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. Recently, In a bomb shelter metro station in Kharkiv, musicians played for displaced people from Bach’s 3rd Orchestral Suite and other music. His Bourree in E minor inspired the Beatles’ “Blackbird” and his Invention in F inspired “All You Need is Love.” In Leipzig, he produced a cantata every week—the Fifth Evangelist. From Alex Ross on Bach’s Bible annotations: “Bach singles out passages describing music as a vessel of divinity: in one note, he observes that music was “especially ordered by God’s spirit through David,” and in another Bach writes, “With devotional music, God is always present in his grace.” In addition to SDG, he often wrote JJ “Jesus, help me.” A composer whose language changed the lives of people such as Nina Simone and Daniel Barenboim (read about his peace making efforts) and through whom God spoke to Nietzche (on hearing the St. Matthew Passion: “ One who has completely forgotten Christianity truly hears it here as gospel,” gets my vote.

  2. Being a musician of sorts, my vote goes to JB. Singing is such a glorious release and full surrender of the soul's adoration of God. I was delighted to learn of the discovery of his Bible and the revelation of his inner life with God. Amen brother, Sing On!!!!! How many young choristers are brought to a love of God through music?

  3. I am fortunate to live near the Convent of St John Baptist and know several of the Sisters there. They are a dedicated, inspiring, devoted group of women who are active in their local community as well as the world at large through their support of an orphanage in Cameroon. It is a pleasure to vote for Harriet Monsell in their honor!

  4. I'm beginning to wonder how we are using the term Saint. Good, kind, giving people are certainly what we need and I surely don't mind voting for them,…… but Saints?

    1. You didn’t read the text that was sent with the entries today. It said that every saint in LM is indeed a saint in the RC, Episcopal, Lutheran, or Anglican Church.

  5. I once heard someone say that the condition of one's Bible is the opposite of the condition of their faith.
    (An Episcopalian might say the same about the state of a person's BCP.)

    Two golden-halo worthy candidates, another tough choice to make and it will only get worse.

  6. I was all set and expecting to vote for Bach, but having joined the Clewer Initative to defeat Modern Day Slavery I voted for Harriet. The nuns of Clewer realising that there society was coming to an end determined by prayer to put their resources into the bringing about the Kingdom of God and so have financed the fight against Modern Day Slavery. More persons are enslaved today than were in the days of the transAtlantic Slave Trade. Harriet's work continues.

  7. Bach had to be famous in his own time, so for him to not only ignore writing about himself, but to also destroy any correspondence, shows immense humility. What celebrity does that?! The witness of a well-worn Bible speaks volumes (three, to be exact!). As if his music SDG was not enough, his profound faith has been revealed in those annotated scriptures.

  8. Music is wonderful but moreso are those who are loved on the fringes--unwed mothers and prostitutes. I voted for Harriet who stretched out her hands inviting and welcoming the fringes of society. What a welcoming heart!

  9. Music is wonderful but moreso are those who are loved on the fringes--unwed mothers and prostitutes. I voted for Harriet who stretched out her hands inviting and welcoming the fringes of society. What a welcoming heart! That is real music.

  10. As a lifelong choral singer, I will vote for Bach, when I can get to my laptop. (The vote button refuses to respond on my iPad.) I am reminded of the Orthodox dictum that the one who sings prays twice. One of the most powerful spiritual experiences of my life came while participating in a performance of the St. Matthew Passion.

      1. I can’t vote on the iPad, either. I read here and then go to iPhone or Kindle to vote. (No, SEC, not both!)

        1. At least y'all can read the website on them in Safari. I cannot get Safari to load the LentMadness website on either my iPhone or my Mac and I need to use FireFox instead.

          I wish they would fix the problem(s) in the code that is not letting the website play nice with Safari.

  11. Let me commend Harriet Monsell to everyone. The US Community of Saint John Baptist is alive and well in Mendham, NJ. The sisters are truly wonderful people whose presence and ministries enhance the lives of all they meet. Visit their site at

  12. I have been on retreat at Mendham. The wonderful women welcomed me as a Suster with Anamchara Fellowship and taught me how to crochet cinctures. I went to Northumbria with Sr. Margo. Yeah, I was all set to vote for Bach and then realized who Harriet was. Had to support my Sisters in Mendham! Go Harriet!

  13. "Bach gave us God's word. Mozart gave us God's laughter. Beethoven gave us God's fire. God gave us Music that we might pray without words." I've loved this quote ever since I first read it years ago. Learning today about Bach's thoughtfully, prayerfully annotated Bible explains why he was able to express God's word so deeply in his music.

  14. This has year's Lent Madness is challenging me to learn more about all of these saints. Bach's music transports my spirit and I feel God's presence. So I voted for him. But then I learn about Harriet Monsell and I'm inspired by her service to others. I can never hope to be Bach. I don't play any instruments. But I can devote my daily work to God and to serving others, like Harriet. I'll carry a bit of her with me as I go about my day and I'll listen to some Bach and feel extremely light and joyful.

  15. Were the Anglican orphanages and unwed mother facilities also responsible for brutal treatment of their inmates - as were the Roman Catholic institutions?

  16. My students love Bach as the background for our Senior Chair Yoga classes. And his music is so stirring. And other times such peace and calm.

  17. The social justice girl in me had to vote for the social justice girl that was Harriet Monsell. And the fact that her feast day is on my sister's birthday made it that much easier. Go Harriet!

  18. This is another hard one and I am pretty sure that Johan will win this round, but I must vote for Harriet. Her passion for caring for people seems to trump, creating beautiful music for them.

  19. I was taught by Religious Sisters of Mercy in the ‘50s. They may have been R but the M was very hard to discern. I was a “fair to midlin” guitarist and singer at our church for many years and my spirit soared offering what talents I had to the Lord. Ah, Bach.

  20. Surely we find a sufficient number of canonized saints? Bach feels like a major stretch to me.

    1. I'm confused here. Does the Anglican Communion have an official canonization process?

      For Lutherans, it's basically like this: when a new worship book gets published, some committee adjusts the calendar in the front of the book, which means the list certainly varies according to when and where that book was published and by what particular Lutheran denomination.

      We wouldn't actually say that the ones in the current list are officially "saints" and everyone else is officially not a saint, though. We Christians are all of us saints and sinners at the same time. However, a few of do get special days on a calendar that varies by time and place and group. Their stories encourage us.

      And yes, that includes Bach. In our current book his day is July 28, his death date. It's actually a group commemoration that includes G. F. Handel and Heinrich Schütz as well.

  21. While music is a huge part of my worship experience, and Bach's compositions can lift my heart and soul, I have to vote my respect for the creators and participants in monastic orders which work in their communities to meet the many needs of the surrounding "neighbors". From Mother Teresa to "Call the Midwife" there are those who leave their own personal needs to meet the needs of others.

  22. This is the first match of Lent Madness this year that really stumped me. If Harriet wins, can Bach come back next year? And if Bach wins, can Harriet get a rematch next year?

  23. Canite tuba! You had me at "120 trumpets." While my ears perked up at this Irishwoman who joined the Oxford movement, my whole body is bathed in the sound of Bach every time I hear his music played. Bach's counterpoint is always perfect, and I'm charmed at the idea of his heavily annotated German Lutheran Bible. What key would he compose 2 Chronicles 5:13 in? Perhaps G major for die Gnade. Mother Harriet got to die on Easter, but Bach's music will never die.

  24. What struck me as I read the bios is how often we associate “saint” with either suffering or ministering to the marginalized of society - both admirable things. Bach presents a somewhat different understanding of “saint” - using your God-given talents to heal the world. I think Ecole de musique Saints Trinite (the music school associated with Holy Trinity Cathedral, Port au Prince Haiti) and its healing gifts of music is a prime example of this type of healing ministry.

    1. Perfectly said! Why can’t a musician be a saint? Making use of whatever talents you have for God’s glory is enough for me.

    2. Amen. We are using Lent Madness as our Lenten weekly program this year. I was charged with presenting on Monsell/Bach. I focused on the ideas of relationships and ways their lives still live and move in the world (and in Bach’s case, the universe as his music travels on Voyagers!). While Bach got my vote, I feel very drawn to the ongoing work of Monsell’s sisters-the work on slave trafficking took my breath away. Your comment is spot-on to me. The details of the martyrdom play a big role in a lot of the stories. Interesting to think about.

  25. I just have to vote for Bach, who, through his glorious music, helps us raise our voices and instruments to praise and glorify God. He used words direct from the Bible, setting them in such harmonies that one can only imagine the angels, too, are singing his music. I really believe Bach was divinely inspired, and so inspires all who sing, play or listen to his music.

  26. Just wondering why the gentleman in today's matchup is being referred to by his surname only? Especially as he is not the only published composer named Bach. Can we call him Johann, or is that too casual? We're not addressing the good sister as "Monsell."