The First English Hymnist
The first known English poem is also the first known Christian hymn, written in old English in the 600s. The author’s name was Caedmon (pronounced Kad’mon).
His story is told to us by the Venerable Bede, an early English church scholar and historian who lived a hundred years afterward. According to Bede, Caedmon was born about AD 600, and he grew up to be a simple and uneducated man.
At some point, he was hired by a monastery in North England, one that looked out over the North Sea. Caedmon’s job was to take care of the horses and animals. He was a stable man. In a way, he was a shepherd like David. He tended the livestock for the monastery.
One night Caedmon joined the monks in a time of feasting, singing, and playing music. But Caedmon felt out of place because he wasn’t a musician or singer, and he didn’t know any songs. Slipping out of the gathering, he went to the barn to sleep with the animals. While sleeping he had a dream, and someone came to him asking him to sing to the One who had created all things.
Caedmon told the figure in the dream that he wasn’t a musician and couldn’t sing. But then in his dream he composed a short hymn praising God as the creator of the sun, the moon, and all things. When he arose the next morning, Caedmon remembered his song and added some additional lines to it. He mentioned it to his boss, the foreman, who immediately took him to the leader of the monastery. The monks were impressed by his story and by his song. They felt Caedmon had been commissioned by God to write songs based on Scripture and Christian doctrine.
Since Caedmon didn’t know very much Scripture or Christian doctrine, the monks began teaching him. As he learned these wonderful truths, he converted them into beautiful poems and songs of praise. These became the first English hymns ever written, to the best of our knowledge.
Late in life, Caedmon was received into the ministry. But by then he was getting old. After a long and zealous life, he realized he was dying. He asked to be moved to the abbey’s hospice where his friends gathered around him and he died in peace.
All of Caedmon’s hymns have been lost to us except one, and we have 21 ancient manuscript copies of that. It was a creation hymn. The words say:
Now we must honor the Author of the Heavenly Realm,
The might of the Creator,
And His purpose,
The work of the Father of Glory—
As He, who, the almighty Guardian of the human race,
Is the eternal God,
The author of all miracles,
Who first created the heavens as the highest roof for the children of men,
Then the earth.
We cannot be certain this history is correct, but it wouldn’t surprise me. God uses the most ordinary of people to do the most extraordinary of things. It’s not the great and mighty; it’s the simple and humble who do the most for the Lord.
Why should we wonder that a simple stableman should become a historic hymnist for the Master?