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History of Hymns: "All Praise to Thee, My God, This Night"

"All Praise to Thee, My God, This Night"
Thomas Ken
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 682

Thomas Ken

“All praise to thee, my God, this night,
For all the blessings of the light!
Keep me, O keep me, King of kings,
Beneath thine own almighty wings.”

Many congregations unknowingly sing a stanza each Sunday by Bishop Thomas Ken (1637-1710). What numerous congregations commonly call “The Doxology” (“Praise God from whom all blessings flow...”) is actually the final stanza of Ken’s hymn.

A native of Hertfordshire, England, Ken was orphaned at age 9 and raised as the ward of Izaak Walton, the husband of his sister, Ann. After his education at Winchester College and Hart Hall, Oxford, he became a fellow of New College in 1657, where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

Ken was ordained in 1662 and was rector of Little Easton and chaplain to Bishop Morley. Following his appointment as chaplain to Princess Mary at the Hague and later to the British fleet, he was consecrated the bishop of Bath and Wells in 1865.

What appeared to be a fast-track career in the Church of England took a sudden downward spiral some 20 years later when Ken was among the bishops imprisoned in the Tower of London for refusing to sign James II’s 1687 “Declaration of Indulgence.”

The focus of the Declaration would be seen as a reasonable document by today’s standards, but it threatened the supremacy of the Church of England. It suspended all penal laws in matters ecclesiastical for not attending the established Church of England; permitted people to worship with other confessional groups than the established Church of England; and ended the requirement that people take various religious oaths before advancement to civil or military office.

The declaration applied to Catholics, Protestants, Unitarians, Jews, Muslims and even people of no faith.

Though Ken was acquitted, he resigned his office in 1691. Hymnology scholar Albert Bailey notes that Ken “lost his bishopric in 1691 because, having sworn fealty to James II, he could not in good conscience swear fealty to William and Mary while James was alive and had been deposed (as he thought) unjustly. All this proves that to the end Ken gave supreme authority only to his conscience.”

The author of many hymns, Ken wrote three hymns that framed the day—morning, evening and midnight. The two that are still in common use are “Awake my soul, and with the sun” and “All praise to thee, my God, this night.” All three hymns conclude with his famous “doxology” stanza.

They were sung by the boys at the Winchester school for their daily devotionals and incorporated into the school hymnal, Manual of Prayers for the Use of the Scholars of Winchester College (1674).

Two stanzas are omitted (the original 5th and 6th) just before the concluding famous doxological stanza:

“When in the night I sleepless lie,
My soul with heavenly thoughts supply;
Let no ill dreams disturb my rest,
No powers of darkness me molest.

”O when shall I, in endless day,
For ever chase dark sleep away,
And hymns divine with angels sing,
All praise to thee, eternal King?”

Taken together, the stanzas of this hymn give us a glimpse into the devotional nature of late 17th century England. Stanza two is one of petition—“Forgive me, Lord, for... all the ill that I this day have done.” Stanza three speaks to the Christian’s fear of the judgment day and asks God to “Teach me to live, that I may dread the grave as little as my bed.” And stanza four prays that sleep may restore the body, so that when awake, the Christian may be more “vigorous” in service.

Hymns continue to be an important part of devotional piety today. May we frame our days with Scripture and song.

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

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