If you’ve spent much time in the church, chances are you have sung “The Doxology.” But how familiar are you with what could be the most widely sung Christian hymn of all time?
First, What Is a ‘Doxology’?
The lyrics to the song most of us think of when we hear the term “doxology” are as follows:
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 this specific song has come to be known as “The Doxology,” a “doxology” actually has a broader meaning simply as “an expression of praise to God.” By this definition, many passages of the Psalms, could be considered doxologies. Just a few examples would be Psalm 96:6, Psalm 112:1, and Psalm 113:1. In the New Testament, Paul’s words in Romans 11:36, Ephesians 3:21, and 1 Timothy 1:17, could also be considered doxologies.
Notably, the word “doxology” comes from the Greek words “doxa” and “logos.” The former means “glory” and the latter means “word,” so “doxology” literally translates to “word of glory.”
Doxology and Church Tradition
Within the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions, there are specific songs that are called doxologies, in addition to the one with which most Protestants are familiar. One of these is known as “the greater doxology,” or Gloria in Excelsis, which is usually sung in Latin. In English, the Roman Catholic version reads as follows:
Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his
people on earth.
Lord God, heavenly King,
almighty God and Father,
we worship you, we give you thanks,
we praise you for your glory.
Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father,
Lord God, Lamb of God
you take away the sin of the world:
have mercy on us;
you are seated at the right hand of the Father:
receive our prayer.
For you alone are the Holy One,
you alone are the Lord,
you alone are the Most High,
with the Holy Spirit
in the glory of God the Father. Amen.
The Gloria Patri, also known as the “lesser doxology,” is used in many Christian traditions at the conclusion of singing the psalms:
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and
to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is
now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
The song we know as “The Doxology” is a “metrical doxology,” meaning it is sung in the same meter. Within the Protestant tradition, it is often sung after the last hymn of the service.
It is also worth noting the importance of the doxology within the Jewish tradition. It became a practice within Judaism to recite a doxology, or “kaddish,” at the conclusion of the main parts of a synagogue service.
Thomas Ken and the History of ‘The Doxology’
So where did the hymn, “The Doxology,” come from? It was written by a man named Thomas Ken, who was an Anglican bishop in the late 17th century and whose life was characterized by a refusal to compromise what he believed.
Born in England in 1637, Thomas Ken was orphaned at a young age and grew up living with his married sister. He was ordained around 1662, and in 1680, he was appointed royal chaplain to King Charles II.
Ken took a number of bold stands because of his beliefs. These included refusing to surrender his residence for the king’s mistress, refusing to publish documents in support of Roman Catholicism (for which he was imprisoned), and refusing to support the reign of William and Mary. For this last decision, Ken was punished by losing his bishopric. He died in poverty in 1711.
Accounts say that Ken wrote the song that was the source of “The Doxology” in 1674, publishing it later, and making final revisions to it in 1709. This song is called “Awake, my soul, and with the sun.” The very last stanza is what eventually became the brief but powerful hymn of praise to the triune God of all creation.