While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks
Written By: Nahum Tate
The popular Christmas carol 'While Shepherds Watched Their
Flocks' is attributed to England's Poet Laureate, Nahum Tate. The
carol is describing the Annunciation to the Shepherds and is based
on the Gospel of Luke 2:8-14. Although composition date of this
carol is currently unknown, the carol did appear in Tate and
Nicholas Brady's 1700 supplement to their New Version of the Psalms
of David of 1696. Nahum Tate is well recognised as a lyricist as
well as an Irish hymnist. In the original wording of the title of
this song, the wording was actually 'Whilst Shepherds Watched Their
Flocks', this is a change from the modern wording of the title
where the first word is commonly seen as 'While' and not 'Whilst'.
This particular change can be seen in modern hymn books.
This Christmas carol, 'While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks' is
the only Christmas Hymn to be authorized to be sung by the Anglican
Church. As well as this it spread across the country with the Book
of Common Prayer. This was the only authorized carol as the
majority of the other carols had roots located in folk music which
were considered too secular and hence they were not sung in church
services until the end of the 18th century.
Two tunes are consistently used to accompany this carol; the
first is Winchester Old which features in the United Kingdom and
the Commonwealth countries, whereas in the United States they use a
variation on a Handel aria which was arranged by Lowell Mason (this
version is the most common version to be used within the United
States). The United Kingdom and commonwealth countries tune was
originally founded in Este's psalter The Whole Book of Psalms from
1952. It is most probable that this tune accompanied with this hymn
was first published together by William Henry Monk, and this would
have been for Hymns Ancient and Modern which was published in
As well as these two most common tunes, numerous other tunes
have also been used with this carol, such as 'Lyngham',
'Shackelford' and 'Martyrdom'. G.W. Fink also gave a version in the
nineteenth century; however, certain passages within the carol were
changed or rewritten. The Hymnal 1982 also produced a modernized
version which saw changes from the original version.
While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks Lyrics
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 Savior, who is Christ the Lord,
And this shall be the sign:
- "The heav'nly
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 on high,
Who thus addressed their song:
- "All glory be
to God on high,
And to the Earth be peace;
Good will henceforth from heav'n to men
Begin and never cease!"