Anglican Notables – Thomas Ken – 19 March

Anglican Notables – Thomas Ken (Non-Juror Bishop, Poet) – 19 March

[This is a series of biographical sketches of Anglican men and women whose lives have been exemplary in virtue and/or have made significant contributions to Anglicanism’s expression of the Gospel.  Written from the perspective of full communion with the See of St. Peter, including such papal statements as St. John Paul II’s encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, this series will occasionally acknowledge differences between Anglicans and Catholics where they exist and will do so in a spirit of charity and respect.  However, the intent is to focus less on differences than on opportunities for mutual enrichment between the Anglican and Catholic traditions and on shared spiritual treasures that already unite us.]

Thomas Ken.  Born July 1637 (Berkhamsted, England) – Died 19 March 1711 (Longleat, Wiltshire, England).  Commemorated 8 June in the Church of England, 21 March in the Episcopal Church of the United States.

Notable Works: The hymn texts, “Awake, My Soul, and with the Sun,” and “Glory to Thee, My God, This Night.”

[ Image: F. Scheffer, _Thomas Ken_ (ca. 1710) – National Portrait Gallery, London ]

Perhaps the most succinct summary of Thomas Ken’s importance is the following sentence in the “Thomas Ken” entry in the 1911 edition of _Encyclopaedia Britannica_: “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. As an ecclesiastic he was a High Churchman of the old school.”

The three hymns referred to in the Britannica 1911 entry are the poems “A Morning Hymn,” “An Evening Hymn,” and “A Midnight Hymn,” all included at the end of Ken’s _A Manual of Prayers for the Use of the Scholars of Winchester College_, first published in 1674.  The first two of these remain current in many hymnals today.  “A Morning Hymn” is sometimes divided to make two hymns, one beginning “Awake, my soul, and with the sun / thy daily stage of duty run,” the other “All praise to thee, who safe hast kept / and hast refreshed me while I slept,” (to use the version found in the 1857 edition of Ken’s Manual of Prayers).  The doxology for all three hymns, which begins “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow,” is sometimes sung as a stand-alone hymn and is perhaps known from memory by nearly every English-speaking Christian.  If only the royalties had somehow applied retroactively, Ken would not have had to rely, in the last years of his life, on the generous hospitality of his friend from college days, Lord Weymouth, who gave Ken a pension and lodgings at Longleat in Wiltshire.

But Ken seems to have been genuinely un-impressed his entire life by the glittering prizes of wealth, fame, and power, which are often attainable by currying favor with others who have wealth, fame, and/or power.  An early indication of Ken’s integrity was during his brief service, in 1679, as chaplain to Princess Mary, wife of William of Orange at the Hague.  This was well before William’s father-in-law James, Duke of York, became James II and well before William had any inkling he and his wife would become William III and Mary II.  But Ken, a mere foreign chaplain and one of High Church sensibilities in decidedly Calvinist Holland, would have kept a low profile had he been keener on politics than probity … would have done … if.  Before too long, he discovered an instance of vice in a courtier’s conduct (we are spared the details, but it had something to do with keeping promises—a preview of what lies more famously ahead in Ken’s life and legacy).  Said courtier was a relative of William of Orange, who was not amused. 

After his brief time in Holland, Ken returned to England where he became one of Charles II’s chaplains.  Resident in Winchester, Ken was asked to lodge Nell Gwyn, one of the king’s mistresses, during a royal visit.  Ken refused, and the king’s favorite had to make other plans.  Unlike William of Orange, however, Charles II apparently was amused by the reproof against court manners.  For, when the see of Bath and Wells became vacant a few years later, Charles let it be known he wanted Ken to fill the office.  “Where is the good little man that refused his lodging to poor Nell?,” he asked.

For the abridged account of Ken’s enduring importance as an example of “invincible fidelity to conscience” it is sufficient to quote again from the Britannica 1911 entry, which opens with the statement that Ken was “the most eminent of the English non-juring bishops” who refused to swear the oath of allegiance to William and Mary after James had been forced into exile in what is called the Glorious Revolution or the Revolution of 1688.  Few if any of the non-juring bishops in England or Scotland were favorably inclined towards James II.  (More on Ken’s reasons for this disinclination below.)  But they had sworn an oath of allegiance to him who, as sovereign, was regarded also as the Supreme Governor of the Church of England.  (Setting aside the fact that James II happened to be Catholic.)  All High Churchmen, the Non-Jurors maintained not only a “high” or sacerdotal view of the priesthood but also of the monarchy, which, in that era, was regarded as symbiotic with a nation’s religion.  What meaning, they claimed, could there be to an oath sworn to William and Mary, as sovereigns, if the oath made to the previous sovereign, as God’s anointed, could be discarded because of mere church-state politics?

The non-juring bishops and many clergy of the same view were deprived of their benefices, Ken among them.  As noted above, Ken fared better than some of his brother bishops since his friend, Lord Weymouth, welcomed him at Longleat in Wiltshire.  And in 1703, Queen Anne asked Ken to return to his old see of Bath and Wells, but Ken declined for reasons of health.

Further evidence of Ken’s fidelity to conscience is in the fact that he had been one of the seven bishops who opposed James II’s Declaration of Indulgence of 1687 and had been imprisoned in the Tower of London because James accused them all of seditious libel.  Ken’s insistence on the oath of allegiance was not because he and James were best of friends.  The imprisonment was relatively brief, and the controversy led to the 1688 Revolution.  Moreover, the seven bishops were regarded as heroes in some circles—some of which might not have been entirely congenial to Ken’s own political and ecclesiological views.  But again, the oath to James was an oath, regardless of the consequences.  This might be what the Britannica 1911 entry means by “a certain narrowness of view.”

The intent of James II’s 1687 Declaration of Indulgence was religious freedom in Britain.  This would have meant freedom for Catholics as well as for Non-Conformists, Quakers, and so on.  Many of us today have difficulty siding with Thomas Ken and the other bishops (including William Sancroft, Archbishop of Canterbury) on this issue.  But the church-and-state realities of that time and place present a more complex situation than at first meets the eye.  As it would have been presented during the reign of James II, his own insistence on religious freedom nonetheless left “Prerogative Royal and absolute power, which all our Subjects are to obey without Reserve” squarely in the hands of the monarch.  (Armitage 95-96, cited here).  Nor did it help matters that this was a Catholic monarch—with what might nowadays be called a convert’s zeal—who seemed all too inclined to make Catholics his favorites; and that the prerogatives and responsibilities of the Church of England were symbiotically tied to land, property, benefices, and so on, all of which could have been threatened if not dismantled by doing away with the requirement of the oath.

The opposition by Ken and others to the Act of Indulgence ends up having been, whether they appreciated it or not, a statement that Britain was not *yet* ready for religious freedom.  There is no indication Thomas Ken was well-versed in the works of Richard Hooker, who had been an eminent theologian whereas Ken would more correctly be called an eminent churchman.  But somewhere in the collective mind of the English non-jurors might well have been at least an intuitive sense that Hooker, who stood “within the medieval rationalist and realist tradition represented by Aquinas” (Kirby 31) had already laid the basis within Anglicanism for challenges to Protestant voluntarist-nominalism and to the divine right of kings.  (The Protestant court of James I had made the most striking advances [or regressions] towards the view of the divine right of kings.  But yes, Catholic monarchs soon decided they liked the idea too, Aquinas, Bellarmine, Suarez, et alii notwithstanding.)  Less than a century later, these principles, drawn from Hooker and others, were the basis of the claims for religious freedom by the American Founding Fathers.

Another un-expected consequence of the non-juring schism, in which Ken played an eminent role, was that, a little less than a century later, Samuel Seabury, the first to be consecrated bishop for the Episcopal Church in the United Stated, seems to have absorbed some of the High Church ecclesiology of the Non-Juror bishops in Scotland who consecrated him.  (The Scottish Non-Juror bishops had been defeated, in Scotland, by those favoring Calvinist/Presbyterian ecclesiology in 1689, which meant the Scottish Episcopalians, though they experienced hardships, did not have to trouble with the claims and responsibilities of being part of an established church.  This left the bishops and Samuel Seabury free of any such issues at the time of his consecration.)  Seabury, who also served as the second presiding bishop in the U. S. Episcopal Church, influenced the incorporation of more Catholic elements in the Episcopal Church’s eucharistic liturgy than was the case with England’s 1662 Prayer Book.

That Ken’s words and deeds would contribute to such unforeseen developments was something that might not have fazed him.  After all, he left himself open, in faith, to this possibility in what he suggested as a daily prayer: “Direct, control, suggest, this day / All I design, or do, or say; / That all my powers, with all their might, / In thy sole glory may unite.”

Finally, the Britannica 1911 reference to Ken being a “High Churchman of the old school” is important in light of the ever-developing discussion of what constitutes the Anglican patrimony.  (I include, below, Peter Nockles’s summary of pre-Tractarian High Churchmanship.)  As this patrimony accords with, and has been officially embraced by, the Catholic Church, it would have to include the influence of the High Church perspective in Thomas Ken’s era.  Those who regard Anglicanorum coetibus’s embrace of the Anglican patrimony as “Anglo-Catholicism” from the Oxford Movement on are ignoring or avoiding necessary developments towards Anglicanism’s nineteenth-century Catholic Revival.

The Revolution of 1688—which Ken helped usher in, regardless of how fully he knew he was doing so—had religious consequences in the form of severely diminishing the authority and status of the Church of England, its High Church wing especially.  (Bennett vii, quoted in Hylson-Smith 78).  To the extent one’s religious upbringing in the eighteenth century went beyond mere social conformity, it would have tended to accorded more fully with Anglicanism’s Protestant claims.  The young John Henry Newman and others who launched the Catholic Revival in the early 1830s at Oriel College, Oxford, had been raised in this Reformed/Evangelical emphasis.  It is easy, therefore, to dismiss the High Church current in Anglicanism up to that point as not a current but a sluggish backwater.

But John Keble, whom Newman and others regarded as the “first in the field” (Battiscombe xvi, quoted in Hylson-Smith 131) as the ideals of the Oxford Movement coalesced, had been raised in the High Church tradition.  It was this tradition, and Keble as a saintly exemplar of it, that “exercised such a great influence on the Oxford of his day [and] helped prepare the ground for the impending movement.”  (Hylson-Smith 132).  And Ken had always been one of the shining lights among the High Churchmen.  (Hylson-Smith 74).  Because the High Churchmen and Non-Jurors of Ken’s era did not “compartmentalise their beliefs and actions” so as to separate the political from the religious, and because of their “loyalty to the Reformation [and] refusal to accept doctrines such as Transubstantiation,” they would not have been entirely comfortable with the discussions in the Common Room at Oriel College in Keble’s and Newman’s day.  Yet, because of what they did profess and teach and exemplify from Anglicanism’s Catholic roots, they can be called “heralds of the Oxford movement.”  (Hylson-Smith 74).

 Br. John-Bede Pauley, O.S.B.

Peter Nockles on Pre-Tractarian High Churchmanship:

A [pre-Tractarian] High Churchman in the Church of England tended to uphold in some form the doctrine of apostolical succession as a manifestation of his strong attachment to the Church’s catholicity and apostolicity as a branch of the universal church catholic, within which he did not include those reformed bodies that had abandoned the episcopacy without any plea of necessity.  He believed in the supremacy of Holy Scripture and set varying degrees of value on the testimony of authorized standards such as the Creeds, the Prayer Book and the Catechism.  He valued the writings of the early Fathers, but more especially as witnesses and expositors of scriptural truth when a ‘catholic consent’ of them could be established.  He upheld in a qualified way the primacy of dogma and laid emphasis on the doctrine of sacramental grace, both in the eucharist and in baptism, while normally eschewing the Roman Catholic principle of ex opere operato.  He tended to cultivate a practical spirituality based on good works nourished by sacramental grace and exemplified in acts of self-denial and charity rather than on any subjective conversion experience or unruly pretended manifestations of the Holy Spirit.  He stressed the divine rather than popular basis of political allegiance and obligation.  His political principles might be classed as invariably Tory though by no means always in a narrowly political party sense, and [he held] a high view of kingship and monarchical authority.  He upheld the importance of a religious establishment but insisted also on the duty of the state as a divinely-ordained rather than merely secular entity, to protect and promote the interests of the church.”  (Nockles 26).


Armitage, David.  _British Political Thought in History, Literature and Theory, 1500-1800_.  Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Battiscombe, Georgina.  John Keble: A Study in Limitations.  Knopf, 1964

Bennett, G.V.  The Tory Crisis in Church and State 1688-1730.  Oxford University Press, 1975.

Hylson-Smith, Kenneth. _High Churchmanship in the Church of England: From the Sixteenth Century to the Late Twentieth Century_. T&T Clark, 1993.

Kirby, W. J.  “Richard Hooker’s Discourse on Natural Law in the Context of the Magisterial Reformation.”  Animus 3 (1998).  Cited by Robert Reilly, America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding.  San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2020, p. 164.

Nockles, Peter Benedict.  _The Oxford Movement in Context: Anglican High Churchmanship, 1760-1857_.  Cambridge University Press, 1994

One Comment Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s