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The Right Reverend Dom John Chapman OSB (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 was ordained deacon in the Anglican Church in 1889.
Conversion to Catholicism
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, but also frequently visiting the library of St Mary's College in nearby Oscott.
In 1913, Chapman was made temporary superior of the Caldey island community (now based at Prinknash Abbey), when it entered the Roman Catholic Church in 1913-14.
On the outbreak of World War I (1914-1918), he became army chaplain to the British forces.
4th Abbot of Downside
In 1919 Chapman transferred his monastic stability to Downside Abbey, where in 1929 the community elected him Abbot. 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, since 1957 Worth Abbey, when he bought the property, then called Paddockhurst, from Viscount Cowdray.
New Testament and patristics scholar
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. However, he did not only read both Greek and Latin with the greatest facility, but also read and wrote French, Italian and German with similar ease. Many of his contributions to biblical scholarship and patristics have proved of lasting value, especially his work on St Cyprian, St John the Presbyter (of Papias), 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.
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
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.
- "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.
- "St. Cyprian on the Church and the Papacy" 
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).