A few weeks ago, I was visiting a church on a Sunday evening, and we closed the service by singing the doxology. I began singing, almost without thinking, but then I wondered, “When did I learn the doxology, and how did this short song become known as ‘the doxology’?”
I mostly grew up in Baptist churches, graduated from a Methodist college, and frequently visit a nearby Reformed Presbyterian church. In all of these, I have sung the doxology, usually either to begin or end a service. I don’t remember learning it, and assume I picked it up through repetition.
So, who wrote the doxology, where did it come from, and why do so many different denominations include it as a matter of course? And what does doxology mean anyway?
The word doxology comes from the Greek word doxologia meaning a short hymn of praise to God. Different religions have their own doxology hymns, so my search will focus on the doxology I’m familiar with which was written by the Anglican priest, Thomas Ken.
Thomas Ken was ordained in 1662 after obtaining degrees from Oxford. He would eventually serve as chaplain to Princess Mary of York, then royal chaplain to King Charles II before serving James II (who would lock Ken and six other bishops in the Tower of London for refusing to publish the king’s Declaration of Indulgences). Before his royal commissions, however, he spent ten years at Winchester College.
Ken felt it was important for his students to spend time in private worship, so in 1674 he published A Manual of Prayers For the Use of the Scholars of Winchester College. This pamphlet included two long hymns: “Awake, My Soul and with the Sun” and “Glory to Thee, My God, This Night.” Both these hymns ended with what we now sing as the doxology as their final stanza. The manual remained in private circulation as the hymns could not be sung publicly for fear of “adding to the Word.” In fact, hymns were not officially approved by the Church of England until 1820. Apparently, Ken disagreed with the thought that hymns could be dangerous as he instructed his students to “be sure to sing the Morning and Evening Hymn in your chamber devoutly.”
Skipping ahead almost two hundred years, a story from across the ocean demonstrates the power of praise through the doxology. At Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia, (a Confederate prison during the Civil War), a group of new prisoners was marched to the door about ten o’clock one night then left outside until arrangments could be made for them. In the company, was “a young Baptist minister, whose heart almost fainted when he looked on those cold walls and thought of the suffering inside. Tired and weary, he sat down, put his face in his hands, and wept. Just then a lone voice sang out from an upper window. ‘Praise God, from whom all blessings flow’; a dozen joined in the second line, more than a score in the third line, and the words, ‘Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,’ were sung by nearly all the prisoners. As the song died away on the still night, the young man arose and sang, ‘Prisons would palaces prove, If Jesus dwell with me there.'” (From One Hundred and One Hymn Stories by Carl F. Price)
That the words written by the Englishman Thomas Ken for his students in 1674 ended up on the lips of a group of Americans in the middle of a war in the nineteenth century and are now sung in countless congregations across the world amazes me. How even more remarkable is it that lines which could originally only be sung in private are now known and sung in different denominations throughout the world in public worship and praise.