This hymn was written by Nahum Tate (1652-1715) and Nicholas Brady (1659-1726).
Tate was the son of an Irish clergyman, who fancied himself a bit of a poet. The son, Nahum, became an accomplished poet, and was appointed Poet Laureate of England by King William III. He wrote not only as a poet but as a playwright, and many of his works were produced onstage. He is reputed to have been a drunkard and spendthrift who died in poverty.
Brady was an Anglican clergyman and poet who supported the Revolution of 1688, which brought King William III to the throne.
Tate and Brady collaborated on a Psalter entitled New Version of the Psalms of David, which they published in 1696 to replace an earlier Psalter that had been published by Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins in 1562. The Psalter by Tate and Brady was adopted by the Anglican Church, and endured as the standard work for the singing of psalms for more than a century.
Tate and Brady published a supplement to their Psalter in 1700. That supplement included this carol, “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks.” This carol is based, not on a psalm, but on Luke 2:8-14—Luke’s Christmas story.
The tune, “Harmonia Sacra,” is an adaptation of an aria from George Frederick Handel’s opera, Siroe.
Copyright 2008, Richard Niell Donovan