For many years, this hymn text, and possibly even tune, were attributed to the medieval era. In fact, simply looking at the manuscript below, one of the original for this carol (called the “Jacobite Manuscript”), one can understand why early hymnologists would think this carol is of medieval origin:
Yet, notice there are five lines in the musical clef. In the medieval era, only four were used. Plus, this is in the hand of John Francis Wade (1711-1786), an English Catholic who, after the Jacobite Rebellion in England took refuge with fellow Catholics in France, where he lived as a layman in a Catholic community. Although this manuscript is now lost, four others survive which are attributable to John Francis Wade and indeed are signed by him. In a strange twist of the way history usually works, it is likely that Wade wrote this hymn text first in English and only later translated it into Latin for liturgical use. He was an avid writer of sacred poetry and a copier of manuscripts, so it should not be surprising to find his hymn translated into Latin and in manuscript form, but it was unusual given the normal course of any other hymn’s history. The tune was also most likely composed by him, as it bears resemblance to several popular English operas of the early 1700s, and the above manuscript dates to around 1740. By the latter part of the century, Catholics in Germany and France had wholeheartedly adopted this hymn as a Christmas processional. Only later did it come into Protestant usage.
Note the character of the text. This is not a romanticized carol like, say, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” in which Phillips Brooks’ poetry, fine as it is, conveys little doctrine through its metaphorical language. Nor is it like the romanticized “See Amid the Winter’s Snow” which even takes historical liberties with Christ’s birth, placing the nativity squarely in Northern Europe with its cold’s winter snow—surely not even close to the climatic conditions of Bethlehem at the time! Nonetheless, we sing and love these carols for what they are—they contain the truth of the gospel, they have a tradition, and they are beautiful poetry. Yet, “O Come, All Ye Faithful” is by nature different. Consider the second stanza:
Highest, most holy, Light of Light eternal,
Born of a virgin, a mortal He comes;
Son of the Father now in flesh appearing. O come, etc. . .
Of what does this remind you? Perhaps the Nicene Creed? And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God. . . Light of Light, very God of Very God, begotten, not made. . . who for us men and our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man. These incarnational sensibilities are not Wade’s own, but from the creed which Protestants and Catholics alike profess, and in whose second article the specificities of the incarnation are pronounced. Wade’s carol continues,
Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation,
Sing, all ye citizens of heaven above! Glory to God in the highest.
Here Wade references the song of the angels at Jesus’ birth. Yet, the opening line of the Gloria in the liturgy, Catholic or Protestant, is always Gloria in Excelsis Deo, or “Glory to God in the highest,” another connection between Wade’s text and the liturgy and another credal statement. Wade concludes,
Yea, Lord, we greet Thee, Born this happy morning;
Jesus, to Thee be glory given! Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.
Here again is Wade careful to enunciate the doctrine of the incarnation—something too often lost in our Christmas season’s nebulous concerns for ambiguous “belief” and “love.” We recall the prologue to John’s gospel in which John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Wade wished to connect the incarnation with Jesus with the Father’s Word, His revelation to the gentiles. No doubt Wade was intimately familiar with the Latin carol, Corde Natus ex Parentis, or “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” which so cogently expresses the sentiments of John I and the incarnation in its fourth century text, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten, ere the worlds began to be, He is Alpha and Omega, He the source, the ending He, of the things that are that have been, and that future years shall see. Evermore and evermore!” This as well carries deep theological import and is not doubt the tradition Wade wished to carry on with his new English/Latin text.
This writer has often thought this hymn would be good for teaching the faith to those who don’t know Christianity. The text seems poetic and charming at first glance, but it can be unpacked to reveal the truth of Christ and it can take one straight back to the creeds and to the gospel itself like any good hymn should do.