While shepherds watched their flocks

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While shepherds watched their flocks by night, All seated on the ground

Author: Nahum Tate (1700)
Scripture Songs
Published in 1083 hymnals

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Representative Text

1 While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
all seated on the ground,
an angel of the Lord came down,
and glory shone around.

2 "Fear not," said he for mighty dread
had seized their troubled mind
"glad tidings of great joy I bring
to you and all mankind.

3 "To you, in David's town, this day
is born of David's line
a Savior, who is Christ the Lord;
and this shall be the sign:

4 "The heavenly babe you there shall find
to human view displayed,
all simply wrapped in swaddling clothes
and in a manger laid."

5 Thus spoke the angel. Suddenly
appeared a shining throng
of angels praising God, who thus
addressed their joyful song:

6 "All glory be to God on high,
and to the earth be peace;
to those on whom his favor rests
goodwill shall never cease."

Psalter Hymnal, 1987

Author: Nahum Tate

Nahum Tate was born in Dublin and graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, B.A. 1672. He lacked great talent but wrote much for the stage, adapting other men's work, really successful only in a version of King Lear. Although he collaborated with Dryden on several occasions, he was never fully in step with the intellectual life of his times, and spent most of his life in a futile pursuit of popular favor. Nonetheless, he was appointed poet laureate in 1692 and royal historiographer in 1702. He is now known only for the New Version of the Psalms of David, 1696, which he produced in collaboration with Nicholas Brady. Poverty stricken throughout much of his life, he died in the Mint at Southwark, where he had taken refuge from his creditors… Go to person page >


Scripture References:
st. 1 = Luke 2:8-9
st. 2 = Luke 2:9-10
st. 3 = Luke 2:11-12
st. 4 = Luke 2:12
st. 5 = Luke 2:13
st. 6 = Luke 2:14

The story of the shepherds and the angels is told in this famous paraphrase of Luke 2:8-14 by Nahum Tate (b. Dublin, Ireland, 1652; d. Southwark, London, England, 1715). It was first published in 1700 in a supplement to the New Version of the Psalms by Tate and Nicholas Brady. Tate's straightforward telling of the nativity story is an example of paraphrasing at its best: poetry that conveys the text well without undue liberties or additions and is easy to understand and sing. Adopted by virtually all hymnals since its writing, this narrative song simply tells the Christmas gospel as the shepherds heard it. A similarly narrative song based on the same gospel text is at 339.

Although born in Ireland, Tate spent all of his adult life in London, where he was known primarily as a playwright and poet. Most of his dramas were not original plays but adaptations of the works of others. Honored by being named poet laureate in 1692, Tate wrote poetry celebrating important national events. He was also appointed the official royal historian in 1702. Intemperate throughout his life, Tate died while living at the Suffolk House, a refuge for debtors in London, In the history of church music Tate and Brady are known for their New Version (1696), which replaced the "Old Version" of Sternhold and Hopkins published by John Day in 1562. Reprinted frequently and supplemented with some hymns, the new versification became the standard psalter of the Church of England and influenced psalmody well into the nineteenth century.

Liturgical Use:
Christmas; stanza 5 makes an excellent doxology for the two Sundays following Christmas.

--Psalter Hymnal Handbook


While shepherds watched their flocks by night. N. Tate. [Christmas.] Appeared in the Supplement to the New Version, in 1702, in 6 stanzas of 4 lines, and in all later editions of the same. In full, or in an abbreviated form, it is found in most hymn-books in English-speaking countries. Original text in the Hymnal Companion. In addition to the original, two additional versions are in common use:—
1. While humble Shepherds watched their flocks. This was given in the 1745 Draft of the Scottish Translations and Paraphrases, the opening stanza reading:—

"While humble Shepherds watch'd their Flocks
in Bethleh'ms Plains by Night,
An Angel sent from Heav'n appear'd
and fill'd the Plains with Light."

The alterations were confined to this stanza. On its adoption in the revised Draft of 1751, and again in the authorized issue of the Translations and Paraphrases, 1781, the concluding lines of the last stanza read:—

Goodwill is shewn by Heav'n to men,
and never more shall cease."

This arrangement of the text has been in common use for more than 100 years.
2. On Judah's plains as Shepherds kept. This is found in one or two American collections only.
The original has been translated into several languages. Those in Latin include; (1) "Pastorum in pecudes noctu vigilante catervâ," by Lord Lyttelton, 1866; and (2) "Noctivagos. acclinis humo, pastoria pubes," by C. S. Calverley, both in L. C. Biggs's annotated edition of Hymns Ancient & Modern, 1867; (3) "Oves dum custodientes," by R. Bingham, in his Hymnologia Christiana Latina, 1871; and (4) "Pro grege Pastores vigilabant nocte silenti," by Bishop Wordsworth (St. Andrews) in his Series Collectarum, &c, 1890.

--John Julian, Dictionary of Hymnology (1907)



The tune is based on the the beginning of the soprano aria "Non vi piacque ingiusti dei" from the opera "Siroe"

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WINCHESTER OLD is a famous common-meter psalm tune, presumably arranged by George Kirbye (b. Suffolk, England, c. 1560; d. Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, England, 1634) from a melody in Christopher Tye's Acts of the Apostles and published in T. Este's The Whole Book of Psalmes (1592) set to Psalm 84. Ki…

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