Quick: name the four most popular hymns in Anglicanism as measured by their inclusion in the 52 hymnbooks published around the world in the 19th century?
Rock of Ages, Cleft for Thee? Yup.
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing? Absolutely.
Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending? Check.
And All Praise to Thee, my God, This Night.
That's pretty good company to be in. But while Thomas Ken's gem is certainly lesser known, it is a remarkably profound and beautiful set of prayers designed for the eveningtime. As such, it points toward a different type of devotional spirituality than most evangelicals know, one that is rooted in the daily rhythms of morning and evening prayer.
"Devotional spirituality" is the right word there, especially for Thomas Ken. As an Anglican bishop, he was well acquainted with the structure of the Anglican liturgies. In fact, one of his major contributions to Anglican church life was an exposition on the catechism appropriately titled, The Practice of Divine Love, where the words to "All Praise to Thee" are set within guidance for how to pray throughout the day.
And it's worth noting that there are twelve verses in that version, at least five more verses than are generally sung today.
As a hymnwriter, Ken has largely been forgotten, except for one hymn which we know as the Doxology, a beautifully simplistic Trinitarian adoration that Ken found so good he stuck it at the end of many of his other hymns, including this one.
All praise to Thee, my God, this night, For all the blessings of the light! Keep me, O keep me, King of kings, Beneath Thine own almighty wings.
The hymn opens, appropriately, in praise for the day that has passed. While the lightbulb has muted our sense of the blessing of the sun, it's the first place Ken turns.
Forgive me, Lord, for Thy dear Son, The ill that I this day have done, That with the world, myself, and Thee, I, ere I sleep, at peace may be.
What started with the acknowledgment of praise turns quickly to confession. The "for" in the first line here is ambiguous, but the most natural reading is that Ken pleads forgiveness for the sake of the name of Jesus.
Teach me to live, that I may dread The grave as little as my bed. Teach me to die, that so I may Rise glorious at the judgment day.
These are provocative lines, and those rarely expressed in song any more. On the one hand, Ken pleads with the Lord to teach him to live in such a way as to be cognizant and fearful of dying. As the Psalmist puts it, "Teach me to number my days, oh Lord, that I may present unto Thee a heart of wisdom." On the other hand, we are called to die. This is the paradoxical disposition of the Christian life that going to sleep reminds us of.
O may my soul on Thee repose, And with sweet sleep mine eyelids close, Sleep that may me more vigorous make To serve my God when I awake.
The act of going to sleep is an act of relinquishment--hence, we ask that our soul may rest on God as we are replenished. But ultimately, such rest is an intermediate state, not to be pursued for its own sake, but only for the vigor and energy that it brings to live out our lives for God.
When in the night I sleepless lie, My soul with heavenly thoughts supply; Let no ill dreams disturb my rest, No powers of darkness me molest.
The experience we have of sleep is worth exploring more, but I'll simply say that I find this prayer exceedingly wise. There are dreams that can disturb rest, and praying against them is worth doing.
O when shall I, in endless day, For ever chase dark sleep away, And hymns divine with angels sing, All praise to thee, eternal King?
Ken then turns to face the end of all things, when the blessings of daylight in the first stanza never give way to the potential for dreams and darkness in the sixth stanza. How long, Oh Lord?
Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow; Praise Him, all creatures here below; Praise Him above, ye heavenly host; Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
But while we wait for the consummation of all things, we express our praise by means of exhortation: we are to praise God, the font of all blessings. We are to join with all creation in doing so. And we are to join with the heavenly choirs to orient ourselves around the blessed Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.