Thomas Ken

July 1637–19 March 1711

 

Thomas Ken, engraving by George Vertue, based on the oil portrait by F. Scheffer, National Portrait Gallery (London).

In confirmation of “the universal popularity of the two beautiful hymns for morning and evening, by Bishop Ken,” beginning “Awake, my soul! and with the sun,” “Glory to thee, my God! this night,” Bishop Heber said, that they were then “more generally sung, by a cottage fire-side, than any other compositions with which [he was] acquainted,” and that they were, “in country parishes, almost universally used.” A few years later, James Montgomery said: “Bishop Ken has laid the Church of Christ under abiding obligations by his three hymns, Morning, Evening, and Midnight. Had he endowed three hospitals, he might have been less a benefactor to posterity. … The well-known doxology, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” etc., is a masterpiece at once of amplification and compression.” No one stanza of English verse has been so often, so uni­versally, and so heartily, sung in the worship of God.

Thomas Ken was a nonjuring bishop of the seventeenth century. Born July, 1637, he came upon the scene of act­ive life, in the midst of the civil conflict that rent asunder the Church and Commonwealth of Great Britain, in the days of the Great Protector. His father, Thomas Ken, was a barber-surgeon, and an attorney of Furnival’s Inn, resid­ing at Little Berkhampstead, Hertfordshire, where the son was born. His mother, Martha Chalkhill, was his father’s second wife, and he was her younger son. She died when he was four years old: and his father, ten years later. When he was in his ninth year, his elder sister, Anne, be­came the wife of the well-known Izaak Walton, who was more than forty years his senior, and became to him, after the decease of his parents, a wise and loving guardian and counselor.

At the age of thirteen, he was sent to Wykeham’s School near Winchester, then under the wardenship of that eminent Presbyterian divine, Rev. John Harris, D.D., who had just been a member of the Westminster Assembly of Divines; and, of course, had “taken the covenant.” Having become a superannuate, he left Winchester at eighteen, and, in 1656, was entered a student of Hart Hall (now Magdalen Hall), Oxford. In 1657, he was admitted Probationary Fellow of New College, as a Winchester stu­dent. The next year, Cromwell died, and Oxford speedily relapsed into its former routine, ridding itself, as speedily as it dared, of its recent Puritanism. Ken felt the re­bound, and, whatever might have been the effects of his Winchester training, graduated, B.A., May 8, 1661, a thor­ough High Churchman. Shortly after, he took orders, and became Chaplain to William Lord Maynard, Comptroller of his Majesty’s household. Maynard had been a sufferer for his loyalty, and Ken became, more than ever, under such influences, an enemy of Puritanism.

In 1663, he obtained the Rectory of Little Eaton, Essex. Morley, Izaak Walton's bosom-friend, having in 1662 been made Bishop of Winchester, a fellowship in Winchester Col­lege was given Ken in 1666, and he was, also, made the Bish­op’s domestic Chaplain, Walton having become one of the household, after his wife’s death in 1662. The following year, Bishop Morley preferred him to the Rectory of Brix­ton, Isle of Wight; June 1, 1669, he made him a Prebendary of the Cathedral at Winchester; and, shortly after, he gave him the Rectory of East Woodhay, Hampshire. All these preferments appear to have been given in return for the refuge, shelter, and comfort, accorded to Morley by Ken’s sister Anne, at her cottage near Stafford, in the days of his penury and proscription as a loyalist.

In [1674], Ken compiled and published A Manual of Prayer for the Use of the Scholars of Winchester College, and all other Devout Christians. To the edition of [1695], for the first time, his three hymns were appended. [In 1700,] being the Pope’s Jubilee, he accompanied his nephew, young Izaak Walton, to Rome and back, much to his prejudice among some of his people, who accused him of Papal partialities. In 1679, the Princess of Orange, daughter of James, the King’s brother, having desired an English chaplain to be sent to her at the Hague, Charles appointed Ken to the honorable position, having previously made him Chaplain in Ordinary to his Majesty. In Sep­tember, 1688, he accompanied Lord Dartmouth, as Chap­lain of the Fleet, to Tangier. On his return, he remained at Winchester, until the death of his great patron, Bishop Morley, in October, 1684; and, January 25, 1685, he was consecrated Bishop of Bath and Wells. Twelve days after­wards, February 6th, he stood by the bed of Charles II, as the dissolute monarch breathed his last, giving little heed to the Bishop’s pious counsel, “though the most in favor with him of all the bishops.”

The next three years were given to the spiritual care of his diocese, sadly in want of his attention; and greatly was it profited by his godly instructions and faithful labors. In May, 1688, he, with six others of the Episcopal bench, asked the King to be released from reading the Royal “Declaration for Liberty of Conscience,” and, in conse­quence, with the other six, suffered a week’s imprisonment in the Tower. But a greater trial remained. James, his Royal Master, was (January 28, 1789) deposed by Parlia­ment, and William and Mary called (February 7th) to the vacant throne. Ken, being, as Burnet says, “a man of warm imagination, at the time of the King’s first landing, declared heartily for him, and advised all the Gentlemen that he saw, to go and join with him.” But, when called to take the oaths, he declined, and eventually (February 1, 1691) was deprived of his bishopric, as a nonjuror.

He found a hearty welcome at Longleat, Wiltshire, the seat of his devoted friend and fellow-collegian, Lord Wey­mouth. At the decease (November 27, 1703) of his succes­sor, Dr. Richard Kidder, Queen Anne offered to restore him to the See, and, on his declining it, gave him a pension of £200 per annum. For twenty years he continued in his retirement, occupied in literary and benevolent pursuits, and in the cultivation of personal piety. He died, at Long­leat, March 19, 1711, and his remains were buried at Frome. He never married.

Burnet, speaking of his earlier life, says, he was “a man of an ascetic course of life, and yet of a very lively temper, but too hot and sudden. He had a very edifying way of preaching; but it was more apt to move the passions, than to instruct. So that his sermons were rather beautiful than solid; yet his way in them was very taking. The King seemed fond of him; and by him and Turner (Bishop of Ely) the Papists hoped, that great progress might be made in gaining or at least deluding the clergy.”

On the other hand, the high-church party represent him as almost a paragon of piety. The following stanza, the first of eleven, addressed to Ken, shows the ordinary esti­mate of the bishop by “Churchmen”:

Dead to all else, alive to God alone,
KEN, the confessor meek, abandons power,
Palace, and mitre, and cathedral throne,
(A shroud alone reserved), and, in the bower
Of meditation, hallows every hour
With orison, and strews, in life’s decline,
With pale hand, o’er his evening path, thy flower,
O Poetry! pouring the lay divine,
In tributary love, before Jehovah’s shrine.

Besides his Manual of Prayers, he published several Sermons and Letters; also, An Exposition of the Church Catechism (1685); Directions for Prayer (1685); and Prayers for the Use of all Persons who come to the Bath for Cure (1692). After his decease, appeared (1711) in his name, Expostulatoria; or, Com­plaints of the Church of England. His poetical works were published (1721) in 4 volumes, the only complete edi­tion. His poems are none of them of a high order. He is known generally only by his two hymns, Morning and Evening, and his incomparable doxology, attached to each of them.

It is quite certain that Ken was familiar with the writ­ings of Sir Thomas Browne, the well-known author of the “Religio Medici.” This admirable work appeared in 1642. It contains a poetical “Colloquy with God,” which has not only, as Montgomery remarked in his Christian Poet (1827), the general ideas of Bishop Ken’s Evening Hymn, but in many cases the same expressions, rhymes, and turns of thought. Sir Thomas’ hymn is subjoined, with which Ken’s may easily be compared:

A COLLOQUY WITH GOD.

The night is come. Like to the day,
Depart not thou, great God! away.
Let not my sins, black as the night,
Eclipse the lustre of thy light.
Keep still in my horizon, for to me
The sun makes not the day, but thee.
Thou, whose nature cannot sleep,
On my temples sentry keep.
Guard me ’gainst those watchful foes,
Whose eyes are open while mine close.
Let no dreams my head infest,
But such as Jacob’s temples blest.
While I do rest, my soul advance,
Make my sleep a holy trance,
That I may, my rest being wrought,
Awake unto some holy thought,
And with as active vigor run
My course, as doth the nimble sun.
Sleep is a death. Oh I make me try,
By sleeping, what it is to die;
And as gently lay my head
On my grave as now my bed.
Howe’er I rest, great God! let me
Awake again, at last, with thee;
And, thus assured, behold! I lie
Securely, or to wake or die.
These are my drowsy days. In vain
I do now wake to sleep again.
Oh! come, sweet hour I when I shall never
Sleep again, but wake forever!

Ken’s Evening Hymn contains eleven stanzas besides the doxology. The first stanza of his Morning Hymn is evi­dently an outgrowth of Browne’s. The three hymns, in full, and as written by Ken, are reproduced in Sir Roundell Palmer’s Book of Praise.

by Edwin Hatfield
The Poets of the Church (1884)


Featured Hymns:

All praise to thee, my God, this night
Awake, my soul, and with the sun
My God, now I from sleep awake

Collections of Hymns:

A Manual of Prayers for the Use of the Scholars of Winchester College

1674: PDF
1695: PDF
1709: PDF

The Works of the Right Reverend, Learned, and Pious, Thomas Ken, ed. William Hawkins (London: J. Wyat, 1721)

Volume 1: PDF
Volume 2: PDF
Volume 3: PDF
Volume 4: PDF

Related Resources:

John L. Anderdon, The Life of Thomas Ken, Bishop of Bath and Wells (London: William Pickering, 1851): PDF

Edwin Hatfield, “Thomas Ken,” Poets of the Church (NY, 1884), pp. 369-374: HathiTrust

Edward Hayes Plumptre, The Life of Thomas Ken, Bishop of Bath and Wells, 2nd ed., revised (London: Isbister & Co., 1890).

Volume 1: PDF
Volume 2: PDF

H. Leigh Bennett & George A. Crawford, “Thomas Ken,” A Dictionary of Hymnology (London, 1892), pp. 616-622: Google Books

Sheila Doyle, “Thomas Ken,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology: http://www.hymnology.co.uk/t/thomas-ken

William Marshall, “Thomas Ken (1637-1711),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:
https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/15342