First Thoughts

O Come All Ye Faithful

“O Come All Ye Faithful” is one of the oldest hymns we sing at Christmas. It was initially a Latin Hymn bearing the title “Adeste Fideles” and appears to have been written by John Francis Wade (c. 1711–1786). The first existing manuscript of this hymn is dated 1743. The Latin title literally means “Come, faithful ones.” This Catholic hymn was translated into English in 1841 for use in the Church of England by Frederick Oakeley (1802–1890).

The Oxford Movement was an effort in the mid-19th century to translate older Catholic hymns from Latin into English for use in Protestant churches. This literary movement was primarily based at Oxford University and was an effort to recapture older hymns from the high church tradition. It is like those today who want to bring back the more formal worship style of previous generations. Ironically, soon after Oakeley delivered “Adeste Fideles” from the Catholic tradition into the English Protestant world, he converted to Catholicism.

When the hymn first appeared in English, it appeared under the heading, “Let us go even unto Bethlehem, and see the thing which is come to pass” (Luke 2:15). It is a musical reenactment of the various parties that dropped what they were doing to go see the newborn King–in particular, the shepherds who left their flocks in the fields to see the One of whom the angels sang. And they didn’t just go to see him; they went to worship him. These shepherds began a processional of millions over the past 2,000 years who have since “journeyed to Bethlehem” to behold him.

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.

Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation,

Sing, all ye citizens of heav’n above!

Glory to God, all glory in the highest.

Yea, Lord we greet Thee, Born this happy morning;

Jesus, to Thee be all glory giv’n!

Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.

The depth of the last line of the third verse reflects a theological debate in the Early Church that was finally won by the affirmation of the Nicene Creed (325). The argument of the Arian controversy was that when Jesus was born in the flesh, he was at that time “begotten” of the Father and that he did not pre-exist his arrival in Bethlehem. This was an attack on the deity of Christ and Biblical authority. It attempted to place Christ in a subordinate role to the Father rather than his co-equal role as one with the Father and the Spirit. A less familiar verse of this hymn serves as a more direct affirmation of the Nicene Creed.

God from true God, and Light from Light eternal,

Born of a virgin, to earth he comes!

Only-begotten Son of God the Father.

“O Come All Ye Faithful” is an invitation to join the procession of worshipers en route to the manger in Bethlehem. It is a festive pilgrimage of worship. When the church sings this old hymn, she is taking her place among those who have responded to the angel’s proclamation of the birth of the Savior. We find ourselves among the shepherds as we journey to Bethlehem to behold the One who has been born to save us.

Refrain:

O come, let us adore him,

O come, let us adore him,

O come, let us adore him,

Christ the Lord!


Scott Connell (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the Worship Pastor at First Baptist Church Jacksonville.

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