Hymn of the Week - "Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow"
Welcome to our "Hymn of the Week" blog post! This summer, I invite you all to explore the rich history and context of our beloved hymns. As I wrote in a letter to All Saints' congregation, what do we really know about the hymns we sing? While this information is just a quick click away for any of us, and there is a three-volume "Companion" to the Hymnal 1982 sitting in my office, it's information we rarely explore.
With that in mind, none of this scholarship is personally mine, but some of the thoughts certainly are. There are wonderful resources that I'll make use of. These include Richmond’s own Michael Hawn, who has written informative essays on the hymns of the United Methodist Hymnal, which are available here. Another valuable resource is Hymnary.org (have you ever wondered how I find obscure texts to go with well-known tunes?). Additionally, I refer to other scholarly research found across the web and the aforementioned 'Companion to the Hymnal 1982' from Church Publishing.
With that, our first hymn of the week is the “Doxology” – Thomas Ken’s “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow”:
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. Amen.
First off, who was Thomas Ken (1637-1711)? According to Michael Hawn’s essay,
“Ken was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1662, serving 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 (1687), a decree designed to promote the king’s Catholic faith. Ken was acquitted of the charge. When, however, King William III ascended to the throne, Ken refused to swear loyalty to him and resigned his office, living the rest of his life at the home of his friend, Lord Weymouth, at Longleat, Wilshire”
In 1674, Ken published "A Manual of Prayers for the Use of the Scholars of Winchester College," which included prayers for morning, midnight, and evening. The last stanza of each prayer is now known as the "Doxology." The "Morning" and "Evening" prayers can still be found in The Hymnal 1982 as hymns #11 and #43, respectively. The "Midnight" prayer is less well-known but represents a prayer for when one awakes in the middle of the night.
Regarding the pairing of text and tune in hymns, sometimes the text (the chicken) comes before the tune (the egg), and sometimes they are created simultaneously. Examples of the text preceding the tune include "Onward, Christian Soldiers" by Sabine Baring-Gould, which was later paired with the tune "St. Gertrude" by Arthur Sullivan. "Amazing Grace" is another example, as the text existed for several decades before being paired with the tune "New Britain." On the other hand, sometimes the tune comes before the text. The Scottish folk tune "Bunessan" was first paired with the text "Child in the Manger" and later with the text "Morning has Broken." An example of text and tune created concurrently is "I Am the Bread of Life" by Sr. Suzanne Toolan.
This brings us back to Thomas Ken’s “Doxology” and its paring with Old 100th, and how the two have become virtually inseparable. Did Thomas Ken know the tune? It’s possible – the tune predates the text by over a century! The tune is attributed to Louis Bourgeois (c. 1510–1559), who was the composer of choice of the reformer John Calvin and was a tune in the Genevan Psalter. This Psalter was intended to be the tunes by which the church could sing the psalms – in this case Psalm 100, as found at hymn #377 in the Hymnal 1982.
The choice of this tune for the text we know as the "Doxology" can be attributed to the poetic meter and the simplicity of the melody. Each phrase of the text has eight syllables, matching the 188.8.131.52 meter of the tune. Find any tune with the 184.108.40.206 meter, and you can simply switch out the words. Indeed, a search on Hymnary.org provides 2,246 such tunes! How would you feel singing the text to Antioch (Joy to the World), Rockingham (When I Survey the Wondrous Cross), or Veni Emmanuel (O Come, O Come, Emmanuel)? Alternate tunes can range from useful to somewhat ridiculous – think “Hernando’s Hideway”. Give it a try . . . just because you can, doesn’t mean you should! Of course, Thomas Ken wrote it in a simple and common meter, and options abound.
The reason why we often sing just one verse of Thomas Ken's hymn, commonly known as the "Doxology," is not primarily influenced by financial considerations or the accompaniment of alms presentation. Instead, it is because the verse itself serves as a simple song of praise, which is the essence of a doxology. The text of the "Doxology" focuses on praising God as the source of all blessings, encompassing the Trinitarian structure of the Christian faith. As Michael Hawn elaborates:
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.
 https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/articles/history-of-hymns-praise-god-from-whom-all-blessings-flow  https://hymnary.org/text/my_god_i_now_from_sleep_awake  https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/articles/history-of-hymns-praise-god-from-whom-all-blessings-flow
Director of Music
All Saints Episcopal Church