While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks

Unless we initiate it, change is a struggle for most of us. We like things that make us feel comfortable and secure to stay the same. We embrace what has been important to us and feel offended or betrayed when attempts are made to change it. We are not the first generation to struggle with change.

The singing of hymns as we know it today was practically non-existent in England and the United States from the beginning of the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation until the dawn of the eighteenth century.[i] Prior to the eighteenth century, the only music sung in most churches was the Sternhold-Hopkins Psalter. Even though the translations of the Psalms were accurate, they were difficult and uninspiring to sing.

Near the end of the seventeenth century, Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady set out to change the culture of music in the church. In 1696, these Irishmen published a new metrical version of the Psalms that was more intelligible and singable to a modern audience. You would think that the improvement of the music would be welcomed with opened arms by parishioners who were growing increasingly dissatisfied with the traditional Psalter. You would be wrong. People clung to what they knew; change did not come easily or quickly. The people were even more resistant when Tate and Brady published a supplement that pushed the envelope to include not just versions of the Psalms but their own texts. While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks was one of the sixteen hymns they wrote for the supplement. This Christmas carol we love was rejected when it was first introduced.

Eventually the landscape of hymn-singing began to change. Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley became prolific composers of hymns that were more in the genre of Tate and Brady. It’s interesting to me that the hymns we defend from change were originally rejected as being agents of change.

We are all susceptible to be resistant to change that others are forcing on us even as we feel frustrated about others being resistant to change that we believe is necessary and important. Coming to grips with all of this is important because we worship God who about whom it is said, He does not change (Psalm 55:19) and I will tell you of new things (Isaiah 48:6). Our challenge is to cling to what is old with a sensitive grip even as we reach for what is new with a sensitive touch. Paraphrasing the words of Jesus: This kind can only happen by prayer. I hope that we are all praying!


[i] Osbeck, Kenneth W. 101 Hymn Stories. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1982.