Ken, Thomas


b Little Berkhamsted (formerly Berkhampstead), Herts 1637, d Longbridge Deverill nr Warminster, Wiltshire 1710/11. After the early death of both parents, Izaak Walton (author of the classic The Compleat Angler, 1653 and 1655) became his boyhood guardian, having married Thomas’s step-sister. His love of poetry and poets began early, as did his skill on the lute, spinet and organ, and his singing voice; he studied at Winchester Coll and Hart Hall (later Hertford Coll), Oxford, and was a Fellow of the strongly Puritan New College, Oxford, from 1657. Ordained in 1661, he ministered in parish life at Little Easton, Essex (from 1663), Brighstone (Isle of Wight, 1667–69) and E Woodhay (Hants, 1669–72), until returning to Winchester Coll to teach. A visit to Rome in 1675 apparently acted as a permanent inoculation against any attraction held by the Roman church; a voyage to Tangier as naval chaplain, partly in the ambivalent company of Samuel Pepys, filled him with grief at the debauchery he witnessed. As a royal chaplain in 1683 he ‘absolutely refused’ the use of his Winchester home to Charles II’s mistress Nell (Eleanor) Gwyn. Charles is quoted as saying, only half-seriously, that he would go to hear Ken ‘tell me of my faults’. The following year the king, valuing such integrity, offered him the bishopric of Bath and Wells, which he held for only 6 of his ‘middle’ years. In 1685 he wrote the warmly practical and pastoral Exposition on the Church Catechism; or, the Practice of Divine Love, which is ‘the translation of dogma into devotion’ (F A Clarke). Directions for Prayer made fewer demands on less educated readers, while Prayers for the Use of all Persons, who come to the Baths for Cure reflected the growing popularity of the notable spa town in his diocese. His special concern was for those in need of better education, health or basic justice; he helped to establish schools, libraries and infirmaries, and attended many condemned prisoners in their cells or at the gallows. From 1685 onwards he also raised support for the continental Huguenot refugees, attacking the popery which had expelled them as ‘he exhorted to constancy in the Protestant religion’, according to the diarist John Evelyn. He repeatedly opposed ‘the Romish priests and their new Trent religion’.

Having ministered (optimistically?) at King Charles’s deathbed, he then became one of the 7 bishops who disobeyed James II by refusing to read the 1687/88 Declaration of Indulgence proclaiming full liberty of worship (which they regarded as illegal), and were imprisoned in the Tower of London, tried for seditious libel and rapidly acquitted by the jury. But having sworn allegiance to James (who rated him ‘the most eloquent preacher among the Protestants of his time’—Julian) he felt painfully unable to take the coronation oath at the accession of William III (of Orange), so in 1691 was deposed from his bishopric and became known as one of the most principled ‘Non-Jurors’. He even controversially refused an offer of reinstatement on the death of his successor (or ‘supplanter’) as bishop, and lived in quiet and politically peaceable retirement, divided between friendly hosts at Longleat nr Frome and Drayton Manor in Staffs. He was able to exercise a quiet informal ministry, and became a good friend of Walter Singer of Frome and his family, including his gifted teenage daughter Elizabeth; see notes to I Watts.

In 1674 he published A Manual of Prayers for the Use of the Scholars of Winchester College, and all other devout Christians, to which his 3 hymns and the classic doxology were added in 1695. Their final revision from his hand appeared in the 1709 edn; they came to be universally admired and often printed, with doubtful authority, with the metrical Psalms added to the BCP. Throughout his adult life he would inscribe ‘All glory be to God’ at the head of every letter he wrote. 3 of his more formal sermons survive; his preaching was described as direct, attractive and moving, and Poet Laureate John Dryden is said to have modelled some of his descriptive writing on Ken’s known character. TK’s later years were overshadowed by painful illness; he devoted much of his time to writing verse, and appeared to fear the grave (in the words of his own hymn) ‘as little as [his] bed’. His will declared that ‘I die in the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Faith…more particularly I die in the communion of the Church of England, as it stands distinguished from all Papal and Puritan Innovations, and as it adheres to the doctrine of the Cross’.

In 1896 F A Clarke said that ‘Ken’s life has been written so often and so well…’; Clarke’s named predecessors include Wm Hawkins (the first) and Macaulay (‘incidentally’), J L Anderton and E H Plumptre; among his successors are H A L Rice and (in 1986) Derrick Hughes. Macaulay wrote (sadly too late for J Wesley to hear) that Ken’s character approached ‘as near as human infirmity permits to the ideal perfection of Christian virtue.’ Julian provides a very full and illuminating analysis of his work; of the 3 classic hymns, Ellerton wrote that ‘even Tate and Brady could not keep Ken out of our churches’, and as Montgomery quaintly wrote in 1825, ‘Had he endowed three hospitals [which he probably did], he might have been less a benefactor to posterity’. Clarke added, ‘The mass of Ken’s verse is entombed in four forgotten volumes; his three hymns live on the lips and in the hearts of thousands…[they] have been translated into several languages, but they seem like the sound of church bells, to belong to England’. Nos.191, 215, 223.