“O Come, All Ye Faithful”

“…The shepherds said to one another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem,and see this thing which is come to pass” (Lk. 2.15)

     INTRO.: A song which mentions the importance of the shepherds and their going to Bethlehem in relation to the birth of Christ is “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” The text is a Latin hymn which seems to date from the 18th century and is said by some to have been taken from a Graduale of the Cistercians, the original of which is sometimes ascribed to Giovanni Fidanza Bonaventura (1221-1274). The hymn is believed to have been written around 1740 to 1744 and appears in seven known manuscript copybooks dating to the mid 18th century (beginning c. 1743) known as Cantus Diversi by John Francis Wade, who was born around 1710, most likely in England. A Catholic layman, he fled the Jacobean rebellion in 1745 and settled in Douay, France where he taught music, copied plain chant, published hymn manuscripts, and died on Aug. 16, 1786. A standard edition was made about 1750-1751 and discovered at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, England. Wade is now usually credited with being the author.  Originally there were supposed to be four stanzas.

     The usual translation of these four stanzas was made by Frederick Oakley, who was born on Sept. 5, 1802, at Shrewsbury, England. His father was Charles Oakley, governor of Madras. Frederick attended Christ Church at Oxford and became an Anglican minister in 1828. In 1832 he began serving at Lichfield Cathedral. In 1837 he moved to Whitehall, and in 1839 to Margaret St. Chapel in London and while there did this translation in 1841. In 1845 he entered the Roman Catholic Church, published his translation in the 1848 Lyra Catholica, and in 1852 became Canon at Westminster Cathedral. For many years he worked among the poor of Westminster and in 1865 published many of his poems in the 1865 Lyra Liturgica. His death occurred on Jan. 29, 1880, at Islington in Middlesex, England. The original first line read, “Ye faithful, approach ye,” and was altered to its present form in A Hymnal for Use in the English Church of 1852 by F. H. Murray. Stanza 2 was altered for another hymnal in 1854 by William Mercer (1811-1873). Three other stanzas, two of which are said to have been added by Etienne Jean Francois Borderies in 1794, were published in the 1850 Thesaurus Animae Christianae of Mechlin and translated by William T. Brooke (1848-1917). The two are:
4. “See how the shepherds, Summoned to His cradle,
Leaving their flocks, draw nigh to gaze;
We, too, will thither Bend our joyful footsteps.”
5. “Lo, star led chieftans, Magi, Christ adoring,
Offer Him incense, gold, and myrrh;
We to the Christ-child Bring our heart’s oblations.”

     The other additional stanza, given below as #4, though not with the original, is also attributed to Wade. The tune (Adeste Fideles, Portugese Hymn, or Oporto) is of unknown origin but is thought possibly to have been composed or adapted by Wade. It is sometimes attributed to a Portugese composer and opera director Marcus Simas Antonia de Foncesca Il Portogollo, or Marcus Portugal (d. 1834). Perhaps he arranged it, c. 1785, for use in the chapel of the king of Portugal where the Duke of Leeds heard the melody and thought it to have originated. It is also sometimes attributed to John Reading. Perhaps he rearranged it for use in England. The modern adaptation was made by Samuel Webbe Sr. (1740-1815). It appears in his 1782 work An Essay on the Church Plain Chant. Sometimes the tune is also used with or as an alternate tune for the hymn “How Firm a Foundation.”  Forrest M. McCann in Hymns and History says, “The Oakeley translation has been altered by many hands over the years to give our present text.”

     Among hymnbooks published during the twentieth century by members of the Lord’s church for use in churches of Christ, the song appeared in the 1925 edition of the 1921 Great Songs of the Church (No. 1) and the 1937 Great Songs of the Church No. 2 both edited by E. L. Jorgenson; the 1935 Christian Hymns (No. 1), the 1948 Christian Hymns No. 2, and the 1966 Christian Hymns No. 3 all edited by L. O. Sanderson; the 1963 Christian Hymnal edited by J. Nelson Slater; and the 1963 Abiding Hymns edited by Robert C. Welch. Today it is found in the 1978/1983 (Church) Gospel Songs and Hymns edited by V. E. Howard; the 1986 Great Songs Revised edited by Forrest M. McCann; the 1990 Songs of the Church 21st C. Ed. and the 1994 Songs of Faith and Praise both edited by Alton H. Howard; and the 1992 Praise for the Lord edited by J. P. Wiegand.

     The song addresses us as if we were among those to whom the shepherds spoke following Jesus’s birth.

I. Stanza 1 stresses the birth of Christ in Bethlehem
“O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye, to Bethlehem;
Come and adore Him, Born the King of angels.”
The original read, “Come and behold Him, Born the King…”
 A. Those who truly acknowledge Jesus Christ are the faithful: Rev. 2.10
 B. Again, the song addresses us as if were among those to whom the shepherds spoke, as they would urge us to come to Bethlehem because that was where Jesus was born: Matt. 2.1-6
 C. The reason that we would want to behold and adore Him is that He was born the King of angels, so that even the angels should worship Him: Heb. 1.6

II. Stanza 2 stresses the nature of the Christ who was born
“God of God, Light of Light;
Lo, He shuns not the virgin’s womb.
Very God, Begotten, not created.”
Mercer altered it, “True God of true God, Light of Light eternal,
Our lowly nature He hath not abhorred;
Son of the Father, Begotten, not created.”
 A. In the very beginning, the word was not only with God the Father, He was God Himself and thus could bring light to men: Jn. 1.1-9
 B. Yet, while God in heaven, He did not shun the virgin’s womb but took upon Himself our lowly nature: Matt. 1.22-23, Heb. 2.6-18
 C. Yet, as a man He was not a created being but specially begotten by the Father: Jn. 1.14-18, 3.16

III. Stanza 3 stresses the announcement by the angels of the birth of Christ to the shepherds
“Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation,
Through heavens high arches be your praises poured;
Now to our God be Glory in the highest.”
The original read, “Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation,
O sing, all ye citizens (some books have ‘bright hosts’) of heaven above;
Glory to God, all Glory in the highest.”
 A. It was a multitude of the heavenly hosts who told the shepherds of Christ’s birth: Lk. 2.8-12
 B. This indicates that even the citizens of heaven above sing praises to Jesus Christ: Rev. 5.11-12
 C. Thus, it is no surprise that God would send angels to give glory to Christ at His birth: Lk. 2.13-14

IV. Stanza 4 stresses the love that was shown to mankind in the birth of Christ
“Child, for us sinners, poor and in the manger,
We would embrace Thee, with love and awe;
Who would not love Thee, loving us so dearly?”
 A. Though the Son of God, Jesus as a child, was bedded in a manger as an indication of the poverty that characterized His earthly parents: Lk. 2.1-7
 B. However, we should embrace Him with both awe and love because of what He was willing to do for us: Matt. 22.37
 C. The reason is that what He was willing to do for us shows how He was loving us so dearly: 1 Jn. 3.16

V. Stanza 5 stresses the praise that we should give the Christ who was born
“Yea, Lord, we bless Thee, Born for our salvation;
O Jesus, forever be Thy name adored.
Word of the Father, Now in flesh appearing.”
The original began, “Yea, Lord, we greet Thee, born this happy morning;
Jesus, to Thee be all glory given.”
 A. The reason that Jesus was born was for our salvation, because He came to save people from their sins: Matt. 1.18-21
 B. Therefore, His name should be adored because there is salvation in no other name but His: Acts 4.12
 C. For this reason, He appeared in the flesh: 1 Tim. 3.16

CONCL.: The chorus continues to express praise to the Christ who was born:
“O come, let us adore Him, O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him, Christ, the Lord.”
Some books are now using just the chorus with added phrases such as, “We’ll praise His name forever…We’ll give Him all the glory…For He alone is worthy,” each repeated three times. Personally, I prefer the original. If I am going to sing, I like something that I can “sink my teeth into” and really think about rather than what appear to be mindless repetitions. Unfortunately, this good song about the birth of Christ is usually heard only in December as a “Christmas carol.” However, we can think about the birth of Christ and what it means to us at any time of the year, and when we do we can sing, “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”


2 thoughts on ““O Come, All Ye Faithful”

  1. Do you know the Carols for Choirs arrangement of this carol? The David Willcocks descant is marvellous, magnificent and magisterial. It really transforms this hymn into something truly uplifting. It’s true that it uses a hymnal arrangement (the English hymnal with that Cmaj6 chord on the word faith in faithful.) However, that descant, with its quotation of the Gloria section of Ding-dong merrily on high and the octave jumps in O come, really lifts the carol up into the stratosphere.

  2. To be truthful, I am not specifically familiar with the Carols for Choirs arrangement of this song, although I am generally familiar with David Willcocks and his music. These hymn studies primarily look at the hymns found in songbooks used among churches of Christ, and New Testament churches of Christ do not have choirs which require special choral arrangements of hymns. We simply use the hymns for congregational singing.


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