Encyclopedia of Monasticism, (William M. Johnston, ed.), Routledge, 2013, ISBN 9781136787157
  6. ^ Hudleston OSB, p. 13.
  7. ^ Hudleston OSB, p. 14.
  8. ^ Hudleston OSB, p. 15.
  9. ^ The Catholic Encyclopedia and Its Makers. Encyclopedia Press, Incorporated. 1917.

External links[edit]

  • "St. Cyprian on the Church and the Papacy" [1]
  • "The Condemnation of Pope Honorius" [2]

The above article has been reproduced here for free use with the permission of the copyright holder who published an earlier version of it in The Chapter (ed. Clare Anderson, ISSN 1353-8659).