This is part 14 of an Advent/Christmas series titled “Songs of Christmas.” For other parts of the series see the index. The index also contains the introduction for the series.
Jesus was born into controversy when King Herod learned of the birth of the King of the Jews from the Magi who traveled to find the new baby. The controversy happened when Herod ordered male children executed.
So, why should a song about Jesus’ birth not have some level of controversy surrounding it? Such is the case for “Adeste Fideles,” the original name of the popular carol, “O Come All Ye Faithful.”
The lyrics were first believed to have come from a group of Cistercian monks, but even that theory was surrounded in controversy. During different historical periods, monks in Germany, Portugal and Spain have received credit. Another who received credit was St. Bonaventure in the 13th century. Yet another theory gave credit to King John IV of Portugal, known as the Musician King.
Just as with the lyrics there has been controversy around the music too. Men such as John Reading, Frederick Handel and Christoph Willibald Gluck have received credit. Others who received credit for the music are Thomas Arne, Marcos Portugal and King John IV of Portugal.
Probably the most common assertion for both the music and lyrics was they were that of an unknown cleric of the Middle Ages. Many theories all proven wrong by English scholar, Maurice Frost who discovered seven handwritten and signed manuscripts from an English Catholic Priest named John Francis Wade.
Wade was a holy man caught in a great conflict within England. The conflict was so great, Wade along with many other English-Catholics were risking their lives to live and worship in England. It resulted in Roman Catholic worship moving underground. Many priests, including Wade were forced from the country. Wade immigrated to France.
During this period of history, many in the English government attempted to rid the country of all its Catholic records, including the music of the Church. Wade, a calligrapher by training as well as being a notable musician, was given the task of finding as much of the music and to log and preserve it for future generations. Wade took the job very seriously. He searched everywhere to find the music and make record of it.
During this period Wade not only logged and preserved music, he was also inspired to write music as well. Because he was a Catholic priest it is completely reasonable that he would write in Latin. Around 1750 Wade finished writing his most well-known tune, “Adeste Fideles” and the next year published the work in his own book, Cantus Diversi. It would take Wade another ten years to put lyrics with his melody.
It is entirely possible that Wade’s work on “O Come All Ye Faithful” was influenced by someone like St. Bonaventure or some other cleric of his era. The legends giving St. Bonaventure or others still persist. In light of evidence of the manuscripts discovered by Frost and other published writings, Wade should be given credit for the work.
In 1841, some sixty years after Wade’s death, Frederick Oakley translated the Latin to English. For some reason, however, Oakley neglected to give Wade his credit and thus started the many legends about the hymn’s authorship.
In the United States and other English speaking countries the hymn really became known in the early 1900s. It was at that time many churches began using the carol, it was included in many hymnals and it became a caroling standard.
The first group known to have recorded the carol was the premier musical group of the era, the Peerless Quartet in 1905. At a time when radio was not yet playing music to the masses, thousands of singles were sold and the release went to number seven on the National Hit Parade. In 1915 Irish tenor John McCormack took the carol to number two. Ten years later the carol made it back onto the charts with a recording by the American Glee Club.
In a period of history when the Church was quite literally at war with itself, a time period when Christians were killing Christians over being Christians, we have the voice of a lone Catholic priest who quietly sings, “O Come all ye faithful.”
Have a blessed day in the Lord.
Joy and Peace,
Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved
Collins, Ace, Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.
Collins, Andrew, Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.
Gant, Andrew, The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.
Osbeck, Kenneth W. Joy to the World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols, Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999.