Editor’s Note — It’s been said that Christmas is one of the few holidays that has its own “sound track.” The Times-Gazette today presents part eight of a special 12-part series entitled “The 12 Carols of Christmas” that will appear daily through Christmas Eve, relating the history behind some of the best-loved sacred songs of the season.
Kenneth Osbeck wrote in his 1990 devotional “Amazing Grace” that each of the participants in the birth of Jesus had much to teach, be it Joseph, Mary, the shepherds or the wise men.
Written in 1857 by Episcopal minister John Hopkins Jr., “We Three Kings of Orient Are” is centered around the wise men, or “magi,” whom the Bible said visited Jesus as a “young child” some time after the events of the nativity in Bethlehem.
While the scriptures say that the travelers from the east brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, Matthew’s gospel doesn’t provide any further details as to what their names were, how many magi were at the house or even if they were kings or not.
Dr. Amos Wells in “Peloubet’s Select Notes on the International Sunday Lessons” for 1934 wrote the magi possessed some knowledge of prophecy which fueled their motivation to follow the star in the sky.
He quoted Longfellow’s poem “The Three Kings,” which listed their names as they appear in church tradition.
“The three kings came riding from far away, Melchior and Gaspar and Baltasar; Three wise-men out of the east were they, and they travelled by night and they slept by day; For their guide was a beautiful, wonderful star.”
Dr. Wilbur Smith, writing in the same series of Sunday school books the following year, noted that “the magi of the Orient, probably from Persia, were learned in mathematics, astronomy, geography, philosophy and medicine” and in addition to being students of the heavens, may also have been “students of prophecy, and it may be that they had read some of the great prophecies of the coming of a Jewish king in the Old Testament scriptures.”
Before writing the carol of the three kings, Hopkins was a journalist from Pennsylvania who enrolled in New York’s General Theological Seminary. According to author and hymnist Robert Morgan, Hopkins graduated in 1850, then five years later was hired to be the school’s first instructor of church music.
Morgan said that Hopkins composed “We Three Kings” as part of a Christmas pageant for the seminary in 1857, and in 1863, the carol was published for the first time in his book “Carols, Hymns and Songs.”
Unlike composers before him, Hopkins wrote both the words and the music to his new Christmas carol.
Osbeck said that Hopkins has been credited with contributing much in terms of musical development for the Episcopal denomination during the 19th century, contributing a large number of hymns and songs that have long since been forgotten.
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