“While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks”


"While shepherds watched their flocks by night, All seated on the ground, The angel of the Lord came down" to announce the birth of Jesus. They are directed to find the child in the manger in Bethlehem


An unusual nativity hymn, in that every word of it comes from Luke, without reference to the conflicting account in Matthew. The song is essentially a paraphrase of Luke 2:8-14. It successfully nuances its way around a major variant in the text in 2:14; this is probably luck, as the inaccuracy of the Received Text and the King James Bible in this passage would not have been known in the seventeenth century.

In the Sacred Harp, this is set to the tune "Sherburne," credited to Daniel Read; the Missouri Harmony also uses this tune, though without credit.

I must admit to finding Hoagland's claim that this song is Irish rather funny. Yes, Nahum Tate was born in Dublin -- but he spent his entire working career in England, and became Poet Laureate in 1692. Apart from this song, he was most noteworthy for abusing Shakespeare, primarily by grafting happy endings onto the Tragedies. I'd have to say his place in Pope's _Dunciad_ was deserved. - RBW

Same tune

  • While Shepherds Washed Their Socks (Pankake-PHCFSB, pp. 38, 158)


  • Bodleian, Harding B 7(4), "While Shepherds Watch'd", J. Catnach (London), 1813-1838; also Harding B 7(38), Harding B 7(17), Harding B 7(35), "While Shepherds Watched"; Harding B 45(3) View 3 of 3, "While Shepherds Watch'd Their Flocks by Night"; Harding B 7(37), "Watched Their Flocks"; Douce adds. 137(51), "Christmas Hymn" ("While shepherds watch'd their flocks by night"); Douce adds. 137(45), "While Shepherds"; Firth b.26(538), [None] ("While shepherds watch'd their flocks by night"); Harding B 7(79), "While Shepherds Watch"
  • LOCSheet, sm1843 390300, "While Shepherds Watch'd Their Flocks by Night", A. Fiot (Philadelphia), 1843; also sm1880 18274, "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night!"; sm1879 16295, sm1883 22668, "While Shepherds Watched" (tune)


  1. OBC 33, "While Shepherds Watched" (1 text, 1 tune)
  2. BrownIII 611, "Mary Bowed" (1 short text, with a verse "I wonder where Sister Maryy's gone... She's gone to some new buryin' ground For to lay her feeble body down" and a second verse from "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks")
  3. ADDITIONAL: Kathleen Hoagland, editor, One Thousand Years of Irish Poetry (New York, 1947), p. 322, "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night" (1 text)
  4. Donagh MacDonagh and Lennox Robinson, _The Oxford Book of Irish Verse_ (Oxford, 1958, 1979), pp. 1-2, "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night" (1 text)
  5. Ian Bradley, _The Penguin Book of Carols_ (1999), #99, "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night" (1 text)
  6. Roud #936
  7. BI, OBC033


Author: Words: Nahum Tate (1652-1715)
Earliest date: 1696 (Tate and Brady)
Keywords: Bible Jesus religious
Found in: Britain(England)