Home History of Hymns: "All People that on Earth Do Dwell"

History of Hymns: "All People that on Earth Do Dwell"

"All People that on Earth Do Dwell"
William Kethe
UM Hymnal, No. 75

All people that on earth do dwell,
Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice.
Him serve with mirth, his praise forth tell,
Come ye before him and rejoice.

This is probably the oldest continuously sung congregational song in North America.

When the first British explorers arrived in Jamestown Island on May 14, 1607, to establish the Virginia colony on the banks of the James River near Chesapeake Bay, they undoubtedly brought with them a Psalter, a collection of metrical psalms. Most likely, the book was Psalms of David in English Metre, by Thomas Sternhold and others (1561).

The followers of John Calvin (1509-1564) sang only metrical psalms, or psalms set in poetic meter based the book of Psalms. According to Calvin, these metrical versions should neither add to nor take away from any portion of Scripture.

Calvin employed the skills of poet Clément Marot (1496-1544) to translate the psalms into French singing versions. The work was continued by Calvin’s successor and poet, Théodore de Bèze (1519-1605).

Loys “Louis” Bourgeois (c. 1510-1560) was a French composer and the main compiler of tunes for the Genevan Psalter (first edition in 1539, with succeeding editions in 1542, 1543, 1551, and 1562). The tune OLD 100TH first appeared in the 1551 edition of the Psalter; it is unclear which tunes were composed by Bourgeois, but this one is generally attributed to him.

The English-language text is attributed to William Kethe (d. c. 1594). According to the Rev. Carlton Young, editor of the UM Hymnal, very little is known about Kethe although he is believed to have been a Scotsman who was exiled to the European continent during the reign of Roman Catholic Queen “Bloody” Mary (1555-1558). He may have served as a messenger to others in exile in Basel and Strassburg, working with scholars to translate the Geneva Bible (1560).

After Kethe returned to England in 1560 or 1561, he served as a rector of the church of Childe Okeford until his death. From 1563-1569 he served as a chaplain to the English troops serving under the Earl of Warwick.

The Authorized (King James) Version of the Bible was not available until 1611. The version used as a basis for Kethe’s translation would have been Goostly Psalmes, a translation of Martin Luther’s psalm versions, available as early as 1539. This translation by Miles Coverdale (c. 1488-1569) is the standard translation for the Anglican Church and is still used today. The complete Coverdale translation of Psalm 100 follows:

O be joyful in the Lord, all ye lands; serve the Lord with gladness, and come before his presence with a song. Be ye sure that the Lord he is God; it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves. We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. O go your way into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise; be thankful unto him, and speak good of his Name. For the Lord is gracious, his mercy is everlasting, and his truth endureth from generation to generation.

The French practice was to assign a different tune to virtually every psalm. The English approach to setting the psalms was to use a limited number of meters (short meter, common meter and long meter) and therefore sing all of the psalms to a relatively small number of tunes.

This long meter (L.M.) text has been modified in a few places for current hymnals. The original stanzas one and two follow with modifications in parentheses:

All people that on earth do dwell,
sing to the Lord with cheerful voice:
Him serve with fear (mirth), his praise forth tell,
come ye before him and rejoice.

The Lord ye know is God indeed,
(Know that the Lord is God indeed)
without our aid he did us make;
We are his flock (folk), he doth us feed,
and for his sheep he doth us take.

The “Doxology” that is usually sung to the melody of OLD 100TH is not by Kethe, but is a later paring to this tune of a text by Thomas Ken (1637-1711). Dr. Young notes that Kethe’s translation was alluded to in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor. Twentieth-century English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) composed an arrangement of this hymn for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, June 2, 1953.

Amidst all of these dates, the important thing to remember is that William Kethe’s text ties us with the earliest settlers in the American colonies over 400 years ago. It was not long before a Psalter was published in the American colonies: The Bay Psalm Book (1640) was the first book published in North America.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.

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