Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
Critical Introduction by J. H. Overton
Thomas Ken (16371711)
[Thomas Ken (16371711), Bishop of Bath and Wells, was born at Great or Little Berkhampstead in July 1637. His father was a lawyer of Furnivals Inn, who married twice, Thomas being the son of the second wife. He lost both his parents while he was yet a boy, but found a home with his sister Anna, many years his senior, who had married the famous Izaak Walton. On 26th September 1651 he was elected scholar of Winchester, where he remained more than four years; in 1656 he was elected to New College, Oxford, but as there was no immediate vacancy he spent a few terms at Hart Hall before proceeding to New. In 1661 he took his B.A. degree, and became Tutor of New College. About the same time he received Holy Orders, and in 1663 was presented by Lord Maynard to the rectory of Little Easton in Essex. He resigned this living in 1665 in order to become domestic chaplain to Bishop Morley at Winchester, where he also undertook gratuitously the charge of the poor parish of St. John in the Soke. In 1666 he was elected Fellow of Winchester, and in 1667 accepted the living of Brightstone in the Isle of Wight, which he held until 1669, when he was made a Prebendary of Winchester and Rector of East Woodhay. In 1672 he resigned East Woodhay in favour of George Hooper, who was afterwards his successor at Bath and Wells, and returned to Winchester, resuming the charge of St. John in the Soke. In 1679 he went to reside at The Hague as chaplain to the Princess Mary of Orange. In 1680 he returned to Winchester, and soon became one of the Kings chaplains. It was probably in the summer of 1683 that he refused to receive Eleanor Gwynne into his prebendal house; and in the same year he went to Tangier as chaplain to Lord Dartmouth, commander of the fleet. In 1684 he was appointed Bishop of Bath and Wells by the express wish of King Charles II., who is said to have declared that no one should have the see, but the little black fellow that refused his lodging to poor Nelly. He was consecrated 25th January 1685, and in the same year he was summoned to the death-bed of King Charles, when be spoke like one inspired. He ministered to the Duke of Monmouth on the night before his execution and on the scaffold, and he interceded, not without effect, with King James, who always respected him, in behalf of the prisoners after the Battle of Sedgmoor. In 1687 he was one of the seven bishops who were committed to the Tower for refusing to oblige their clergy to read in church the Kings declaration of indulgence. After the Revolution he refused to take the oaths of allegiance and abjuration, and was deprived of his see in 1691. Henceforth he lived in poverty and retirement, chiefly at Longleat, the seat of Lord Weymouth, who was his staunch and kind friend. In 1702, Queen Anne offered to restore him to his bishopric, but his conscience would not allow him to accept it. He did not, however, sympathise with the extreme party among the Non-jurors, among whom he incurred much obloquy by making a cession of the canonical right to his see in favour of George Hooper, whom he had long known, and in whose Church principles he had the fullest confidence. He died at Longleat, 19th March 1711, and was buried beneath the east window of the parish church of Frome.]
IF this were a hagiology there would be much to be said about the saintly character of Bishop Ken; or if it were a critique on poetry the writer of the most popular hymns in the English language might claim a high place; but as a prose writer Ken holds a very subordinate position. In the first place, he would fall under the condemnation which Dr. Johnson pronounced upon Gray: he was a barren rascal. A Manual of Prayers for the use of the Winchester Scholars, an Exposition of the Church Catechism entitled The Practice of Divine Love, and three single sermons, Prayers for the use of all Persons who come to the Baths (that is Bath) for cure, with a short but interesting introduction, one or two pastoral addresses to his clergy, and a number of private letters, exhaust the list of writings in prose which are universally acknowledged to be his, though there are a few which almost certainly and a few more which possibly came from his pen. His undoubted prose works, all told, are not sufficient to fill one decently sized volume; and, such as they are, they would scarcely have attracted much attention if they had been written by any one else. It is the man who gives an interest to the writings, rather than the writings that enhance the reputation of the man. At the same time, what he has written makes us wish that he had written more. The sermons especially are the compositions of a good and effective preacher, who might with advantage have left many more to posterity. He had a wonderfully high reputation as a preacher among his contemporaries; this may no doubt be partly accounted for by the halo of sanctity which surrounded the man, and partly by the action and energy with which his sermons are said to have been delivered; but, even when read in cold blood, the three specimens still extant are not disappointing; they are lively, earnest, and written in an easy and pure style. One of his chief merits is that he never loses sight of his text, which, like Bishop Andrews, he pricks to the bone; hence a mere extract can hardly convey a fair estimate of the excellence of the whole sermon; but the one given below has an adventitious interest when read in the light of the preachers own life, which shows that he practised to the letter what he preached. His other works do not, from the nature of the case, afford scope for the writing of consecutive prose; but the short extract given will show what he might have done, and will make the reader regret that he did not do more.