First English hymn? How far back does that go? What was the first hymn to be written in the English language? Actually, there are three possible answers to that!

1) The first hymn ever written in English is considered to be Caedmon's Hymn. Written some time between 658 and 680 AD, it has the distinction of being the earliest English literature of any kind for which we know the author. However, the language has changed so much in over a thousand years, that Caedmon's poem is unreadable today. It begins, "Nu sculon herigean heonfonrices weard," or in modern English, "Now must we praise the Keeper of heaven's kingdom."

2) The first hymn written in modern English was given to us by Thomas Ken (1637-1711). It begins, "Glory 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 problem is, Bishop Ken lived at a time when many believed only the Scriptures should be sung in church (specifically, the Psalms). He sent this hymn (and some others) to Winchester Boys School, in England, with stern instructions that the hymns should never be sung in public! Ironically, the last verse of his hymn has been sung more times in more churches than any other. The song concludes, "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."

3) Isaac Watts (1674-1748) is sometimes called the Father of English Hymnody. While still in his teens, he argued with his father that the church was missing a great deal of New Testament truth by singing only the Psalms. Finally his father said, "If you think you can write something better, go ahead and try." He did, composing a new hymn each week for a number of years. His first, and the first English hymn to actually be used in church, was prophetic in its promise of more to come. It begins "Behold, the glories of the Lamb, / Amidst His Father's throne; / Prepare new honours for His name, / And songs before unknown."