The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

The Shepherd's Carol

Words: William Billings (1746-1800)
from The Suffolk Harmony (1786)

Music: Shiloh by William Billings
MIDI and PDF available at Chorale Public Domain Library
Boston by William Billings
MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF
Jamaica by William Billings

1. Methinks I see an heav'nly host
Of angels on the wing
Methinks I hear their cheerful notes
So merrily they sing:

Let all your fears be banish'd hence,
Glad tidings I proclaim,
For there's a Saviour born today,
And Jesus is his name.

2. Lay down your crooks and quit your flocks,
To Bethlehem repair;
And let your wand'ring steps be squar'd
By yonder shining star.

Seek not in courts or palaces,
Nor royal curtains draw;
But search the stable, see your God
Extended on the straw.

3. Then learn from hence, ye rural Swains,
The Meekness of your God,
Who left the boundless Realms of Joy
To Ransom you with blood.

The Master of the Inn refus'd
A more commodious Place;
Ungenerous Soul of Savage Mould,
And destitute of Grace.

4. Exult ye oxen, low for joy,
Ye tenants of the stall,
Pay your obeisance, on your knees
Unanimously fall.

The royal guest you entertain
Is not of common birth,
But second to the great I Am;
The God of heav'n and earth.

5. Then suddenly a heav'nly host
Around the shepherds throng,
Exulting in the threefold God
And thus address their song.
To God the Father, Christ the Son,
And Holy Ghost ador'd;
The First and Last, the Last and First,
Eternal praise afford.


Billings assigns different verses, and sometimes phrases within verses, to various parties: 1st Shepherd, 1st Angel, Narrator, Grand Chorus, etc. The STAB Setting of Shiloh from the Choral Public Domain Library gives a good example of how this carol may be sung.

Glenn Wilcox, in Early American Christmas Music (Pacific, MO: Mel Bay Publications, 1995), notes that Billings apparently liked the first line (which was from a hymn by Watt), and so wrote the balance himself. You can get four-part settings for Boston and Jamaica from Wilcox's book.

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