Call To Worship
O Little Town of Bethlehem: 490 (V1, V2, V4)
Many hymns that were written originally for children have captured the imagination of everyone. Such is the case with “O little town of Bethlehem.”
Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) wrote this beloved Christmas hymn for the Sunday school children at his Philadelphia parish, Holy Trinity Church, following a pilgrimage to Bethlehem in 1865, according to British hymnologist J. R. Watson. The hymn was printed on an informal leaflet in December 1868 and then appeared in The Sunday School Hymnal in 1871.
In the United States, the hymn is generally sung to its original tune, ST. LOUIS by Louis H. Redner (1931-1908), a wealthy real estate broker who served as a church organist for his avocation. UM Hymnal editor Carlton Young notes that Redner “increased Sunday school attendance at Holy Trinity Episcopal, where Phillips Brooks was rector, from thirty-six to over one thousand during his nineteen years as superintendent.”
According to the story, Brooks traveled on horseback between Jerusalem and Bethlehem on Christmas Eve.
“Before dark we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star. It is a fenced piece of ground with a cave in it, in which, strangely enough, they put the shepherds. . . . Somewhere in those fields we rode through, the shepherds must have been. As we passed, the shepherds were still ‘keeping watch over their flocks,’ or leading them home to fold.”
Brooks participated in the Christmas Eve service, writes hymnologist Albert Bailey, “conducted in . . . Constantine’s ancient basilica (326 A.D.) built over the traditional site of the Nativity, a cave. The service lasted from 10 P.M. to 3 A.M.!” This sequence of events provided the backdrop for Brooks’ children’s hymn.
Welcome and Opening Prayer
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear: 338 (V1, V2, V4)
This may be the only commonly sung Christmas carol in our hymnals that does not mention the birth of Christ! The focus is rather on the song of the angels, “Peace on the earth, good will to men,” taken from Luke 2:14.
The historical context sheds some light. Massachusetts native Edmund Hamilton Sears (1810-1876) earned a degree from Harvard Divinity School and was ordained a Unitarian minister in 1839, serving congregations throughout Massachusetts.
As UM Hymnal editor Carlton Young puts it so well, the “hymn’s central theme contrasts the scourge of war with the song of the angels’ ‘peace to God’s people on earth.’” He observes that this is one of the earliest social gospel hymns written in the U.S.
The movement gathered strength as the 20th century approached, influenced by the writings of Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) and hymns such as Washington Gladden’s “O Master, let me walk with thee” (1879) and Frank Mason North’s “Where cross the crowded ways of life” (1903).
Sears’ context was the social strife that plagued the country as the Civil War approached. This hymn comes from a Boston publication, Christian Register, published on Dec. 29, 1849. The original stanza three, missing from our hymnals, sheds light on the poet’s concerns about the social situation in the U.S. in the mid-19th century:
“But with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song, which they bring:
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing!”
Silent Night: 577 (V1, V2, V3)
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Hark! The Herald Angels Sing: 202
The opening lines of this favorite Christmas hymn echo Luke 2:14, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace. . .” (KJV). Immediately, the hymn writer established a cosmic connection between the heavenly chorus and our hope for peace on earth. While many Christmas carols recount in one way or another the Christmas narrative, Wesley provides a dense theological interpretation of the Incarnation.
Wesley begins not with the prophets, the Annunciation to Mary, the journey to Bethlehem or the search for a room, but in media res – in the middle of the action. Rather than citing the final phrase of Luke 2:14 – “good will toward men” (KJV) – he offers his theological interpretation – “God and sinners reconciled.” This is indeed a stronger theological statement. Note that lines 2, 3, and 4 of the opening stanza are placed in quotation marks, an indication that they are virtually citations from Scripture. Wesley includes his theological interpretation of the last poetic line within the quoted material indicating the strength and authority of his perspective.
“God and sinners reconciled” was a natural interpretation since the hymn was written within a year of Charles Wesley’s conversion. It first was published under the title “Hymn for Christmas Day” in Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739) in ten shorter stanzas, each stanza half the length of the stanzas we sing today. The hymn that we now sing is the result of many alterations by numerous individuals and hymnal editorial committees.
Changes in hymn texts are quite common. The average singer on Sunday morning would be amazed (or perhaps chagrined) to realize how few hymns before the twentieth century in our hymnals appear exactly in their original form. Perhaps the most notable change in this hymn was Wesley’s first line. The original read, “Hark how all the welkin rings!” “Welkin” is an archaic English term referring to the sky or the firmament of the heavens, even the highest celestial sphere of the angels. This term certainly supported the common eighteenth-century notion of the three-tiered universe, where the top tier includes the celestial beings, the lowest tier the normal activities of humanity (birth, death, marriage, work, sickness) and the natural created order (rain, drought, natural disasters), and the middle tier where celestial beings influence the activities of beings and events on earth with their superhuman powers.
Gratefully, George Whitefield (1740-1770), a powerful preacher and friend to the Wesley brothers, made several changes to this hymn in his Collection (1753). He eschewed the original first line for the scriptural dialogue between heaven and earth. Wesley scholar and professor at Perkins School of Theology, Dr. Ted Campbell, comments on Whitefield’s modification of the first line with his characteristic humor: “I have wondered if anybody but Charles knew what a welkin was supposed to be. Maybe John looked at the draft version and said, ‘It’s ever so lovely, Charles, but whatever on earth is a ‘welkin’?’ So, all the more reason to give thanks for the editorial work of George Whitefield.”
The familiar first line we now sing sets up the opening stanza as an expansion of the song of the angels in Luke 2:14. Rather than exerting influence in the form of spirits, demons, or other beings said to inhabit the middle zone of the three-tiered universe, God, through the Incarnation, comes directly to earth in human form, the “Word made flesh . . . [dwelling] among us . . . full of grace and truth” (John 1:14, KJV). The change in the opening line is perhaps the most significant alteration of the many that have taken place in this hymn over the centuries.
The second most significant change from the original is the addition of the refrain, reiterating the first phrase of Luke 2:14. This came about for musical reasons. Almost exactly 100 years after the hymn’s composition, Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) composed a cantata, Festgesang (1840), celebrating the 400th anniversary of the invention of moveable type by Johannes Gutenberg. A chorus from this cantata was adapted and paired with Wesley’s text in The Congregational Psalmist (1858) by an English musician and singer under Mendelssohn, William H. Cummings (1831-1915). A famous and influential hymn collection, Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861), carried this arrangement and helped to standardize its form and promote its broader use. Pairing the tune MENDELSSOHN with Wesley’s text caused two additional changes from the original. Two of Wesley’s short stanzas were combined into one to fit the longer tune; a refrain, repeating the first two lines of stanza one, was added to accommodate the tune. There is no doubt that most of the alterations to Wesley’s original text combined with Mendelssohn’s rousing tune have helped to make this one of the most festive and popular of all Christmas hymns.
O Come , All Ye Faithful: 464
This favorite Christmas hymn appears to be the result of a collaboration of several people. What we sing is a 19th-century version of a hymn written in the 18th century.
The Latin text comes from the Roman Catholic tradition, found in an 18th-century manuscript in the College at Douai. The college was located in northern France beginning around 1561 and continuing until it was suppressed in 1793. The college was exiled to England at the time of the French Revolution (1789-99).
One possibility is that John Francis Wade (c.1711-1786) was an English musician at the college. Methodist hymnologist Fred Gealy notes: “Seven manuscripts containing the Latin hymn are known; they are dated 1743-61. All appear to have been written, signed, and dated by John Francis Wade, an Englishman who made his living by copying and selling plainchant and other music.”
Research by Dom John Stéphan, author of The Adeste Fidelis: A Study of Its Origin and Development (1947), has determined that the first and original manuscript was dated in 1743, indicating that Wade composed both the Latin words and the music between 1740 and 1743.
The English language translation of stanzas one, two, three and six is the work of Frederick Oakeley (1802-1880), a translator of Latin hymns during the Oxford movement who worked closely with Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890), a leader in the movement. Oakeley became a Roman Catholic and was known for his ministry to the poor at Westminster Abbey. Oakeley’s stanzas, penned in 1841, first appeared in F.H. Murray’s Hymnal for Use in the English Church (1852) under the title “Let us go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass.” (Luke 2:15)
Abbé Etienne Jean François Borderies (1764-1832), who was inspired upon hearing the hymn, translated three additional stanzas, of which four and five are included in the UM Hymnal, to fill out the Christmas story. Other versions and many alterations exist as well.
The invitation to “come, all ye faithful, . . . to Bethlehem” places the singer both among the shepherds who rushed to see the Christ child, and in the long procession of the “faithful” that have journeyed to Bethlehem in their hearts for over 2,000 years.