O come, all ye faithful,
Joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem.
Come and behold Him,
Born the King of Angels;
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord.
I apologize in advance for the length of this article. But what can I say, I found the research fascinating! So without further ado, here is a blog post dedicated entirely to the history, musicality, and theology of O Come, All Ye Faithful!
O Come, All Ye Faithful is a beautiful heraldic song that stirs the hearts of carolers and listeners alike. The lyrics and music work in tandem to draw the worshiper into a state of simultaneous jubilation and humiliation (in the original sense of being humbled). Hence the words “joyful and triumphant” paired with reverent worship in “let us adore Him.”
Much like O Come, O Come Emmanuel, O Come, All Ye Faithful contains many characteristics of the Psalms, especially Psalm 96. That particular psalm resounds with invocations to “sing,” “proclaim,” “declare,” “ascribe,” “worship,” “tremble,” “say,” and “rejoice.” Both O Come, All Ye Faithful and Psalm 96 invite the congregation to praise and adore the Lord, as an overflow of joy and gratitude for who He is and what He has done.
On that note, it is important to understand that O Come, All Ye Faithful is a congregational Christmas carol, but we will address that later in the article, as well as comparing the hymn to various psalms in an effort to understand its theology and symbolism.
First, let us consider the history and origin of this beautiful carol.
History of the Hymn
One of the most popular Christmas hymns, O Come, All Ye Faithful has its roots in another immensely popular Christmas carol, Adeste Fideles, to the tune of which it provides English lyrics. Often featured as the final hymn in Christmas Eve services, the carol’s popularity has earned it the name, “The International Carol.”
Where did this widely known carol originate?
Until 1947, people disputed the origins of Adeste Fideles, when it was finally established that both the music and the Latin words of the four verses were composed by John Francis Wade (1711 – 1786). Wade was an Englishman, originally from Lancashire, who lived in the Roman Catholic College at Douai, located in Northern France since 1561. The College was exiled to England during the French Revolution, which explains how the hymn came to London.
One primary reason many hesitated to confer authorship to Wade was due to his career as a music copyist (before the printing press, music copyists would, as the name suggests, copy or reproduce sheet music). Wade made a living by copying and selling plainchant and other music.
Other candidates for potential authorship included Saint Bonaventure, born Giovanni di Fidanza, who was an Italian medieval Franciscan, scholastic theologian and philosopher; John Redding, an English organist; and various other individuals of German and Portuguese nationality. Even today, some maintain that the song does originate from a Portuguese source given their role in popularizing the Christmas hymn.
The tune ‘Adeste Fideles’ is usually attributed to Samuel Webbe, and dated to 1782, but it has also been ascribed to Wade himself or to the French composer Charles Favart.
Adeste Fideles first appeared in London around 1782, although it appeared 22 years earlier in France, without the musical accompaniment, in ‘Cantus Diversi.’ Some have suggested that the song may have incidentally served as a coded rallying cry for the Steward Cause. But the carol truly became popular following its 1795 appearance at the Portuguese London Embassy.
People began translating the Christmas carol in 1789. Early versions open, “Come, faithful all, rejoice and sing.” The translation we know today as O Come, All Ye Faithful, was the product of Reverend Frederick Oakeley, an Anglican priest in London (1802-1880). Rev. Oakeley was 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’s first attempt at translation rendered the initial phrase, “Ye Faithful, approach ye.” He completed translating the hymn in 1841, when it appeared as the first song at Margaret Chapel, Marylebone, London. Notably, the song did not gain popularity until 1845, when Oakeley converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, due to criticism of his preaching style by the Anglican Church.
In 1852, O Come, All Ye Faithful was published, in English, in F. H. Murray’s Hymnal for Use in the English Church (1852), entitled, “Let us go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass.” (Luke 2:15)
You will often find Oakeley’s three verses paired with the translated verses of William Brooke (1848-1917), including an additional verse written by Oakeley himself, to make up a total of seven verses for the song. Brooke was another convert, but this time from Baptism to the Church of England (Anglicanism). Verses by Oakeley make up the first, second, sixth, and seventh verses of this expanded version, which appeared in the Altar Hymnal of 1884.
Despite the addition of verses by Brooke, the English carol contains one less verse than the original Adeste Fideles.
Today, Oakeley’s 1852 translation remains the most popular version of the carol, but there are over 50 complete translations available; in fact, there were 38 translations of the hymn by 1892 alone, when John Julian published the Dictionary of Hymnology.
Musicality of the Hymn
The music for Adeste Fidelis, and simultaneously O Come, All Ye Faithful, is very similar to that of Charles Simon Favart’s Le Comte d’Acajou, and thus, it is not clear whether Wade is borrowing or parodying it, or if Favart borrowed from Wade. Perhaps both artists were inspired by other composers; George Frederick Handel and Thomas Arne, whom Wade himself knew, have been suggested.
The tune for the hymn is not unique to the carol. In fact, it was widely used for various psalms and hymns in both Catholic and Protestant congregations in England, from its first published appearance in the country in the 1782 “An Essay on Church Plainchant.” For example, Psalm 104 and John Newton’s Begone, Unbelief, are both sung to the same melody.
Until recently, O Come, All Ye Faithful, had maintained its traditional musicality; a timing of double or triple time, stately chords, jubilant qualities. Even modern spins on the song generally keep the original melody, occasionally spicing it up with urban/R&B pop or South African vibes. Nevertheless, the more timeless Christmas classics (hence, ‘classics’) maintain the hymn’s soaring notes and harmonious anthem. Quality examples include Frank Sinatra, John Michael Talbot’s pairing of the carol with Angels We Have Heard On
Theology of the Hymn
As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, O Come, All Ye Faithful, possesses many psalmic qualities and is heavily rooted in biblical theology and the Christian worldview. Let’s take it verse by verse and consider the meaning and implications of the lyrics (i.e., what does this hymn actually mean?).
To start, the carol opens with the invitation to “come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, to Bethlehem.” It places the singer(s) both in the midst of the shepherds who rushed to see and worship the Christ Child on that night long ago, and also in the long procession of the faithful men and women who have journeyed to Bethlehem, either physically/in the flesh or spiritually/in their hearts for over 2,000 years.
Of particular note is the second stanza, which draws heavily upon the Nicene Creed, which, in turn, draws upon the entirety of the Scriptures.
True God, of true God,
Light from Light Eternal,
lo, he shuns not the Virgin’s womb
The Nicene Creed reads:
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
The only Son of God,
Eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
True God from true God,
Begotten, not made,
Of one being with the Father;
Through him all things were made.
Consider Colossians 2:9, which declares, “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.” Or many verses from the gospel of John, such as “In Him [the Word] was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (1:3), “I and My Father are one” (10:30), and “I have come as a light into the world, that whoever believes in Me should not abide in darkness” (12:46).
Thus, a carol written in the 18th century links back to 325 AD, at the Council of Nicea, and to the early church. The singer is connected to the shepherds on that holy night, to the faithful of church history and the universal Church, and joins with “all” believers from all times and places to declare the core tenants of the faith in song.
Stanza Three & Four
In the third stanza of the Christmas carol, we join with the angelic voices of heavenly hosts to proclaim, “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (Luke 2:14). We have shortened the verse to three lines, but the full lyrics become a cosmic chorus uniting heaven and earth.
O Sing, choirs of angels,
Sing in exultation,
Sing all that hear in heaven God’s holy Word.
Give to our Father glory in the Highest.
After joining the angels, we descend to their audience; stanza four invites us to model the shepherds’ response, to seek out, worship, and fall in humble adoration on our knees before our Savior and King. “We too will thither / bend our joyful footsteps,” declares the carol.
Stanza Five & Six
The often omitted fifth stanza carries us to the magi, who traversed from afar in answer to a prophetic sign in the heavens. We find them when they find their hearts’ desire and bow down before the Messiah, offering their has gifts and join in jubilant praise and excitement:
Magi, Christ adoring,
offer him incense, gold, and myrrh;
we to the Christ child
bring our heart’s oblations.*
In the sixth stanza, the hymn assumes a decidedly different tone, placing us not only at the manger scene as one of the humble who have come to see the Christ child, but actually in the manger. Just as we have become one of the “faithful,” one of the “angelic hosts,” one of the “shepherds,” one of the “star-led chieftains,” now we become one with Christ Himself. Note that there is no comma after “sinners,” indicating that it is not just the “Child” in the manger, but we who join him there in the feeding trough, in humility, “awe and love”:
Child, for us sinners
poor and in the manger,
Who would not love thee,
loving us so dearly?
Such a rhetorical question leaves us almost unable to sing the refrain aloud. It reminds one of 1 John 4:19, which proclaims, “We love because he first loved us.” Similarly, one hears echoes of Paul in Romans 8, when he asks us, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (8:31). The Incarnation is one monumental act of Infinite Love and Joy.
As a result, we cannot help but exclaim:
All Hail! Lord, we greet Thee,
Born this happy morning,
O Jesus! forevermore be Thy name adored.
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.
The carol is punctuated throughout with a refrain of fugal feel; voices entered in a staggered pattern, until all join in the glorious imperative: “O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.” But now, after the final verse, the refrain provides a beautiful, perfect conclusion and climax to the miracle that is the Incarnation–the enfleshment of God Himself, the Deity becoming a man, the Image becoming an image-bearer.
Christmas is an incredibly busy time for many of us. Panicked and frazzled, we hurriedly do some last minute shopping and wrapping of gifts, or stress about cooking that delicious feast, or grow anxious with weather and travel plans.
O Come, All Ye Faithful reminds us to pause, breathe, and remember. Remember Bethlehem. Remember the angelic chorus singing of the Good News, peace on earth, and goodwill to men. Remember the shepherds who, leaving their flocks, raced to see the Messiah. Remember the magi, who traveled from far off to find the Fulfillment of many prophecies. Remember, most of all, the manger. The humble bed of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Kneel in adoration, love, and joy.
O Come, All Ye Faithful, to enjoy and glorify and sing God’s praises this Christmas, as we remember the night when “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14).