by Bryan Anderson
This week I thought I’d share some background on one of the ubiquitous parts of our services, the singing of the Old Hundredth doxology, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” etc.
Sometimes people in the Episcopal tradition are surprised to realize that there is no Prayer Book rubric for a doxology after the offertory! It is a tradition that came to exist in very many disparate Protestant churches, and the words are probably the single best known lines of post-Scriptural Christian poetry in the world.
Bishop Thomas Ken wrote these words as the last verse of his morning and evening hymns: the morning hymn appears in our Hymnal 1940 at #151-152, and the evening hymn at #165. You will see the doxology appearing at the end of both of these, as well as standing alone at #139, and incorporated in an Isaac Watts text at #277. The word “ubiquitous” again comes to mind!
Julia and I lived for a short while just a few minutes’ walk from Thomas Ken’s former episcopal residence, which still includes the late medieval walls and moat surrounding the grounds. On the south-east side the view is open to fields and hills, from which the palace was shelled during the English Civil War.
A few decades later, probably under Ken’s tenure as bishop, an earthwork was raised against that wall so that all could walk up to the top and enjoy the natural beauty. There is now a plaque at that point bearing the lines which open his morning hymn—
“Awake, my soul, and with the sun
Thy daily stage of duty run;
Shake off dull sloth, and joyful rise
To pay thy morning sacrifice.”
One can easily imagine him in the early hours, walking the grounds. We are told by contemporaries that he was a man who loved a quiet life of devotion, who regularly used his residence to hold dinners for all the poor and homeless of the city. And yet, he found himself in the middle of the most fraught temporal matters of his time: his house was almost commandeered by Charles II’s mistress; he appears in the diary of Samuel Pepys; and his imprisonment and trial as one of the “Seven Bishops” led directly to the deposition of James II and the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688.
The 25 words of the Doxology are today his most enduring legacy, particularly as paired with the Genevan psalm tune we use. They have become an ecumenical touchstone of common faith. Bishop Ken, whose dying words spoke of his belief in the “apostolic faith as it existed before the disunion of East and West…and the Doctrine of the Cross,” would be pleased, it’s safe to say, by the contribution of his lines to the unity of the Church.