Bach v. Harriet Monsell

"Is Bach really a saint?" We've been asked this a lot in the run-up to Lent Madness XIV. He is indeed commemorated on several sanctoral calendars, as is every saint in Lent Madness. But anyway, today we get composer Johann Sebastian Bach facing off against Harriet Monsell, an English philanthropist and nun (two words you don't always see in the same sentence).

In yesterday's saintly action, Edmund remartyred Stanislaus the Martyr 60% to 40% to punch his ticket to the Saintly Sixteen.

Today marks the final battle of a full week. I know you'll miss us over the weekend (stay strong!) and we'll see you first thing on Monday morning as Simeon Bachos takes on Blandina.

Time to vote!


Johann Sebastian Bach didn’t have much of a way with words. When invited to write an autobiography, Bach demurred; he kept few personal written records, and his intimate family correspondence is largely lost to history. Bach’s reticence means we know less about his inner life than any other major composer of the last 400 years. Yet aside from his staggering musical output of more than 1,000 known compositions, we have one artifact that opens the heart of Bach the man, and perhaps even Bach the saint: his Bible.

Discovered in the 1930s, Bach’s Bible is a three-volume study Bible from Martin Luther’s translation, dog-eared and heavily annotated. Bach filled its margins with comments, thoughts, and corrections to printing errors that even the most biblically literate reader might miss. Scholars often assumed that Bach’s religious subject matter was a function of the church’s role in employing professional musicians and commissioning new works. Yet he was a devout Lutheran, a theologian who made his witness with rhythm, pitch, and tonal color rather than words. In 2 Chronicles 5, King Solomon brings the Ark to the temple, accompanied by singers, drums, harps, and 120 trumpeters. Bach underlined verse 13 and scribbled this note: “at a reverent performance of music, God is always at hand with his gracious presence.”

After a few early years spent as a church organist, Bach was appointed organist to the ducal court at Weimar (1708-16), then kapellmeister at the princely court of Köthen (1717-23). In 1723, he was appointed cantor of the St. Thomas School at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, from which he provided music for four churches in the city and instructed the boys of the choir school. He held this position for 27 years, until his death at age 65. His prodigious musical output includes cantatas for every Sunday of the church year, masses, kyries, glorias, several settings of the Magnificat in both Latin and German, and musical settings of the Passion narrative from all four gospels.

Bach’s life was also marked by personal tragedy. His parents died within eight months of each other; he was an orphan by his tenth birthday. His first wife died suddenly, and several of his children did not live to see adulthood. We hear the depths of grief and the heights of joy and delight in Bach’s music.

And at the end of every score, the man of few words wrote just three letters: S. D. G. Soli Deo gloria. Glory to God alone.

Collect for Bach
Sound out your majesty, O God, and call us to your work; that, like thy servant Johann Sebastian Bach, we might present our lives and our works to your glory alone; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

— Eva Suarez

Harriet Monsell

While Harriet Monsell had a privileged upbringing, she dedicated her later years to helping others.

Nurturing and caring for the downtrodden was in her DNA. Born Harriet O’Brien in 1811 in Dromoland, County Clare, Ireland, her father was the fourth Baronet of Dromoland, and, as such, a member of Parliament. Harriet was the next to youngest of nine children. She was a cousin through marriage to Archbishop of Canterbury A.C. Tait and a friend of Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone.

After her father’s death in 1837, the family moved around, eventually settling in Dublin. In 1839, Harriet married Charles Monsell, a medical student at the University of Dublin. They moved to Oxford for his priestly education. While serving as a canon at Limerick Cathedral, Charles faced myriad health issues, prompting the couple to move to mainland Europe.

Charles died in 1850. By that time, Harriet had become associated with the rapidly growing Oxford Movement. Popular in the 1830s and 1840s, the Oxford Movement laid the foundation for what is known today as the Anglo-Catholic tradition. One of the Movement’s enduring legacies is the re-establishment of Anglican religious orders.

This focus brought Harriet to Clewer in England, where she worked with prostitutes and unwed mothers at the House of Mercy. Harriet professed religious vows and established the Community of St. John Baptist, one of the first Anglican religious orders since the Reformation. The community followed the rule of Saint Augustine of Hippo and named Harriet as mother superior on November 30, 1852. The community grew rapidly. Within five years, they operated about 40 mission houses, orphanages, schools, and hospitals. Communities were formed in England, India, and the United States. Noting her commitment to social justice work, Queen Victoria called Harriet “an excellent person.”

Harriet died on Easter Sunday, March 25, 1883. “Easter is such a lovely time to go home,” she said shortly before her death.

In the United States, the Community of St. John Baptist is in Mendham, New Jersey. Harriet’s feast day is March 26.

Collect for Harriet Monsell
Gracious God, who led your servant Harriet Monsell through grief to a new vocation; grant that we, inspired by her example, may grow in the life of prayer and the work of service so that in sorrow or joy, your presence may increase among us and our lives reveal the mind of Jesus Christ, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Neva Rae Fox


Bach: Elias Gottlob Haussmann, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Harriet Monsell: Thomas Thellusson Carter, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


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153 comments on “Bach v. Harriet Monsell”

  1. With respect to both candidates, I voted for Harriet. I love her dedication to helping the indigent, the sick, the outcast, and the orphans, a true follower of Jesus' teachings.

    As a longtime lover of music who has played some Bach pieces, and who has been enraptured by his music, I understand the heights to which his inspired music can take us. However, the Teacher emphasized outreach to those in dire need. How many of the needy have gotten to sit in churches and concert halls, and thereby be uplifted by Bach's music? from that perspective, Harriet gets my vote.

    1. This is a really good comment. However, I voted for Bach. He used his gifts to honor God and to help others feel God’s glory through his music. I like to think that artists share God’s creative spirit and do God’s work in sharing their creativity with us. How many souls have soared with Bach’s music?

    2. In 1978, after an all-night train ride from Lausanne to Paris, I walked into Notre Dame Cathedral. People were setting up chairs and an organist was warming up for a recital. Of course I settled into a chair. This is the first piece the organist played: As a starving student, I could only experience this because it was free, and I will never forget it. I don't think it should be held against Bach if later people began to charge for hearing his music.

      Thank you for the view into Bach's inner life that came from his Bible. I am glad to know he wasn't just writing great music, but was inspired by the Holy Spirit as he wrote.

    3. I, too, had a very hard time with this one, because Harriet is such a worthy candidate. But Bach wins out in the end because generations have been inspired by this devout genius. And I must add that one does not have to have been in a church or concert hall for this inspiration; his music is still, after 400 years, accessible to every person via all kinds of media! It even went to the moon! His music will continue to open hearts and minds forever! Soli Deo Gloria!

      1. My sentiments exactly! I really struggled with this one, as I am a clinician in women's health who is in awe of Harriet's outreach. Bach still won out for me, however, as his musical gifts continue to glorify God worldwide and reach people spiritually as well as musically.

    4. So many of the events where Sebastian's music is featured are actually open to anyone who wishes to come, and that always includes those who are not able to attend regular concert performances.
      Why, today, you can listen to many of the best works of Sebastian back to back on such venues as YouTube, and pay nothing at all.
      Sebastian's music teaches all of us throughout the world -- those who are able to listen.
      As Jesus says in the words of the Scholars' Bible, "anyone with two ears had better listen."
      I suppose that this woman was an excellent individual, and obviously meant well. What else might be expected or required I'm not sure, but I know who has moved my world by far the most.
      As the old advertisement saying goes, "Your mileage may vary."

  2. Something that cracks me up when I remember is the scene from MASH, where Radar is trying to get a girlfriend, do you remember? He is given the advice to listen to classical music and if somebody asks him a question about Bach, just say, "Ah, Bach," and to nod.


    And Bach is beautiful.

    Harriet is also a worthy saint, I was moved by her story and power.

    Bach got my vote.

    Ah, Bach.

    1. I immediately thought of Ah, Bach! as well! You can't beat great memories, great dedication and great music!

    2. I was having a really hard time with this choice. Both are very worthy. Little things make the difference and I remember the MASH episode with Radar. So Ah, Bach it is.

  3. Whoops! We got Edmund again instead of Harriet in her illustration. I'd love to see her...

    1. Had to vote for Bach. Jesus, Joy of Man’s Desiring was my bridal entrance music.

    1. I am in the same situation. I so much want to vote for both of them. Eva Suarez's bio of Bach was outstanding. But I have always had a hankering to be a nun, and, not being of the Roman persuasion, am delighted that there are also Anglican options. I'm going to have to ponder this one a while before voting.

  4. Oh my heart! My grandfather was the caretaker at CSJB Mendham, my dad grew up in the grounds & my parents are associates there still. Vote Harriet everyone!!!

    1. Hello, Audrey - I was a student at St John Baptist School in the 1960s and the wonderful man who kept everything running was Mr. Craggy. Mrs. Craggy was our determined math teacher, and they lived in a home on the grounds with their two little boys. Were they related to you?

      1. Hi Deb, no my grandfather was the groundskeeper for the convent & retreat house, not the school.

  5. A difficult decision today. I voted for Harriet Monsell for her commitment to social justice in honour of all who still work to address poverty today following recent reports showing that we now have 4 million children living in food poverty in the UK. On a side note, I have just read The Great Passion, which novelises the composition of St Matthew's Passion, by James Runcie which others may enjoy.

  6. Today, March 3, is the feast day of another nun-philanthropist.
    The American heiress Katharine Drexel used her fortune to establish schools and colleges for Blacks and Native Indians. She was the foundress of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. St. Katharine Drexel was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000.

  7. This was a very tough vote. Both biographies and accompanying prayers are eloquently, exquisitely written. Thank you to the writers, and to Scott and Tim and Lent Madness, for the gifts you are giving us -- grace upon grace.

  8. "At a reverent performance of music, God is always at hand with his gracious presence." Bach

    1. Exactly my thinking, Mary O’Donnell. If ever there were proof for the existence of God, it is Bach’s music. As for writing an autobiography, he did - in his music. Thank you your comment.

  9. Ah! Bach!, I prefer Beethoven!
    It’s back to voting for the ladies today!
    You might say Harriet was the founding mother of the proto-Catholic church & a pioneer of social justice. Besides, dying on Easter Sunday should get her golden halo even though Bach will probably strike the chord today, Mother Harriet gets a vote from me today.

  10. Bach's music has moved people to know they are in God's gracious presence for hundreds of years, and will continue to do so for hundreds more. Bach was inspired to compose by a deep devotion to God, which is why his music stirs our souls. To thy glory alone, God.

  11. God vibrated in Bach’s bones louder than most. Living miracle of his time and for all time.

  12. It's so difficult to choose between these two today. I loved reading today about Bach's notations in his Bible. But I think I'll vote for Monsell today in the hope of hearing more about her in future blog postings.

  13. It’s hard to know just where to start:
    Bach still stands as a genius apart.
    Give saintly admission
    To a stately musician
    Who combined mathematics with art.

    1. These limericks are one of the reasons I get up every morning. Thanks for the wisdom and good humor!

    2. John Cabot, I cannot believe you didn’t write a limerick for Harriet Monsell seeing as her husband was a canon at Limerick Cathedral! She would have worshipped there for sure. A missed opportunity methinks.

  14. Harriet Monsell was a remarkable woman who deserves our admiration and gratitude. But the enduring gift of Bach’s music will last forever.

  15. Bach has touched me with too much music not to vote for him. Before the pandemic I would joke that I didn't feel like I'd been to church without singing. The pandemic made me realize the truth of that in my soul. So much of the church music I love is Bach or inspired by him. No question today.

  16. In the year 2,000, Jane Mankaa of Cameroon wrote to every convent in the US. She wished to become a nun and study convent management. Only one answered her affirmatively, the Community of St. John Baptist in Mendham, NJ. She lived w them, studied at St. Elizabeth’s College and went on to found Good Shepherd Home for 150 AIDS orphans and Good Shepherd Academy to serve 350 students.

    To see Harriett Monsell’s work in our own day visit www. Here’s to Harriett, whose influence lives on and continues to transform lives!

  17. To suggest Bach's music is not outreach to the poor and downtrodden is missing the profound effects music has universally. Music is a language that transcends all cultures, ages, economics and politics. As a working therapeutic musician, I personally witness the healing power of music every time I am in the hospital. It's ability to connect someone to the grace and love of the divine is profound. while I use many kinds of music, I refer to "when in doubt, play Bach."

    1. When I am angry I first play Janis Joplin to get the energy out, and the it is always Bach to calm myself. The off-key concert to my dog and garden is a simple bonus that lifts my heart closer to God.

  18. Bach it is today! Especially for me, as this weekend is the spring concert of the Kentucky Bach Choir of which I’m a longtime singer and Board member. Soli Deo Gloria!

    1. Good luck with your concert! My locale Chorale, of which I am a member, will have our spring concert in May. One of the works that we will be performing is Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. I hope we do it justice! I love Bach!

    1. I do appreciate Celebrity Blogger, Mother Eva Suarez, 2022's winner. Maybe she'll have a repeat performance in 2023!

  19. All honor to Harriet and other philanthropists, who know in their hearts the love God has for the poor, the marginalized people of the world. Nevertheless, there are things to which no amount of money can contribute, and Bach shared his gift with the world. A musician once told me that a melody line in a composition is called a voice. Most composers write for one voice, with accompanying harmonies. Bach could write for six. Think about it: six melody lines, none of which fight with each other; in fact, they complement each other and all sound beautiful together. This sounds mathematically impossible, but Bach had the gift, and he shared it with the world, S.D.G.

    1. Correction: "...things to which no amount of money can contribute." I realize that this is debatable. I should have said, "that money can buy." Even that isn't completely accurate. Let's just say that Bach's gift was God's gift to Bach and the world. It's a joy to contribute to music and other arts, and that's a gift in itself.

    2. After decades of singing alto, often as either a drone line or a harmony leaping about oddly, Bach is always a blessing. His chorales soar in each part, and I often imagine the Blessed singing them in Glory.

  20. I wouldn't want to vote for anyone who had anything to do with 'orphanages and 'helped' un-wed mothers/prostitutes in we have all found out just recently how brutal those places mostly were. Although she may be the exceptional good nun, I'll go with the man who sung God's praises.

    1. Julia, Harriet was not a nun in Ireland, but in England where she established the Community of St. John the Baptist. The Order served the poor, the outcasts and orphans in the United States and India, as well as in England.

  21. This was a very hard choice. Poignant story and beautiful lives for both of them. I chose Bach simply because I have sung his pieces on many occassions. Please be sure to give us a chance to vote for Harriet Monsell next year or in the near future. I was blessed to read your biography of both of them.

  22. What I didn’t know about Bach before is how humble he was! He would not write about himself, and he somehow managed to get rid of most of his correspondence before he died. He had to be famous in his time, so what celebrity does that?! I’m in awe of his music, and now also, of his utter dedication to God.

  23. I've been on retreat at the CSJB house in Mendham several times, and value the ministry of that community. But as a singer who has been blessed to perform Bach, I have to go with him today. His amazing music sounds from and to the heart of faith.

  24. Another contest in which I thought I knew for whom I would vote and didn't. Much as I appreciate how much Bach's music which has enriched my spiritual and secular life, I was moved by Harriet, who went from a life of privilege through personal tragedy to serving the poor and the outcasts of Victorian society. (Shades of Clare of Assisi or Joanna the Myrrhbearer!)

  25. I hope we'll meet Harriet Monsell again in a future Lent Madness season -- but against Bach? No contest! She gave inherited money to deepen and broaden the Church ... but Bach gave of his God-given musical gifts that we all might hear and know his divine music for the ages. He humbly insisted the glory was all God's, but it was he who followed his calling devotedly and tirelessly to share those gifts with the world.