While Shepherds Watched
Naham Tate [1652-1715]
"While shepherds watched their flocks by night" is one of the most enduring and popular Christmas Carols in the English speaking world. It was written by an Irish poet, Naham Tate.
Tate was born in Dublin in 1652, the son of Faithful Tate, an Irish clergyman. He graduated from the city’s Trinity College and moved to London in 1676 to write for a living. In 1692 he succeeded Thomas Shadwell as Poet Laureate. He was the sixth person to hold this prestigious position, which he held for twenty-two years.
Tate was a celebrated poet, playwright and author in his day and is probably best known for his version of Shakespeare’s King Lear. He also, in partnership with Nicholas Brady, published a New Version of the Psalms of David in 1696.
From the beginning of the 16th century Reformation until the 18th century, the singing of hymns was practically non existent in the Church of England. Congregational singing consisted of versified forms of the Book of Psalms. “The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want”, now sung to the tune Crimond, is probably one of the best known example of what became known as Metrical Psalms. The Psalter used exclusively during the first 150 years of Anglicanism was the Sternhold-Hopkins Psalter, published in 1562. It was known for its faithfulness to the original Hebrew but was rather crude and unpoetic.
So, in 1969, Tate & Brady collaborated in the publishing of a new metrical version of the Psalms more in keeping with the literary tastes of the day. At first this New Version was met with opposition from Churchgoers. Anglicans then, as today, liked what they were familiar with. But with the official endorsement of King William III the use of the New Version became more widespread and popular.
Four years after the publication of the New Version a supplement was added containing other paraphrased Psalms and six hymns. Among the latter was a hymn written for Christmas, “While shepherds watched.” This is known to have been the work of Naham Tate alone.
0In his hymn Tate did to the Christmas story what he had done to each Psalm. He paraphrased it in verse form. He used Luke’s version of the nativity of our Lord found in chapter 2, verses 8-14.
The popularity of the Carol lies in part to the Christmas story itself, but Tate must be given credit for the sensitive way he turned Luke’s prose into poetry. It’s probably the best example of Biblical paraphrasing ever written. Tate adhered closely to the Lukan text and took no undue liberties with it. He penned lines which are easy to understand and easy to sing. Until 1782 it was the only Christmas Carol officially sanctioned by the Church of England.
The hymn is almost exclusively sung to the anonymous 16th century tune “Winchester Old”. It was arranged by William H. Monk for the first edition of Hymns Ancient & Modern in 1861.
While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
All seated on the ground,
The angel of the Lord came down,
And glory shone around.
‘Fear not’ said he (for mighty dread
Had seized their troubled mind);
‘Glad tidings of great joy I bring
To you and all mankind.’
‘To you in David’s town this day
Is born of David’s line
A saviour, who is Christ the Lord;
And this shall be the sign:
The heavenly babe you there shall find
To human view displayed,
All meanly wrapped in swathing bands,
And in a manger laid.’
Thus spake the seraph and forthwith
Appeared a shining throng
Of angels praising God, who thus
Addressed their joyful song:
‘All glory be to God on high
And to the earth be peace;
Good will henceforth from heaven to men
Begin and never cease.’