Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow
by Thomas Ken;
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 95.
Praise God, from whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heav’nly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
During the preparation and celebration of Thanksgiving this month, hymns of praise and thanksgiving are meaningful as we, through music, lead our congregations to focus on our gratefulness for what God has given us. The church has a rich repertoire of hymns for this season, but a beautiful starting point is the familiar doxological hymn, “Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow,” by Bishop Thomas Ken (1637-1711).
From Hertfordshire, Ken was orphaned as a child and raised by his sister Anna and her husband Izaak Walton. They enrolled him in the all-boys school at Winchester College (1651-1656), and after his education there, he attended Hart Hall, Oxford, and New College, Oxford (BA 1661, MA 1664). He was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1662, served as Rector to several parishes, and as a Chaplain to Princess Mary of Orange (1679-80), King Charles II (1683), and the Tangier Expedition (1683-84). In 1685, he was appointed Bishop of Bath and Wells. During the reign of King James II, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London for refusing to sign the Declaration of Indulgence. Ken was acquitted of the charge, but when King William III ascended to the throne Ken refused to swear loyalty to him, he resigned his office and lived the rest of his life at the home of his friend, Lord Weymouth, at Longleat, Wilshire.1
The original date of composition by Ken for the text of “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow” is unknown, but the first mention of is in 1674 as the presumed final stanza of two longer hymns: “Awake, My Soul and with the Sun” and “Glory to Thee, My God, This Night.” These two hymns were referenced along with a third as Morning, Evening and Midnight hymns in a pamphlet written for his students titled A Manual of Prayers For the Use of the Scholars of Winchester College was accompanied by the directive:
Be sure to sing the Morning and Evening Hymn in your chamber devoutly, remembering that the Psalmist, upon happy experience, assures you that it is a good thing to tell of the loving kindness of the Lord early in the morning and of his truth in the night season.2
This directive is most often interpreted to mean that the hymns were meant for private devotion, not the gathered assembly, and yet these four lines, often referred to as The Lesser Doxology, have “been sung more often than any other lines ever written.”3 The hymn texts were published later as an appendix in his 1695 pamphlet as ‘revised’ versions.
Much of beauty of these four lines lies in its reflection of the joyous outbursts of the Psalms. Here we see both the ‘host’ of heaven and the ‘creatures here below’ of earth praising God as in Psalm 96:11-12a and the final jubilant line of Psalm 150:6:
Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
let the field exult, and everything in it. (Psalm 96: 11-12a, NRSV)
Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord! (Psalm 150:6, NRSV)
The Trinitarian structure of Ken’s hymn has also led to its common liturgical use. The first line describes the person of God the Father as the source of all blessings (Ephesians 1:3, 2 Corinthians 1:3). The second line, though, speaks to God the Spirit through whom all creatures praise God (Psalm 104:24-30, 1 Corinthians 2:10-13). The third line points to God the Son who is begotten of the Father, firstborn of heaven and superior to angels and the heavenly host (Hebrews 1:4). The fourth line summarizes the stanza and all of praise in general, since all praise is directed toward God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The United Methodist Hymnal pairs this text with the hymn tune OLD 100th, which is attributed to Louis Bourgeois (c. 1510-59). The first two lines of Ken’s text were later adapted with additional text by Gilbert H. Vieira to be sung with LASST UNS ERFREUEN (Ausserlesene Catholische, GKirchengesänge ,1623; harmonized by Ralph Vaughan Williams.)
The hymn tune MORNING HYMN was composed by François Hippolyte Barthélémon (1741-1808) for the text of “Awake, My Soul, and With the Sun” directly. The appropriateness of the tune works well for this final stanza, where the words of the second phrase, “Praise him, all creatures here below,” are sung by descending stepwise through an entire scale. The third phrase, “Praise him above, ye heav’nly host,” is sung through a similar ascension that returns to the highest note of the tune in the final stanza, acknowledging the Trinitarian nature of God. Sheila Doyle comments on the hymn tune by saying, “The language is simple and precise, and the opening images of light and rising up, appropriate to morning, pervade the hymn and convey a powerful sense of renewal and aspiration.”4
1 Much of this information and other details of Thomas Ken’s life can be found at Sheila Doyle. "Thomas Ken." The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed August 8, 2016, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/t/thomas-ken.
3 Gealy, Fred D. Research Files for the 1970 Companion to the Hymnal  quoted in Young, Carlton R. Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993), 200.
4 Doyle, Sheila, “Awake, My Soul, and with the Sun.” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed August 29, 2016, https://hymnology.hymnsam.co.uk/a/awake,-my-soul,-and-with-the-sun.
About this week’s writers:
Victoria Schwarz is the Recording Secretary of The Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts, Director of Music at Berkeley United Methodist Church in Austin, TX, and a Master of Arts in Ministry Practice student at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
Rev. Wilson Pruitt is the pastor of Berkeley United Methodist Church in Austin, TX. A graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and Duke Divinity School, Rev. Pruitt is passionate about the theological and formational aspects of hymns at the intersection of faith and practice in the liturgy of the church.
This article is provided as a collaboration between Discipleship Ministries and The Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts. For more information about The Fellowship, visit UMFellowship.org/Hymns.