1902 Encyclopedia > Thomas Ken

Thomas Ken
English cleric and hymnologist

THOMAS KEN. (1637-1711), the most eminent of the non-juring bishops, and one of the fathers of modern English hymnology, was born at Little Berkhampstead, Herts, in 1637. He was the son of Thomas Ken of Furnival's Inn, who belonged to an ancient stock,—that of the Kens of Ken Place, in Somersetshire; his mother was a daughter of the now forgotten poet, John Chalkhill, who is called by Walton an "acquaintant and friend of Edmund Spenser." It may be mentioned that Ken's step-sister, Anne, was married to Izaak Walton in 1646, a connexion which brought Ken from his boyhood under the refining influence of this gentle and devout man. In 1652 he entered Winchester College, and in 1656 became a student of Hart Hall, Oxford. He gained a fellowship at New College in 1657, and proceeded B.A. in 1661 and M. A. in 1664. He was for some time tutor of his college; but the most characteristic reminiscence of his university life is the mention made by Anthony Wood that in the musical gatherings of the time " Thomas Ken of New College, a junior, would be sometimes among them, and sing his part." Ordained in 1662, when he was twenty-five years old, he successively held the livings of Little Easton in Essex, Brighstone (sometimes called Brixton) in the Isle of Wight, and East Woodhay in Hampshire; in 1672 he resigned the last of these, and returned to Win' Chester, being by this time a prebendary of the cathedral,, and chaplain to the bishop, as well as a fellow of Win-chester College. He remained there for several years, acting as curate in one of the lowest districts, and fulfilling other duties in the city, but, above all, preparing his Manual of Prayers for the use of the Scholars of Winchester College, which was first published in 1674, and composing hymns. It was at this time that he wrote, primarily for the same body as his prayers, his morning, evening, and midnight hymns, the first two of which, beginning " Awake, my sou\, and with the sun " and " Glory to Thee, my God, this night," are now household words wherever the English tongue is spoken. The latter is often made to begin with the line " AH praise to Thee, my God, this night," but in the earlier editions over which Ken had control, the line is given as above. In 1674 Ken paid a visit to Eome in company with young Izaak Walton, and this journey seems mainly to have resulted in confirming his regard for the Anglican communion. In 1679 he was appointed by Charles II. chaplain to the Princess Mary, wife of William of Orange. While with the court at the Hague, he incurred the displeasure of William by insisting that a promise of marriage, made to an English lady of high birth by a relative of the prince, should be kept; and he therefore gladly returned to England in 1680, when he was immedi-ately appointed one of the king's chaplains. He was once more residing at Winchester in 1683 when Charles came to the city with his doubtfully composed court, and his residence was chosen as the home of Nell Gwynne; but Ken stoutly objected to this arrangement, and succeeded in making the favourite find quarters elsewhere. We find him in August of this same year accompanying Lord Dartmouth to Tangiers as chaplain to the fleet, and Pepys, who was one of the company, has left on record some quaint and kindly reminiscences of him and of his services on board. The fleet returned in April 1684, and a few months after, upon a vacancy occurring in the see of Bath and Wells, Ken, now Dr Ken, was appointed bishop. It is said that, upon the occurrence of the vacancy, Charles, mindful of the high and pure spirit he had shown at Winchester, exclaimed, " Where is the good little man that refused his lodging to poor Nell?" and determined that no other should be bishop. The consecration took place at Lambeth, January 25, 1685; and one of Ken's first duties was to attend the death-bed of Charles, where his wise and faithful ministrations won the admiration of every-body except Bishop Burnet. In this year he published his Exposition on the Church Catechism, which is perhaps better known by its sub-title, The Practice of Divine Love. His public life as bishop is mainly remembered from the stand he took upon two memorable occasions. In 1688, when James reissued his " Declaration of Indulgence," Ken was one of the " seven bishops" who refused to publish it. He was probably influenced by two con-siderations :—first, by his profound aversion to Roman Catholicism, to which he felt he would be giving some episcopal recognition by compliance; but, second and more especially, by the feeling that James by his arbitrary action was compromising the spiritual freedom of the church. Along with his six brethren, Ken was committed to the Tower, June 8, 1688, on a charge of high misdemeanour; the trial, which took place on the 29th and 30th of the month, and which resulted in a verdict of acquittal, is matter of history. With the revolution which speedily followed this impolitic trial, new troubles encountered Ken ; for, having sv/orn allegiance to James, he thought himself thereby precluded from taking the oath to William of Orange. Accordingly, he took his place among the non-jurors, and, as he stood firm to his refusal, he was, in August 1691, superseded in his bishopric by Dr Kidder, dean of Peterborough. From this time he lived mostly in retirement, finding a congenial home with Lord Weymouth, his friend from college days, at Longleat in Somersetshire ; and, though pressed to resume his diocese in 1703, upon the death of Bishop Kidder, he declined, partly on the ground of growing weakness, but partly no doubt from his love for the quiet life of devotion which he was able to lead at Longleat. His death took place there upon the 19th of March 1711.

Although Ken wrote much poetry, besides his hymns, he cannot be called a great poet; but he had that fine combination of spiritual insight and feeling with poetic taste which marks all great hymn-writers. As a hymn-writer he has had few equals in England ; it can scarcely be said that even Keble, though possessed of much rarer poetic gifts, surpassed him in his own sphere (see HYMNS, vol. xii. p. 592). In his own day he took high rank as a pulpit orator, and even royalty had to beg for a seat amongst his audiences; but his sermons are now forgotten. He lives in history, apart from his three hymns, mainly as a man of unstained purity and invincible fidelity to conscience, weak only in a certain narrowness of view which is a frequent attribute of the intense character which he pos-sessed. As an ecclesiastic he was a High Churchman of the old school.

Ken's poetical works were published in collected form by W. Hawkins, his relative and executor, in 1721, and extended to four volumes; his prose works were issued in 1838 in one volume, under the editorship of J. T. Eound. A brief memoir was prefixed by Hawkins to a selection from Ken's works which he published in 1713 ; and a life, in two volumes, by the Rev. W. L. Bowdes, appeared in 1830. But the standard biography of Ken is that of J. Lavicount Anderdon (The Life of Thomas Ken, Bishop of Bath and Wells, by a Layman, 1851; 2d ed., 1854).


This mythical personage has been photographed, see Auteurs pre-sumes de I Imitation, by Abbe Delaunay.

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