History of the Christmas Carols


Dr. John Hoole






Today we are going to have a different type of lesson.  We are going to look at the stories behind some of the Christmas songs we sing.  These special songs are known as Christmas carols.  Even if we have not been a Christian all of our life, we know the words to many of the carols.  We sing them every year and most of us have sung them all our lives.


Christmas carols are such a basic part of our lives, and, in our Christmas history, we have often taken them for granted.  We hum them and hear them year after year.  But do we ever think about the significance of their words or their origins.  They are about when Jesus was born.


But Carols were not always about Christmas.  Originally, carols were written for a special purpose, often to accompany performances of religious drama dating from medieval times.


Going back even further, some would say the first carol to be heard on Earth was sung by the angels the night Jesus was born.  Actually, they may have been singing, but the Bible does not tell us that.


The origin of the word "carol" remains somewhat a puzzle.   In their earliest beginnings, carols really had nothing to do with Christmas.  Some say it comes from the medieval "circle" or "ring" dance called a "carolare," which was accompanied by singing.  Others believe that "carol" may have come from the Greek word for a "flute player," referring to the musician who accompanied the singing of the dancing group.  Many of the early carols were sung to popular dance tunes.  The French “Carole” (ending with an “e”) was a secular ring dance.


The word “carol” is also linked to the Greek word “Chorus,” which was a Greek circle dance (maybe something like square dancing).  Secular Carols evolved despite an Edict in 7th century by the church of that day, which banned “caraulas” – dancing and leaping songs.  “Caraulae” is a form of the Greek “Chorus” mentioned earlier.


The first carols were handed down from one generation to the next by word of mouth rather than being written down


In the 1200’s & 1300’s’ God began to raise up a group of people, who have become known today as pre-reformers.  They are called that because in their biblical studies, they began to see what Martin Luther would see much later -- namely, that a person could be justified by faith through the blood of Jesus.  Back then that was a radical idea – Justification by faith in Jesus alone.


So, how did carols come to depict the Christmas Story about Jesus?


Among those pre-reformers were people like, Peter Waldo, Francis of Assisi, Bonaventura, Catherine of Sienna, Meister Eckhart.  A great revival was beginning to take place in the church as time was coming to the end of the middle ages.


In the past, I have mentioned to you that revivals of all ages were almost always accompanied by a resurgence in the writing of new hymns.  The beginning of  this revival was no different.  St. Francis of Assisi is considered the "Father of the Christmas Carol."  During ceremonies at his nativity scene in Graecia, Italy, in 1224, he led his followers in songs of praises to the newborn King.   His jovial singing was frowned upon by the established church at that time.


The Christmas carols at first were often sung as interludes in Christmas pageantry.  The common people began to express their own feelings about Christian music, preferring to sing in their own languages, instead of in Latin.  As a result, carols began to develop in the languages of the people.


In 1521, Wynkyn de Worde, an English printer's apprentice, produced the first printed book of carols.  In 1562, the Lord Mayor of London gave Thomas Tyndale a license to print "certain goodly carols to be sung to the glory of God."


Martin Luther realized the importance of music in people's lives.  He loved music, and as a boy sang in the village choir, where he received his musical education.


After the establishment of the Lutheran Church, he promoted congregational singing.  In fact, Martin Luther wrote a number of songs himself.  Most of us are familiar with “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”


Away in a manger


Let’s sing now another of his songs – Away In A Manger.  Luther did not give it this title.  Some would say it was composed by someone other than Luther, but from its beginning, it was known as Luther’s Cradle Hymn.  Also, verse 3 was added by John McFarland.


Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head.
The stars in the sky looked down where He lay,
The little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.


The cattle are lowing, the Baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes;
I love Thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky
And stay by my cradle til’ morning is nigh.


Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray;
Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care,
And fit us for Heaven to live with Thee there.


During the 17th century, the Puritans did away with holiday observance, including caroling.  But after the restoration of King Charles II of England, in 1660, caroling came back into the open again, and a new book of carols was published.


During the 18th century, carols were looked down upon by sophisticated city dwellers as commonplace and rustic.  In fact, during the boyhood years of Charles Dickens (1812-1870), the author of the story "A Christmas Carol," carols and caroling had almost disappeared.


Fortunately, certain scholars and pastors began to collect and preserve traditional carols, and it is because of their efforts that these folk songs were not totally lost to generations to come.  Schools and choirs in villages and countryside regions sang and helped to keep them alive.


By the last half of the 19th century, carols and caroling had again become an important part of Christmas celebrations, both in churches and in homes.


The American Civil War sparked revival on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.  Between 100,000 and 200,000 Union soldiers reportedly converted to Christ, as did approximately 150,000 Confederates.  Many soldiers' quarters featured chapels, and it was during this conflict that military chaplains became common.  During the fall of 1863 and the winter of 1864 alone, some 7,000 of Robert E. Lee's troops became Christians.


The same era saw a flurry of hymn-writing and carol-writing – especially in the North.


It Came Upon the Midnight Clear


How many of you grew up thinking the title was “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear?” Edmund Hamilton Sears, wrote "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear."  Sears, a New Englander, was not directly involved in the Civil War battles, but as a pastor and Christian journalist, he had cause to comment on them.


The second part of this song belongs to a composer and music critic by the name of Richard Storrs Willis.  How he came upon the poem by Sears is unknown, but Willis combine the poem with a tune he had written some time earlier.


Before telling more of the story behind this carol, let’s sing the first verse.


It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold;

“Peace on the earth, good will to men,
From Heaven’s all gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.


This carol specifically emphasizes the social significance of the Christmas angels' message.  And you see the influence of the civil war, especially in the later verses. In the third verse we find these words:


Yet 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.


How sad the fact that "man, at war with man is unable to hears the love song which they [angels] bring."


I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day


Another carol we sing was also written during the civil war.  The ravages of the war directly inspired the carol, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,"  This carol was penned by Maine native Henry Wadsworth Longfellow around 1862.


Let’s sing the first verse:


I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.


Longfellow’s second wife was fatally burned in a fire, and his son Charles was gravely injured in the war.  You can feel his anguish in the third verse:


And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”


Can’t you feel his emotions and despair?  He so much wanted the peace that only Jesus could bring.  The 4th stanza is a message of Hope and draws the song together, for he, being a Christian, knew God was still in control.


Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”


O Little Town of Bethlehem


In 1859, Phillips Brooks graduated from Episcopal Theological Seminary.  Earlier in his life, he had graduated from Harvard, and was a miserable failure as a Latin professor.  He says it was only when He surrendered his life completely to Christ that he found his calling in life.


After graduating from seminary, he began pastoring Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia.  He was a master orator, and his special love for children drew thousands to his congregation.  By 1863, the country was in the middle of the Civil War.  When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, Brooks was asked to preside over the funeral ceremony.  He was not Lincoln’s pastor, but was asked because of his fame as an inspirational speaker.


In 1865, Brooks took leave from pastoring and made a trip to Palestine.  The trip found them in Bethlehem during the Christmas week.  It was for him an unforgettable experience.


Three years later, he returned to pastoring, and was preparing his Christmas program.  Brooks wanted something special that would challenge the folks about Christ’s birth:


                   •  The place,

                   •  The manner of His birth,

                   •  The reason, and

                   •  The necessity of His birth


He reflected upon his visit to the Holy Land.  The still vivid memory moved the pastor to express his feelings in a poem called “O Little Town of Bethlehem”


Let’s sing the first verse, then I will tell you more.


O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.


The following day Brooks speaks to the church organist, who was also the Sunday School Superintendent.  He said to his friend and co-worker, “why not write a new tune for my poem?”  Lewis Redner smiled as he glanced over the five stanzas and replied, “I’ll do the best that I can.”  Brooks urged Redner to do what he could as quickly as possible, since the Christmas services were only days away.


Although he had ample time to compose a suitable tune, Redner delayed until it was almost too late.  When questioned about his progress, he used a standard phrase of a frustrated composer -- “No inspiration.”


During the night before the children’s Christmas program, Redner is suddenly awakened from his sleep, the tune ringing in his ears.  He quickly jotted the melody down as rapidly as he could, then went back to bed for a few hours of contented and undisturbed sleep.  Very early the next morning, he harmonized his original melody, declaring it “was a gift from God.”  A group of 6 Sunday School teachers and 36 children sang it from newly printed leaflets on December 27, 1868.


Let me give you a quiz – the answers are True or False.


1.      Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem because of a decree by Caesar Augustus.   (Ans: True)


2.      The angel Gabriel appeared to Mary first and then he appeared to Joseph.   (Ans:  True)


3.      Jesus’ ancestors include a prostitute, an adulterer, a woman who committed incest and a non-Israelite.   (Ans:  True)


4.      The star did not appear above the Manger.   (Ans:  True)


5.      There are no biblical records of Joseph speaking in the Christmas story.   (Ans:  True).


O Holy Night


Here is a non-True or False question:


•  Which beautiful carol was frowned upon by church authorities who denounced it for lack of musical taste and “total absence of the spirit of religion”?  The answer:  O Holy Night – written by John Dwight.


Let’s sing the first verse:


O holy night, the stars are brightly shining;
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary soul rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born!
O night, O holy night, O night divine!


Contrary to what some church leaders said at the time, there is actually some good doctrine taught in its words.  The first verse, which we just sang, speaks of how long the world had lain in its sinful condition.  This world needed the “dear Savior” to arrive.


In the second verse, Dwight speaks of the one in the manger as the King of Kings.  It also speaks of Him being born to be our friend.  Accurate to the Scriptures, it continues by telling us “He knows our needs and weaknesses.”


The third verse echoes the words of Christ in the two great commandments.  The first is to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength.  The second is that we should love one another.  Dwight goes on to say that Love is the law of God, and “in His name all oppression shall cease”.


The last wonderful part of the story of this carol occurs in 1906.  In that year, a former chief chemist working for Thomas Edison made the first voice radio transmission.  His name was Reginald Fessenden, and is considered the father of Radio Broadcasting.


The first broadcast occurred on Christmas Eve, 1906, and the first words spoken over the air waves: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed…”  After reading from the Gospel of Luke, Fessenden picked up his violin, and played the first song heard on radio – O Holy Night !


Let me relate to you some interesting facts about Christmas.


1.       In 1843, the first Christmas card was created on the instruction of an Englishman, Sir Henry Cole.  J.C. Horsely designed the card and sold 1000 copies in London.


2.      The first Christmas stamp was released in Canada in 1898.


3.      In London, only on two days did it snow in London during the entire 20th century.

                   •  If you take all of England, it still only snowed on 7 Christmases.


4.       In 1647, the English parliament passed a law that made Christmas illegal.  Christmas festivities were banned by Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell, who considered feasting and revelry on what was supposed to be a holy day to be immoral.  Anybody caught celebrating Christmas was arrested.  The ban was lifted only when the Puritans lost power in 1660.


5.       Some priests in Australia advise you to say "Happy Christmas", not "Merry Christmas", because Merry has connotations of getting drunk - which brings its own problems. One should say "Happy" instead.


Jingle Bells


Let me ask you another question.  Which Christmas song was originally written for a Thanksgiving program?  The answer:  Jingle Bells.  This is one of the first Christmas songs we learned as a child.


Both the lyrics and melody of Jingle Bells was composed in 1857 by James Pierpont, and was originally called “One Horse Open Sleigh.”  There is absolutely nothing in its four stanzas that speak of Christmas.  And when you considered that James Pierpont lived in Boston, it certainly is possible to have snow on some Thanksgivings.


The song was originally sung at Pierpont’s church during a Thanksgiving program, and the people liked it so much, they asked it to be repeated at Christmas.  Ever since, it has been a Christmas song.


Silent Night


Let me ask you another question.  Which carol was originally composed for guitar, along with two voices backed by a choir, because, according to some, the church organ was broken?  The Answer:  Silent Night


Lets Sing this good carol.


Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and Child.
Holy Infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.


Actually, the organ worked just fine.  The words had been written two years previously by Pastor Mohr.  Pastor Mohr decided that it might be nice to have a new carol for the coming Christmas Eve service.  He asked his friend, Franz Gruber, a school teacher who was the church organist, to set his poem to music.  At the request of pastor Mohr, who had a special love for his guitar, Franz Gruber composed the music for guitar accompaniment.


This carol was sung for the first time on Christmas Eve, 1818, at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Bavaria.  It was composed just the day before, and was sung that night in three-part harmony.


More Trivia about Christmas


1.  Alabama was the first state to recognize Christmas as an official holiday – 1836.


2.  Christmas became a national holiday in the U.S. in 1870.


3.  Candy canes began as straight white sticks of sugar candy used to decorated the Christmas trees. A choirmaster at Cologne Cathedral decided have the ends bent to depict a shepherd's crook and he would pass them out to the children to keep them quiet during the services. It wasn't until about the 20th century that candy canes acquired their red stripes.


4.  During the Christmas buying season, Visa cards alone are used an average of 5,340 times every minute in the United States.


5.  Franklin Pierce was the first United States' president to decorate an official White House Christmas tree .


6.  In 1907, Oklahoma became the last US state to declare Christmas a legal holiday.  It became a state one month before Christmas that year.


Let me ask you another questions:


         •  When Scrooge hears this song in Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol,” he grabs a ruler and the singer flees in terror.  Which carol is it?


God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.


In the 15th century, much of the religious music for the church was written in Latin and sung in somber tunes.  That did not evoke much enthusiasm or joy.  But in their own circles, peasants wrote their own songs with lighter music with much more uplifting religious subjects.  So, it is unknown who wrote this song.


The lyrics were closer to the biblical account of the birth of Christ than many of the songs sung in church.  In the 19th century, the song was published under Queen Victoria’s reign for the Anglican Church, and soon became popular around the world.


But the words of the song, when written, had different meanings than today.  The term, MERRY, did not mean simply “happy.”  “Merry” was used to describe armies, soldiers, and rulers.  It meant “great, strong, mighty”!


Also, the word, REST, in the song’s title did not mean to take a nap.  It meant “make.”  So, now we have the title as “God Make You Mighty, Gentlemen.”


Which carol gets its melody from a song that is mentioned in Shakespeare’s “Merry Wives of Windsor” What Child is ThisThe melody is the song Greensleeves.


Here are a few more True or False statements.


•  The wise men did not arrive on the night of Jesus’ birth.             (Answer: True)


•  Shepherding was considered a very noble occupation.                (Answer:  False)


In the 1st century, shepherding was close to the bottom of occupations.  According to Pharisaic laws, Shepherds were unable to remain ritually clean, and so were considered unclean.  And yet, Christ chose to announce his birth to them.


•  Both Joseph and Mary were told that the baby was to be named “Jesus.”    (Answer:  True)


Here is a fact you might not have known.  In Judaism, babies were always named by their father.  Here we see God the Father – not Joseph – giving Jesus his name.  By the way, “Jesus” is the Greek form of the Hebrew name “Joshua.”  And, in Hebrew, “Joshua” means “Jehovah (Yahweh) Saves.”


Here is another true/false statement.  •  Joseph married Mary immediately after the angel appeared to him. (Answer:  True)  see Matthew 1:24.


Let me give you some more Christmas trivia.  Christmas trees have been sold in the United States since 1850.  Christmas trees usually grow for about 15 years before they are sold.  The earliest decorations for Christmas trees were apples.  Electric lights were first used in 1895 as a safe alternative to candles.


The First Noel


I am going to treat this carol differently.  We don’t know who wrote this song, but it is believed to have been composed as a poem sometime during the 17th century.


What I want to discuss about this carol is what is the origin of the word NOEL?  Some scholars claim “noel” is of French origin, meaning a “shout of joy”


Others would claim that the source of “noel” is the Latin word “novella,” – which means “news.”  This could be another example of how the English language has changed over the centuries.


All languages change and evolve over time, not just that new words are introduced, but the very structure of phrases and words.  If you compare the English language today with ancient English, they almost sound like different languages.


I took an English Literature course in college, and stories like Beowulf, or the writings of Geoffrey Chaucer were very difficult to understand  Here are four lines from Chaucer's, “The Knight’s Tale.”


         First, in Middle English:


Whilom, as olde stories tellen us,
Ther was a duc that highte theseus;
Of atthenes he was lord and governour,
And in his tyme swich a conquerour,


         Now the same four lines in modern English:


Once on a time, as old tales tell to us,
There was a duke whose name was Theseus:
Of Athens he was lord and governor,
And in his time was such a conqueror


I show you this as an example of how the English language has changed.  The English language also changed in that some statements that were once a phrase have been shortened into a single word.  And this comes into play with regard to the word “NOEL.”


For instance, The English people took the parting phrase with which they bade one another ”Fare thee well,” and made it into one word, “Farewell.”


They also took the phrase “God be with you” and shortened the four-word phrase into one – the word “goodbye”.


In the same way, the word “noel” has come to us.  The English forefathers used to greet each other every Christmas morning with the cry “Now all is well.”  It was a phrase reflecting the thought that because of Christ, those who had been in darkness had been given a great light – Jesus.  And because of that, “now all is well.”  This was, in time, shortened to “now well,” and later further shortened to “nowell, ” and then to NOEL  The carol “The First Noel” was first included in a collection of Christmas carols in 1833.


Joy To The World


Let’s sing the first verse.


Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.


Isaac Watts lived from 1674 to 1748,  He was one of these brilliant minds you might see once in a lifetime.  Even as a boy, he displayed literary genius and an aptitude for study.  At the age of five, he was learning Latin.  At the age of nine, Greek.  At eleven, French;  At thirteen, Hebrew.


In addition to the 600 hymns he wrote, Watts was an ardent student of theology and philosophy.


At the age of seven, He wrote an acrostic, using the letters of his name – ISAAC WATTS.


I                 I am a vile, polluted lump of earth,

S                So I’ve continued ever since my birth

A                Although Jehovah, grace doth daily give me

A                As sure this monster, Satan, will deceive me,

C                Come therefore, Lord, from Stan’s claws relieve me.


W               Wash me in Thy blood, O Christ,

A                And grace divine impart,

T                Then search and try the corners of my heart,

T                That I in all things may be fit to do,

S                Service to Thee, and Thy praise too.


When he was 18 years old, Isaac came home and complained about the songs that were sung by the congregation.  Young Isaac was challenged by his father with the words:  “Well then, young man, why don’t you give us something better to sing?”


As yet a teenager, He accepted his father’s challenge.  Before the following Sunday, he composed his first hymn, to which the congregational response was enthusiastic.


For the next two years, He wrote a new hymn each week for the church to sing.  In 1707, Isaac Watts published a collection of 210 hymns, in a book entitled “Hymns and Spiritual Songs.”  Some of this collection eventually became part of a hymnal he published in 1719.  The rather lengthy title to this hymnal was;  “Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament.”  These two publications were the very first real hymnals ever published in the English language.


Though this later hymnal had some of the songs in the previous one, all of the songs in the latter publication were patterned after the Book of Psalms.


Each hymn in the 1719 hymnal is patterned after one of the Psalms.  It contained 138 hymns or Psalms of the 150 Psalms we have in the Old Testament.  He left out 12 Psalms purposefully, because he felt they were unfit for this purpose.


Watts was generally considered to be a radical churchman in his day.  But today, more than 2½ centuries later, our hymnals still contains such Watts’ favorites as:


                   •  O God, Our Help in Ages Past

                   •  Jesus Shall Reign

                   •  When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

                   •  I Sing the Mighty Power of God


Some of you have heard me in the past say that this song was not originally written as a Christmas song.  The reason I have taken you through this much of Isaac Watts life, is because the song “Joy to the World” was included in this hymnal of 1719.  This song, which now we sing as a Christmas carol, was Isaac Watts reflection of Psalm 98.  He wanted to reflect the command in Psalm 98, a command telling us to sing and shout for joy to the Lord.


Psalms 98:4-6 NIV


1       Sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things; his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him.


4       Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music;

5       make music to the LORD with the harp, with the harp and the sound of singing,

6       with trumpets and the blast of the ram's horn —  shout for joy before the LORD, the King.


The only part of this Psalm that could be said to be speaking of his birth is verse 1.  It speaks of the marvelous things He has done and the salvation He has worked.  And when the 1st verse of this carol says: “Joy to the world the Lord is come,….” it could be talking about his first coming.  But it could also be talking about his second coming, when He sets up his kingdom on earth.


Everything else in both the Psalm and the hymn is speaking of His coming as the King.


Psalms 98:7-9 NIV


7       Let the sea resound, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.

8       Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy;

9       let them sing before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity.


Again, these verses speak of when Christ comes to reign and judge.  The second verse of the hymn reads:  Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns.  This is definitely speaking of the King reigning on earth.  And verse 8 above speaks of the rivers clapping their hands and the mountains singings, is seen in the hymn’s words:  “While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy; repeat the sounding joy.”


The third verse of the hymn has these words:


No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.


Again, this is speaking of the time when Christ comes back, and the curse is reversed, and the world will flora and fauna will be like the Garden of Eden.


I need to bring in another person.  Isaac Watts did not write the music we currently sings with his words.  I believe I am correct to say that all 138 hymns which were published in 1719 were song in which Watts wrote both the lyrics and the  music.


George Frideric Handel is most known for his oratorio “The Messiah,” in which you will find the “Hallelujah Chorus.”  Handel moved from Germany to London, and became a naturalized citizen of England.  He and Watts became friends.  “The Messiah” is a large oratorio, containing 53 separate works, and he completed the entire work in 24 days.  I personally regard “The Hallelujah Chorus” as one of the greatest songs ever written.  Handel wrote the music that we now sing with Joy to the World.


We Three Kings


In 1857, John Henry Hopkins Jr. was faced with a difficult task – what to get his nieces and nephews for the celebration of Epiphany.  Hopkins was ordained as an Episcopalian priest, but chose to use his writing talent as a reporter instead of a clergyman.  He was a scholar with a law degree who used his inspirational writing as a scribe for a New York publication called “Church Journal.”


So, when Hopkins had to decide upon a gift for his brothers’ children (He was himself a bachelor), he decided to write a tribute to the magi of the Christmas story.  He felt his gift would be personal and entertaining, but also meaningful.  Using his imagination and knowledge of Scripture, Hopkins wrote a simple story of the quest to find the Savior, weaving into the words the symbolism of the gifts they brought.


John Hopkins Jr. published “We Three Kings” in his own songbook called Carols, Hymns, and Songs.)  Let’s sing this carol.


We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar.
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.

Star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect Light.


Hark, The Herald Angels Sing


I want to end our time with what Paul Harvey would call “The Rest of the Story.”  I want to take you back to a lesson a couple years ago, titled, “The Church is Alive and Well.”  For 70 minutes I took you on a quick tour of church history.


In it, I told you the story of John Wesley.  A few hours north of London, in the town of Epworth, we find Samuel and Susanna Wesley.  They are Anglican priests of this small community, and for some reason, some parishioners get unduly upset at them.  So upset, that one of them turns arsonist, and decides to torch the parsonage.  But the Wesleys, with their 19 children get out of the building.


But one is left inside - 5-year-old John Wesley.  Susannah looks up and sees John in a second story window and some of the neighbors form a human ladder and they pull him out just as the house collapses into the flame.  She holds her son close and says, “John, my John, truly, you are a brand plucked from the burning.”  It’s a statement of destiny he never forgets.


He goes away to Oxford to school - later as a missionary to Georgia. It’s disastrous - everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.  He was a man who understood no faith - except for a cerebral understanding of Jesus Christ -- but no heartfelt experience, no reality of the Living Lord.


He heads back, discouraged.  On his way back, a terrible storm hits the boat.  He happened to be aboard with a group of people called Moravians - they are from Germany.  They are the followers of one named John Huss, who was burned at the stake in 1414, over 300 years earlier.


And Wesley says to one of them - named Peter Bohler - following the storm.  “How could you have so much faith.  When the ship appeared it was going down, we were screaming in terror, and you Moravians were standing there singing hymns and praising God.  How could you live like that?”


Peter Bohler responded, “John, preach faith until you have it.  And when you have it, you will most assuredly preach it.”  John continues preaching that faith.  And finally - May 24, 1738 - on a little street called Aldersgate - in the shadow of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London - at a little home Bible study.....


Here is the rest of the story.  John Wesley has a brother 4 years younger than He.  His name is Charles.  Charles is the more cerebral of the two, and John is the more powerful preacher.  Like his brother, Charles attends Oxford University.  He was elected to a number of scholastic organizations.


Charles was convinced by John to accompany him on the trip to Georgia.  He goes, not as a missionary-evangelist, but to become the secretary for General Oglethorpe, then governor of Georgia.


John and Charles don’t remain in Georgia very long.  And Peter Bohler, the Moravian missionary, who was aboard the return ship, moves from Germany to England, where Charles Wesley becomes the English tutor for Bohler.


Both Charles and John state their conversion actually happens after they return to England.  John, on a street called Aldersgate, in London, mentioned earlier


Charles’ conversion took place just 3 days earlier – May 21st.  His life was forever changed.  He is actually attributed with the title of being the first Methodist.  Charles becomes one of the most prolific hymn-writer in the history of the Church – more than 6,000 in all.  You may recognize of few of them.


                   •  Christ the Lord is Risen Today

                   •  Oh for a thousand tongues to sing  (Composed in 1739 on the 1st anniversary of his conversion)

                   •  Come Thou Almighty King

                   •  Rejoice, The Lord is King

                   •  And Can If Be That I Should Gain


He also composes the Christmas carol, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”


Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations rise, Join the triumph of the skies;
With th’angelic host proclaim, “Christ is born in Bethlehem!”



Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”


Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace, Hail the Sun of Righteousness,
Light and life to all He brings, Risen with healing in His wings.

Mile He lays His glory by, born than man no more may die,

Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth.


The melody for this familiar carol was composed by the famous composer, Felix Mendelssohn almost a hundred years after Wesley wrote the text.  How did the words and music come together?  Here is the scoop behind the carol we sing today.


I think it is a fact that neither Charles Wesley or Felix Mendelssohn would have wanted this music to be joined with these words.  Felix Mendelssohn, a Jew, had made it very clear that he wanted his music only to be used for secular purposes.  Charles Wesley, on the other hand, had requested that only slow and solemn religious music be couple with his words.


However, in the mid Nineteenth Century, long after both Mendelssohn and Wesley were dead, an organist named Dr. William Cummings, joined the Mendelssohn music with Wesley’s profound words to create the carol.