Posted by: rcottrill | January 16, 2011

The First English Hymn

I often smile when someone names an “old hymn” they love, when I know that it was written in the twentieth century, perhaps even in my own lifetime. “Old” is certainly a relative term!

What are some really old hymns? Of course, if we don’t limit ourselves to English, we can go back thousands of years. The book of Psalms in the Bible was the hymn book of Israel in ancient times. And we are still singing translations and paraphrases of many of those songs–Psalm 23 being the most familiar.

But if we limit the search to hymns originally written in English, how far back can we go? What was the first hymn to be produced in the English language? Actually, there are three possible answers to that.

The first hymn ever written in English is considered to be Caedmon’s Hymn. Created some time between AD 658 and 680, it has the distinction of being the earliest English literature of any kind for which we know the author. However, the language has changed so much in over a thousand years, that Caedmon’s poem is unreadable now, by most, without translation. It begins, “Nu sculon herigean heonfonrices weard.” Or in modern English, “Now must we praise the Keeper of heaven’s kingdom.”

The first hymns written in modern English may be those of Thomas Ken (1637-1711). He published a trio of hymns around 1674, for morning, evening, and midnight. The evening hymn begins:

Glory 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.

The problem is, Bishop Ken lived at a time when many believed only the Scriptures should be sung in church (specifically, the Psalms). He sent his three hymns to Winchester Boys School, in England, with instructions that they should be used for private devotions only, never in public. Ironically, the last verse of the three hymns mentioned came to be sung more times in more churches than any other. They each conclude:

Praise God from whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host:
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

For good reason, Isaac Watts (1674-1748) is called the Father of English Hymnody. While still in his teens, he argued with his father that the church was missing a great deal of New Testament truth by singing only the Psalms. Finally his father said, “If you think you can write something better, go ahead and try.”

Young Watts did so, composing a new hymn for their congregation each week, for some time to come. His first, written around 1688 (when he was only 14 years old), and the first English hymn to actually be used in church, was prophetic in its promise of more to follow. It begins:

Behold, the glories of the Lamb,
Amidst His Father’s throne;
Prepare new honours for His name,
And songs before unknown.


  1. Thanks for the noteworthy Ken and Watts inclusions. The Ken prayer is a special one, and I have used it personal/family devotional times. The other stanzas, as you surely know, are equally worthy. “Forgive me, Lord, for Thy dear Son, the ill that I this day have done.” And “O may my soul on Thee repose. . . .”

    During my undergraduate days, I had found the Watts first and set it to music. It’s not all that good a hymn, I suppose (in terms of music), but I somehow had the feeling of significance, having “collaborated” with the likes of Watts! 🙂

    I’d be honored if you added me to your blogroll. If you prefer to keep the reference narrow, my “Monday Music” category is the most clearly related to your emphasis here, so the link would be

    I’ll add you on my end!

    • Thanks for your comments. Yes, I know about the other stanzas in Thomas Ken’s beautiful hymn. I’ve tried to keep my blogs to a reasonable length, so usually only use selected stanzas. In most cases, the rest are readily available on the Cyber Hymnal. Interesting about your composition of a tune for Watts’s initial hymn. It’s not found in many hymn books now, but it’s significant because it started something big! Thanks for your interest in linking to my site. I’m trying to keep my own blogroll very limited, so decline to add yours for now.


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