December 12, 2017



Edited from the files of Dr. Grace W. Haight

by Guye Johnson

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.

—Thomas Ken, 1637-1710

Haeussler, in The Story of Our Hymns, describes hymn singing as “an organic part of public worship, and therefore couched in the language of prayer, praise, faith, and self-commitment …” For more than two hundred years the four lines of praise quoted above have poured from the hearts and lips of innumerable Christians.

In the words of Christopher Knapp (Who Wrote Our Hymns), this Doxology has been the “death song of martyrs and the paean of victorious armies. When peace was sealed at Appomattox, the Doxology rolled like the voice of mighty thunder from State to State and from ocean to ocean.”

Another writer has said: “I had rather have written these words than anything else written by man, It is the most famous and widely used of all doxologies in the English tongue, sung almost every Sunday in all churches, and on other occasions to give expression to great joy or triumph.” Whenever gratitude for blessing wells in the hearts of people, it seems to find spontaneous expression in this praise to the Trinity.

The word doxology comes from two Greek words — one meaning “opinion, praise, glory,” and the other meaning “to speak.” Although Ken wrote his Doxology as the closing stanza of each of three hymns (“Evening,” “Morning,” and “Midnight”) which he wrote for the devotions of Winchester College students, it has been given a far wider use.

During the Civil War, men in a certain prison saw hosts of their number die and be removed, and saw hosts of other men come in to replace them. One night a group of new prisoners arrived. One of them, a young minister, sat down outside; and putting his face into his hands, he sobbed uncontrollably. Suddenly, from an upper window he heard a cheerful voice singing, “Praise God from Whom all blessings flow …” At the beginning of each new line, other voices joined in the singing, until finally the whole prison resounded with these heartening words. The young preacher took courage and began to sing, “Prisons would palaces prove / If Jesus would dwell with me there.”

Another interesting story of this hymn regards a cotton famine in Lancashire, England. Unemployment had led to destitution. When a wagonload of cotton finally arrived, the men, in gratitude to the Lord for His goodness, unharnessed the horse, pulled the wagon through the streets, and with tears of joy streaming down their faces, fervently sang, “Praise God from Whom all blessings flow …”

Carl Price (More Hymn Stories) refers to a time when Charles Wesley was preaching in a tumbled-down house in Leeds. The floor gave way with a crash and threw the entire congregation of a hundred people to a room below. Dust and mortar covered the people, and several people were injured. However, no lives were lost. Wesley called out, “The Lord is with us, Let us sing, ‘Praise God from Whom all blessings flow.’”

Another authority reports that in April, 1936, newspapers in Canada and the United States had. large headlines of an abandoned-mine disaster in Nova Scotia. Three men — a physician and a lawyer (who had purchased the rights to this mine) and a guide — were exploring the purchase. At the 141-foot level, a cave-in occurred, cutting off all means of escape. The situation was further complicated by rising waters. Rescue squads managed to force down to the imprisoned men a pipe through which they sent food and a telephone line, and four Salvation Army men furnished food and spiritual encouragement.

At the end of ten days, when the rescuers finally reached the trapped men, they found that one of them had died. The Associated Press said of the rescue: “Humble in the face of death, but thankful that two lives had been saved, the miners who succeeded in the rescue, the officials who directed their work, and the spectators who were drawn to the isolated settlement by the international anxiety attending the entombment, joined in singing, ‘Praise God from Whom all blessings flow…”

These lines of such prolonged use were penned by a man of notable background. Thomas Ken was born in July, 1637, at Berkhampstead in Hertfordshire, England. Orphaned early in life, he was reared by a sister, Ann, who was the second wife of Izaac Walton (whose book The Compleat Angler has charmed so many fishermen).

Ken’s boyhood and conversion experience are passed over by most biographers. It is simply noted that he was conscientious and godly. At fifteen, Ken entered Winchester College. Later, he attended Oxford and in 1666 was elected to a fellowship at Winchester College, where his name may still be seen carved on one of the stone pillars. By the time he was twenty-five, Ken launched a preaching career which soared to great heights but which nonetheless was beset by numerous trials.

During a period of service at Winchester Cathedral, Ken had to refuse a request by his monarch. King Charles II was planning a visit to Winchester to check the progress of a new palace under construction, He was to be accompanied by his mistress, Nell Gwynne, and he asked that she be allowed to stay at Ken’s residence. Friends advised Ken to “go along” with the king’s request. Otherwise, they said, Ken might lose his head. But Ken stated firmly: “Not for the king’s kingdom will I do this horrible thing.” And to ensure that it would not happen, Ken called in a builder to repair his residence. The first thing the clever builder did was to take off the roof!

When King Charles heard of Ken’s refusal, he marked in his mind, “This man Ken is a man of virtue”; and later, when the sees (church offices) of Bath and Wells became vacant, the king surprised everyone by asking, “Where is the good little man who refused a lodging to poor Nell? I want to bestow upon him these sees.”

In 1679, King Charles appointed Ken as chaplain to Princess Mary — (who later became the wife of William of Orange) — and in 1684 appointed him bishop. Declining the usual coronation banquet, Ken gave the allotted money to charity.

As chaplain to the king, Ken faithfully sought to lead the monarch to the Lord. Often after one of his deplorable revels, the king would say, “Now I must go and hear good Bishop Ken tell me my faults.” One day Ken preached on the theme of John the Baptist’s warning Herod Antipas with regard to Herod’s sin in taking unto himself his brother’s wife. Then, looking directly at the king, Ken made this application: “So you, O king, are also guilty of violating God’s law by openly flaunting your immorality before the British people.” Ken was reminded by a friend that John the Baptist’s boldness cost him his head. Ken calmly replied, “And I would gladly lose mine if it would bring the king to his senses.”

Eight days after Ken had been made bishop, King Charles suffered a stroke. Immediately he sent for the chaplain. Although some authorities claim that Ken convinced the king to give up his mistress and to beg his queen’s forgiveness and that the king “died in the faith,” other authorities say that “Ken’s pious words appear to have fallen on deaf ears.” Whichever statement is true, we are sure that Ken’s conscience was clear in that he had faithfully discharged his responsibility to witness to the king.

Josiah Miller (Our Hymns) says of Ken: “His inflexibility in maintaining what he believed to be right, and his courage in reproving kings where it was necessary, made him many and powerful enemies.” In 1688, Ken was one of seven bishops who refused to publish the “Declaration of Indulgence” by which King James II intended to advance the cause of the Church of Rome in England. After a short imprisonment the men were acquitted of all charges against them; but Ken, of course, lost his office. Not having felt highly elated at his elevation, he felt no deflation when deprived of it; and God provided for His faithful servant the material means he needed. Lord Weymouth granted him eighty pounds a year; and Queen Anne, at Bishop Hooper’s suggestion, allotted him two hundred pounds yearly out of the public treasury.

Ken’s piety is reflected in this oft-repeated prayer: “Teach me to live, that I may dread / The grave as little as my bed.” During his last year of life, Ken’s health was severely impaired, and he carried a shroud with him in his travels. To those who questioned this strange practice, he explained: “I have always made it a practice to be prepared.” Someone of more recent times has made this challenging comment with regard to Ken’s statement: “We do not know when death may claim us; and the true preparation is to have Christ, the robe of righteousness.”

Upon his death at the age of seventy-four and in keeping with his humble style of living, Ken was buried at a simple service in a lowly tomb. His body was borne to the grave by twelve poor men.

As a fitting eulogy to this fearless preacher, this benefactor of the poor, this outstanding educator, this famous hymn writer who gave us the most famous four lines in hymnody, we quote the following comments by men who have written hymnology books: “It is something to follow the course of a good man who, amid the strife of parties, is faithful to himself and to his God: who desires not high position, yet accepts it when it falls to his lot, and when conscience forbids him to retain it, can leave it without a wistful look behind.” “James II pronounced him the most eloquent preacher among the Protestants at that time.” “He approached as near as infirmity permits to the ideal perfection of Christian virtue.”

The next time you sing this great doxology, think of A. Haeussler’s challenge: “Let us put new vitality and spirit into our worship. Let us sing.”

First published in Faith for the Family, November / December 1973. Republished here by permission.

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