It is a crisp, Autumn morning in the year 1674. An 18-year old student at Winchester College, with the rolling countryside of county Hampshire and the great Winchester Cathedral whispering to him from his window, is preparing for his day. An open pamphlet on his desk, and the words of a Morning Hymn on his lips, the devout, singing student commits his day to his Lord. Unknown to him, the last of the 14 stanzas of that hymn will go on to become, very possibly, the most-sung hymn in all of history.
A Small Man With A Big Heart
The small pamphlet on that young man’s desk was A Manual Of Prayers For The Use Of The Scholars Of Winchester College, written by curate Thomas Ken. At the time, Thomas was responsible for the spiritual formation and care of the students at the school. In the Winchester Cathedral community, he would bring his poetic and pastoral skills to bear on the shaping of the devotional lives of his young charges.
“Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow…,” the 14th stanza of the Morning Hymn begins. The lyrics are designed to be sung to the tune of the “Old 100th” – what will become one of the most widely-known melodies in all Christian worship.
Penned by French composer Louis Borgeois in long meter and included in the 1551 Pseaumes Octante Trois de David in the 2nd Genevan Psalter, the melody has staying power.
The young man in our story will most probably hum this sticky tune all through his day – automatically and meditatively reflecting on the final lyrics with which he worships each morning before class.
A Young Boy Learns To Worship
As a young boy, I had a powerful experience with what we now call the Doxology – 4 lines of verse that contend for the position of the most sung-hymn in all Christian history.
Raised in the 1960s and 70s in my small town of Middletown, Pennsylvania, my family attending a high United Methodist church in our area.
As a boy I remember being enamored with the rising architecture, winsome stained glass, and prosaic Scripture lessons spoken from a raised pulpit that seemed to qualify the communicator to shepherd our souls.
But nothing had more of a life-long, formative impact on my spirit as one, singular moment we would come to in virtually every service I ever attended. The entire liturgy, for me, was a pre-chorus to that great, glistening moment when the sea of silver hair in the room (my family and a few others withstanding) would rise to its feet, crack open their hymnals, and begin to sing.
And what particular song did they sing that became so memorable to me? With the organ stops pulled, and a master musician filling our small-town cathedral with sonic majesty, we sang the Doxology.
A Personal And Communal Anthem
And sing it, we did. It was like a sustained thunderclap in the room to my young ears, speaking of unseen powers, and this normally fidgety youngster was utterly captivated by sounds that rested on my shoulders like the majestic arms of the Mighty Jehovah Himself.
I was rapt in attention to every nuance of the experience – from the music, to the words, to the melody, to the exuberance with which the song rose from an otherwise seemingly sedentary congregation.
Now, into my 5th decade of life, I have sung my personal iteration of the doxology, Doxology Anthem (Lord We Praise You)  (which is the doxology with a repetitive chorus of “Lord, we praise You” for lingering in thanks, co-written with friend Jeremy Dunn) with literally tens of thousands of worshippers on 5 continents and from myriad countries.
And every time I sing it, it becomes more precious and more a gift than each time before. As a worship leader, it has become for me the perfect blend of both a wildly personal, and deeply communal, anthem of adoration.
A Creational Hymn For The 21st Century Mind
There are tens of thousands of hymns in Western hymnody alone (Charles Wesley wrote 8,989 of them himself), and potentially tens of more thousands of hymns and worship songs that leaders in every tradition invoke around the world today.
As a leader of corporate worship, I’ve been tempted to do the math on just how many songs are available for the singing in today’s global worship settings – but neither counting stars nor sand is my passion.
The Lyrics Of A Devotional Treasure
But why did I choose, in one season of my life, to begin every single worship set with the Doxology Anthem? Why do I go back to those same, simple words and memorable melody of the song again and again – whether I am leading the Eucharist/Communion, leading a congregation in worship, or (like Ken) leading university students in worship to prepare their hearts for a new semester?
The secret is found in the lyrics of this simple, 4-line devotional treasure:
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
[Anthem: Lord, we praise You, praise You (2x)
When Ken originally wrote the words to this final verse of both his Morning Hymn and Evening Hymn (eventually adding a Midnight Hymn as well – because everyone knows that high school age students stay up far too late), he was intentional as all poets are.
Every word in this hymn is pregnant with meaning and, when coupled with its melody, stays in the heart and mind for good.
Let’s break down each line of the song, to highlight the unique discipleship jewels it holds for the singing soul.
Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow
Praise is an enduring word that resonates with the anthropologically ancient idea that to acclaim, honor, appreciate, and celebrate an individual is to elevate their attributes for others to remark upon, emulate, replicate, and affirm as good.
When we praise God, we do as the excelsian angels did in Luke 2:14, filling the heavens with words akin to, “Glory to God in the highest….” Our inner world is righted, ordered, lined up, in accord with praising rivers, praising mountains, praising oceans, and praising trees – as we praise God (Psalm 96:12).
Praise Him, all creatures here below
Having set our posture to praise (note that the Doxology can be sung with high energy or sweet intimacy – working both ways), we are oriented to the physical, creational world all around us. The book of Genesis portrays a flourishing bounty of material creation, leaping from its stall in full, multi-sensory glory.
Sight and sound and taste and touch, and other tens of senses as neuroscience informs us, quicken to attentive perception as the blood and bone and color and light of creaturely experience shakes us with delight day in and day out.
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host
The language of “below” and “above” can throw us off here, in that looking down, then up, feels like a quite limited way to take in our surroundings. But allowing poetry to be the metaphor it prefers to be, we can embrace the idea of “above” as turning the gaze of hearts toward the heavens, or heaven (whichever we choose – both in my view), and its inhabitants.
The heavenly hosts can speak of planetary objects, galactic arenas, or multi-verse possibilities. The heavenly hosts can speak of unseen creatures, again, such as angels and archangels and seraphim and cherubim (and more in the lineup, according to Revelation 4).
Finally, the heavenly hosts could speak of those realms within a heaven worth longing for, a heavenly space where God dwells, where all is filled with living creatures in concerted praise, a time yet to come that could be beyond time, as N.T. Wright supposes, happening even now as worship pulsing with “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord; God of power and might” (Sanctus) resonates in another dimension of the most real of realities.
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost
And so we come to it, the final Trinitarian doxological silver thread, tying the lines together and committing us again to a God who cannot, and never will, be relegated to a religious box. The Trinity is disorienting, but in a continually gifting way.
We are wrested, by the doctrine of the Trinity, from our hungry theological categories, allowing God to be outside of the human boxes we construct as a controlling and defining tabernacle.
The Father, our Creator, and Life-Sustainer, Who holds all things on course and wraps His arms around all we know and do not, Who crafted the color of our eyes as surely as the aurora borealis itself, is to be praised.
The Son, our Rescuer, and Invading Life-Reclaimer, Who modelled the ways of the Father to us, Who revealed to us the mysteries of being fully human, Who was innocent and pinned to a cruel cross at the hands of scapegoat-seekers, who rose from death to sit at the hand of the Father in interminable intercession for the human family, is to be praised.
The Holy Ghost, our Comforter, our Truth-Guide, Who indwells the disciple of Jesus, Who moves in response to prayer, effecting change and making new that which Jesus has come to renew, Who advocates for us within in our own minds as we turn our face to the world, Who leads us in empowered mission to join the Son in seeking and saving what is lost (Matt. 18:11), is to be praised.
Why Is The Doxology One Of The 21st Century’s Most Powerful Anthems?
Our age is beautiful, yet ill, an ensign of a God-alive, and an augury of death-approaching. To sing praise, to acclaim, and laud, and magnify the personal, loving God who is in pursuit of every member of the human race – is to affirm the nature of reality and the remedy for the broken state of its dwellers.
- In the Doxology, we affirm a personal, living God.
- In the Doxology, we affirm that the animate world has both an origin and praising purpose.
- In the Doxology, we affirm that worlds beyond our apprehension or comprehension are united in that same essential, adoring posture.
- In the Doxology, we affirm the Father’s loving creation, the Son’s restoring acts, and the Spirit’s renewing breath.
The Doxology will remain one of the 21st century’s most powerful anthems of worship.
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This article is excerpted from my new book, The Doxology: Why The Doxology Is One Of The 21st Century’s Most Powerful Worship Anthems. If you prefer, you can purchase it here on Amazon (Kindle).
 This fictional story is based on historic elements appearing in multiple resources on Thomas Ken, the Doxology, and Winchester College.
 See Daniel Levitin’s work, This Is Your Brain On Music: The Science Of A Human Obsession, for a complete exploration of the connection between music and memorability.
 See “Where Did We Get The Doxology?” by James D. Smith III, Christian History Magazine online – http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-31/where-did-we-get-doxology.html
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