"While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks" (also known as "Whilst Shepherds Watched Their Flocks," "While Shepherds Watched" or "The Vision of the Shepherds") is a Christmas carol describing the Annunciation to the Shepherds, with words attributed to Irish hymnist, lyricist and England's Poet Laureate, Nahum Tate.
The exact date of Tate's composition is not known, but the words appeared in Tate and Nicholas Brady's 1700 supplement to their New Version of the Psalms of David of 1696. It was the only Christmas hymn authorized to be sung by the Anglican Church; before 1700 only the Psalms of David were permitted to be sung. It is written in common metre and based on the Gospel of Luke 2:8-14, although the gospel's "peace on earth to men of good will" is modified to the more encompassing "goodwill henceforth from heaven to men". It is the only one of the sixteen works in the 1700 supplement to still be sung today. It was published by Davies Gilbert (London, 1822), and William B. Sandys (London, 1833).
An arrangement from the 19th Century with music by G. W. Fink. Here the title is given as "While Humble Shepherds Watched Their Flocks
The title in the supplement was "Song of the Angels at the Nativity of our Blessed Saviour", but it has since become known chiefly by its opening line. In Tate's original it appeared as Whilst Shepherds Watched Their Flocks (i.e 'whilst' not 'while'). Most modern hymn books use "while".
A nineteenth century version by G.W. Fink was While humble shepherds watched their flocks and other rewritten passages (see illustration).
The Hymnal 1982 published in the US also contained a number of other modernisations, including dropping "Hallelujah" as the final line.
The hymn tune Cranbrook was written in 1805 by Canterbury shoe-maker Thomas Clark and named after the local village of Cranbrook. It was originally set to the words 'Grace 'tis a charming sound' written by Philip Doddridge but is now better known in the UK as the tune of On Ilkla Moor Baht 'at.
It was set to music in 1812 in Harmonia Sacra. David Weyman's adaptation of "Christmas", taken from an aria in the 1728 opera Siroe by George Frideric Handel was arranged by Lowell Mason in 1821, and it is now this version which is most commonly used in the USA. In the United Kingdom and Canada the standard is the alternative arrangement using the music "Winchester Old", originally from Este's psalter, the Whole Book of Psalmes, from 1592 but arranged by William Henry Monk sometime before 1874. It has been set to numerous other tunes, most commonly "Martyrdom", written by Hugh Wilson in 1800 but with an arrangement by Ralph E. Hudson from around 1885, and "Shackelford" by Frederick Henry Cheeswright from 1889. Parish organist at All Saints church, Oldham, Lancs., Robert Jackson, wrote a tune to "While Shepherds watched their flocks by night" in 1903 for the Westwood Moravian Church there. Called "Jackson's Tune" it remains popular there. In Cornwall, England the carol is popularly sung to "Lyngham", a tune usually associated with "O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing!"