“O Come, All Ye Faithful”
John F. Wade
UM Hymnal, No. 234
venite, venite in Bethlehem.
Venite adoremus, Dominum.
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, Christ the Lord.
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.
Of particular note is the second stanza that draws heavily upon the Nicene Creed:
True God, of true God,
Light from Light Eternal,
lo, he shuns not the Virgin’s womb;
Son of the Father,
begotten, not created.
This paraphrases the text of the Creed very closely:
“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.”
Thus, singing stanza two establishes a link to the church that reaches back to 325 A.D., at the Council of Nicea, where the Creed originates.
In the third stanza, the “faithful” join their voices with the angels singing “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (Luke 2:14). The refrain then becomes a cosmic chorus uniting heaven and earth.
Stanza four invites us to model our response on that of the shepherds: “We too will thither / bend our joyful footsteps.” An omitted stanza notes the appearance of the magi:
Lo! star-led chieftans,
Magi, Christ adoring,
offer him incense, gold, and myrrh;
we to the Christ child
bring our heart’s oblations.
The fifth stanza takes 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! 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 humility, “awe and love”:
Child, for us sinners
poor and in the manger,
Fain we embrace thee, with awe and love:
Who would not love thee,
loving us so dearly?
The rhetorical question leaves us almost unable to sing the refrain aloud.
The tune Adeste Fidelis by Wade has served this text well—though about as many variations have appeared for the tune over the years, as for the text. The refrain has a fugal feel with the staggered entry of voices until all four parts join in the imperative: “O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.”
Dr. Hawn is a professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Music.