Stories Behind the Carols (#2)

Today’s Christmas Carol is “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night.”

(again, these are small excerpts from this particular chapter- to read the whole story pick up a copy of the book–for free for a limited time if you have a Kindle)

Most people take it for granted that Christmas carols will be sung in church at every service between Thanksgiving and December 25.  Parishioners everywhere seem to believe that these familiar songs of the season have been part of worship services since the earliest days of the Christian church.  Yet in truth, the Church of England, as well as most Protestant churches in England and America, ignored almost all Christmas music until the middle of the nineteenth century.  So in historical terms many denominations in general have only recently allowed songs other than those taken directly from the biblical book of Psalms to be used for sanctioned services.

Nahum Tate, born in Dublin in 1652, and is best known for adapting Shakespeare’s King Lear to have a happy ending instead of the tragedy that Shakespear wrote.  If Nahum had started and ended his literary life with the theatrical experiment of King Lear, then the world would have been denied one of its most beautiful pieces of holiday prose, and Christmas carols might never have found their way into the church.  He became so beloved throughout the British Empire for his wide range of literary works that in 1692 he became poet laureate, a position he held for the next 22 years.

Serious Christian poets of the era devoted their biblical study to verses of the Old Testament.  The ancient “songs” or “poems” found in these pages were used by the church as the basis for worship music.  The only way a writer could land his concepts of faith in a hymnal was to use one of the works of David as inspiration.

In 1696, the poet Nahum Tate developed a metrical version of the book of Psalms.  His goal had been not to change any of the original meanings of the verses, but to update them in a way that would make them easier to use in modern song worship.  But he opted to march beyond Psalms.  In fact, he didn’t stop exploring until he got to the New Testament and the events surrounding the birth of Jesus, particularly drawn to Luke 2:8-14.  He felt the passage offered real understanding of the way even common people could respond to God’s call and accomplish wonderful things.  The poet must have also sensed a commonality to these verses and many of those found in Psalms.  The theme of the shepherd and the sheep was one that was echoed throughout the Old Testament.  The fact that God had invited these humble field workers to share the joy of Christ’s birth must have overwhelmed Tate, the most incredible birthday party invitation ever issued.  Yet there was more- these men accepted God’s challenge and went to the stable.  Though they had every reason not to, they gave up everything to follow the Lord’s lead.  He was determined to create a new song, all the while knowing the Church of England would have no part of it when he finished.  He dropped it into this book of Psalms and passed it on to the Anglican priests in charge of publishing new hymnals.

They could not have been more shocked if Moses had reappeared, came down from the mount a second time, and announced a revision to the Ten Commandments.  If the church leaders allowed Tate’s work to pass muster, then they were opening the door for other writers to create original hymns not based on the Psalms.

BUT, but…the leaders of the Anglican Church also realized Tate was the nation’s poet laureate.  As such, he had the power of the royalty behind him.  So rather than anger Queen Anne, the church allowed “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night” to be included. [in Chinese we call this guanxi :)]  Thanks in large part to his friends in high places, Tate’s work would become the first Christmas-inspired song to appear in the Anglican hymnal.

However, church leaders remained unconvinced that anyone but Tate could create a Christmas hymn worthy of including in worship services.  It was to be another eighty years before another new holiday work, “Angels from the Realms of Glory,” followed “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night” and found acceptance in official church psalters, what most know today as hymnals.  It would be another seven decades before the musical Christmas revolution was complete and Protestant churches in England and America really warmed up to singing carols in houses of worship.


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