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Kaan, Frederik Hermanus [Fred] (1929–2009), Congregationalist and United Reformed minister and hymn writer, was born on 27 July 1929 in Haarlem, the Netherlands, the elder son of Hermanus Kaan and his wife, Brandina, née Prinsen. His father, an employee of the Netherlands Railways, was largely unchurched and a radical socialist. The family moved to Amersfoort and then Zeist prior to the German invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940. With astonishing courage, the Kaan family supported the resistance, stashed weapons, and hid a Jewish woman (Philine Polak) for two and a half years. During the ‘hunger winter’ of 1944–5 three of Kaan's grandparents died of starvation. These searing experiences committed him to lifelong pacifism.

Having learned English through wartime broadcasts, Kaan's first contact with England was through a pen-pal in the scouting movement. He became a member of the Netherlands Reformed church in 1947, and, though he began studying theology at the University of Utrecht in 1949, he found English Congregationalism more sympathetic. He entered Western College, part of Bristol University, in October 1952. In 1954 he married Elisabeth (Elly) Steller (1928–1993), the daughter of missionaries to the Dutch East Indies. They had three sons (the first of whom died in infancy) and one daughter.

On 6 July 1955 Fred Kaan was ordained as minister of the Congregational Church in Barry, south Wales. After a vibrant and outward-looking eight-year ministry during which his worship style and international outreach attracted the attention of BBC Wales, he became minister of the Pilgrim Church, Milehouse, Plymouth, in 1963. Supported by that adventurous congregation, he began writing hymns as an urgent form of proclamation. These were not ornamental or especially poetic but intended to raise Christian awareness in an urban setting. He wrote ‘For the healing of the nations’ to mark human rights day in 1965:
For the healing of the nations,
Lord, we pray with one accord,
for a just and equal sharing
of the things that earth affords.

All that kills abundant living,
let it from the earth be banned:
pride of status, race or schooling,
dogmas that obscure your plan.
Kaan's hymns were one of a variety of ways in which he brought immediacy to a range of social issues. He was instrumental in setting up a Shelter group in Plymouth, in response to the drama Cathy Come Home directed by Ken Loach and broadcast by the BBC in November 1966. His ‘Magnificat Now!’, provocatively set to the tune ‘O Tannenbaum’ (‘The Red Flag’), was enough of a gadfly to draw comment from Enoch Powell in the House of Commons in 1972:
He calls us to revolt and fight
With him for what is just and right
To sing and live Magnificat
In crowded street and council flat.
The impact of these first hymns was such that by 1967 he published his first collection, Pilgrim Praise, which was eagerly ransacked by hymnbook committees in the UK, Canada, and the USA. Pilgrim Praise was credited with having started the ‘hymn explosion’ of the late 1960s. Kaan's ministry in Plymouth was only for five years but was a time of great creativity.

In 1968 Kaan was appointed minister-secretary of the International Congregational Council executive committee in Geneva. In that capacity, he facilitated the union between the English Congregationalists and Presbyterians to form the United Reformed church in 1972. Subsequently, he was appointed executive secretary of the newly formed World Alliance of Reformed Churches. He was well positioned in this role to provide advocacy for persecuted Christians and those in small communities around the world. Now on a different stage, he began writing hymns for ecumenical and international occasions.

In 1978 Kaan returned from Geneva to become moderator of the West Midlands Province of the United Reformed church, based in Kenilworth. The Reformed Theological University in Debrecen honoured him with a DTheol in the same year and at a convocation in London in 1984 he was admitted to the degree of PhD by Geneva Theological College (an institution incorporated in North Carolina) for a dissertation entitled ‘Emerging language in hymnody’. In January 1986 he returned to local team ministry at the Central Church, Swindon, and became minister of Penhill United Reformed Church. Restless as ever, growing interest in feminist theology led him to rework some of his earlier hymns to make them more inclusive. He developed a greater awareness of ecology and inter-religious inclusiveness. He resigned his ministry in Swindon and Penhill in 1989 and separated from Elly Steller who died of cancer in 1993. He married Anthea Margaret Cooke, a general practitioner, in Birmingham Cathedral on 2 July 1994.

Not a musician himself, Kaan entered into long-lasting and fruitful collaborations with Doreen Potter, the Swedish hymn writer Anders Frostenson, the Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt, and the Canadian Ron Klusmeier. With Nystedt, he collaborated on Ave Christe, premiered in Ulm Cathedral, Germany, in 1991. He also collaborated on One Mighty Flowering Tree (1995), premiered in Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. This was commissioned for the seventy-fifth anniversary of Save the Children in the Nordic countries and built on a quotation from Black Elk, a holy man of the Ogala Sioux nation. In 1999 Kaan retired to the Lake District where he worshipped at the United Reformed Church in Windermere, where a fellow hymn writer, Alan Gaunt, was minister. He concentrated on writing hymns and lecturing. Further collaboration with Nystedt produced a Magnificat for a New Millennium for the world exhibition Expo 2000 in Hanover, Germany. He collaborated further with Klusmeier in presenting contemporary hymns all across Canada. After a struggle with Alzheimer's disease through which he was supported by his wife, he died of lung cancer on 4 October 2009 at Yanwath Care Home, Yanwath, Penrith. He was survived by her and three children from his first marriage. His funeral was held at Penrith United Reformed Church on 12 October.

Kaan was a creative voice in a context when public worship was becoming less formal. He delighted in the New English Bible, of which the New Testament was published in 1961. A more direct address to God was exemplified in the prayers of Michel Quoist, Alan Gaunt, and Caryl Micklem. He had significant hymn writing contemporaries, including Brian Wren, Fred Pratt Green, and Tim Dudley Smith. Though they worked independently, Erik Routley was a mentor to several. Kaan was a scrupulously honest theologian with an integrity some saw as abrasive. Some saw him as an iconoclast dismantling tradition yet his intention was to augment not to replace. Catchy language from the 1960s dated quickly, but Kaan left a remarkable legacy and his hymns were still included in early twenty-first century hymnbooks.

Iain Torrance


F. Kaan, ‘My hymn-writing journey’, The Hymn, 47/3 (July 1996), 13–20 · G. R. Warson, Healing the nations: Fred Kaan: the man and his hymns (2006) · The Times (16 Oct 2009); (19 Oct 2009) · The Independent (26 Oct 2009) · The Guardian (26 Oct 2009) · www.stainer.co.uk/kaan.html, accessed on 19 June 2012 · www.urc.org.uk, accessed on 19 June 2012 · www.penrithpenruddockurc.org.uk, accessed on 19 June 2012 · personal knowledge (2013) · private information (2013) [Anthea Kaan, widow; Ali Kaan, daughter; R. Leaver; B. Wren] · d. cert.

Wealth at death  

under £233,000: probate, 26 Jan 2010, CGPLA Eng. & Wales