The King of Love My Shepherd Is


LIKE a lot of hymns, this one has taken a circuitous journey to the present day.

It is based on a translation into Welsh of Psalm 23, The Lord is My Shepherd. This was made by Edmwnd Prys (c 1542-1623), a Welsh clergyman and poet. He studied at St John’s College, Cambridge, and took an active part in Welsh bardic life. He engaged in duels of satiric verse, one such contest lasting for 54 poems, at which point Prys’s adversary died.

Prys made his name with his translations of the Psalms into Welsh verse suitable for congregational singing. At some stage the Welsh words were translated into English.

In 1868 these words were turned into a hymn by Sir Henry Williams Baker (1821-1877), a hereditary baronet and son of a vice-admiral. He was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating and taking holy orders in 1844. In 1851 he became vicar of Monkland near Leominster, Herefordshire, a parish close to the Welsh border.
He built the first village school, which opened in 1853 to provide free education for all the children of the parish, totalling about 50 in the 1870s. Baker also built himself a vicarage at his own expense in 1862, the previous incumbent having been an absentee vicar.

He was a major name in the hymnody world, and was the first editor of Hymns Ancient and Modern, published in 1861. He contributed many original hymns, plus several translations of Latin hymns. He encouraged many others to compose for the publication, but he often edited their efforts fairly freely, which gave rise to the hymnbook’s early nickname of ‘Hymns Asked For and Mutilated’. An innovative feature of this hymnal was the printing of text and tune for each hymn on the same page. In 1868 an appendix to the collection was issued, and this contained The King of Love My Shepherd Is. These are the words:

1 The King of love my shepherd is,
whose goodness faileth never.
I nothing lack if I am his,
and he is mine for ever.

2 Where streams of living water flow,
my ransomed soul he leadeth;
and where the verdant pastures grow,
with food celestial feedeth.

3 Perverse and foolish, oft I strayed,
but yet in love he sought me;
and on his shoulder gently laid,
and home, rejoicing, brought me.

4 In death’s dark vale I fear no ill,
with thee, dear Lord, beside me;
thy rod and staff my comfort still,
thy cross before to guide me.

5 Thou spreadst a table in my sight;
thy unction grace bestoweth;
and oh, what transport of delight
from thy pure chalice floweth!

6 And so through all the length of days,
thy goodness faileth never;
Good Shepherd, may I sing thy praise
within thy house forever.

In his 1907 Dictionary of Hymnology, John Julian wrote: ‘Of [Baker’s] hymns four only are in the highest strains of jubilation, another four are bright and cheerful, and the remainder are very tender, but exceedingly plaintive, sometimes even to sadness. Even those which at first seem bright and cheerful have an undertone of plaintiveness, and leave a dreamy sadness upon the spirit of the singer . . . if a subject presented itself to his mind with striking contrasts of lights and shadows, he almost invariably sought shelter in the shadows.’

Among Baker’s other works was Daily Prayers for the Use of Those who have to Work Hard.

He held to the doctrine of the celibacy of the clergy, and his sister Jessy was his housekeeper.

He died on 12 February 1877, aged 55, at the vicarage of Monkland. His good friend, the prolific hymn writer Rev John Ellerton (1826-1893) who had worked with him on Hymns Ancient and Modern, was with him. Ellerton reported that Baker’s last words were from The King of Love My Shepherd Is:

‘Perverse and foolish, oft I strayed,
but yet in love he sought me;
and on his shoulder gently laid,
and home, rejoicing, brought me.’

Baker was buried in the Monkland churchyard. Superimposed on the cross that marks his grave is the image of the Good Shepherd, carrying a sheep upon his shoulders. His sister was buried with him when she died.

The tune for The King of Love My Shepherd Is was written specifically for it by Baker’s friend, the great hymn writer John Bacchus Dykes, who was a musical editor on Hymns Ancient and Modern. He called it Dominus Regit Me, the title of Psalm 23 in the Latin translation.

It was sung at the funeral of Princess Diana in Westminster Abbey on Saturday 6 September 1997.

When he was preparing The English Hymnal of 1906, editor Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) sought permission to republish The King of Love My Shepherd Is, but for some reason he was refused the right to use Dykes’s tune. So he paired the words with his own arrangement of an Irish folk tune, St Columba, which had been collected by Charles Villers Stanford (1852-1924). This is often now the preferred tune, particularly in the USA.

Here it is sung by a New York congregation. 

I think this version by Brigham Young University brings out the Irishness beautifully.

Another tune was written by the French composer Charles Gounod (1818-1893). This is not the most perfect rendition but I love to see young people singing classical melodies.

Finally, while searching YouTube I came across another beautiful setting. It took me an age to track it down to American composer Harry Rowe Shelley (1858-1947). He wrote it in 1886.

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