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Updated 01/24/2020


While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks

“While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks” was written by Nahum Tate. Tate was born in Dublin and graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, B.A. 1672. He lacked great talent but wrote much for the stage, adapting other men's work, really successful only in a version of King Lear. Although he collaborated with Dryden on several occasions, he was never fully in step with the intellectual life of his times, and spent most of his life in a futile pursuit of popular favor. Nonetheless, he was appointed poet laureate in 1692 and royal historiographer in 1702. He is now known only for the New Version of the Psalms of David, 1696, which he produced in collaboration with Nicholas Brady. Poverty stricken throughout much of his life, he died in the Mint at Southwark, where he had taken refuge from his creditors, on August 12, 1715.

David Weyman's adaptation of "Christmas", taken from an aria in the 1728 opera Siroe by George Frideric Handel was arranged by Lowell Mason in 1821, and it is now this version which is most commonly used in the United States. The Hymnal Committee of the United Methodist Church, for example, selected "Christmas" for its current hymnal, published in 1989, after the previous 1966 edition had used "Winchester Old". The Presbyterian Hymnal (1990) and the more recent Glory to God hymnal published in 2013 by the Presbyterian Church (USA) include both the "Winchester Old" and "Christmas" versions, while the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 has "Winchester Old" and an alternate tune, "Hampton", composed by McNeil Robinson in 1985.


Lyrics by Nahum Tate

  While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
all seated on the ground,
an 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 heavenly babe you there shall find
to human view displayed,
all simply wrapped in swaddling clothes
and in a manger laid."

Thus spoke the angel. Suddenly
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;
to those on whom his favor rests
goodwill shall never cease."