Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Carols That Unite Us

Some of the poets and composers who gave us our most beloved Christmas carols would not have celebrated Christmas in the same place of worship. Yet their hymns unite Christians every year in churches, town squares, and homes around the world. Through music, truth speaks to the heart. The universal quality of music can unite us as no other medium can, even if just for a moment or a season. God’s Christmas poets came from diverse backgrounds and brought us together in adoration of the newborn Christ.

Charles Wesley (1707-1788), the younger brother of Methodist founder John Wesley, was a priest of the Church of England. Unlike John, he was intensely loyal to the Anglican Church and tradition. When John appointed Thomas Coke to be superintendent of the Methodist congregations in America, Charles wrote a poem chiding his beloved brother:

So easily are bishops made,
By man’s or woman’s whim?
Wesley his hands on Coke hath laid,
But who laid hands on him?

Charles Wesley was an extremely prolific hymn writer, producing 6,500 hymns, among them the Christmas carols, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus. Wesley was an accomplished organist, but he wrote none of the tunes to his hymns. Fortunately for all of us, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing was set to the marvelous music of Felix Mendelssohn in the following century and has delighted carolers and audiences ever since.

No Christmas would feel complete without the singing of Joy to the World! Its author, Isaac Watts (1674-1748), in contrast to Wesley, was anything but a loyal Anglican. He and his parents were known as Dissenters, those who did not conform to the Church of England. Watts showed an early propensity toward versifying, which sometimes annoyed the family. A story is told of his father scolding him for his incessant rhyming. Young Isaac’s reply was:

Oh, Father, do some pity take,
And I will no more verses make.

After his education, Watts became pastor of the nonconformist church in Mark Lane in London, where he set many of the Psalms to English verse and wrote many powerful hymns, all closely tied to Scripture. Joy to the World! has become a beloved Christmas carol of Christ’s first advent, but it could just as easily be seen as a hymn of Christ’s Second Coming and the establishment of His Kingdom. The broad scope of the hymn encompasses, it seems, both the first and second advents of Christ, and gives hope to all who believe.

Isaac Watts is buried in Bunhill Fields, the small Dissenters cemetery on City Road in London. His remains rest there, along with those of John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe, Susanna Wesley (mother of John and Charles) and many other devoted followers of Christ who await the joyous Resurrection Day.

Bunhill Fields Cemetery


Tomb of Isaac Watts

O Little Town of Bethlehem is a favorite of children and adults alike. Its author, Phillips Brooks (1835-1893), was the Episcopalian pastor of the Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia. The six-foot, six-inch tall Brooks would often interrupt his ministerial studies to romp with the boys and girls in the neighborhood. He had a heart for children, and in 1868 he was preparing his sermon for the children’s Christmas program, when his mind went back to his trip to the Holy Land and the Christmas Eve he spent at Bethlehem. The words to the carol began to flow through his mind.

The next day he gave the lyrics to his organist, Lewis H. Redner (1831-1908), who carried them in his pocket for several days before a melody came to him. Shortly before Christmas, Redner was awakened by what he described as “an angel strain,” and quickly arose and wrote down the notes. He harmonized the melody the next morning, and on Christmas Day the children sang O Little Town of Bethlehem for the first time. How touching it is to hear young voices sing it each Christmas!

Probably the most beloved Christmas carol of all time, Silent Night, Holy Night, came to us from Roman Catholic priest Joseph Mohr (1792-1848) and his organist, Franz Gruber (1787-1863) in the little Austrian town of Oberndorf. Unlike the prolific Wesley and Watts, Mohr and Gruber produced no other hymns that remain today. Author James Draper wrote: “Like the Star of Bethlehem, Franz Gruber and Joseph Mohr appeared once long ago on a 'silent night,' and seemingly passed on into the vastness of the universe.” (More Than A Song, p. 55)

A week before Christmas, a traveling drama troupe came to Oberndorf to perform a dramatization of the Nativity in the Church of St. Nicholas (appropriately enough!). Unfortunately, the organ was broken and the disassembled parts were strewn over the church floor. So the actors performed their play in a nearby home.

Deeply moved by the performance, Father Mohr walked to a foothill overlooking the village to meditate. In the still night the words to the carol came to him. The next day, Mohr shared the hymn with Gruber who wrote the soothing melody that calms troubled hearts each year.

At the Christmas Eve Mass, Mohr and Gruber performed the carol, accompanied by Gruber’s guitar, since the organ was still broken. Little could they have imagined the impact and lasting quality of their simple carol.

The Apostle Paul wrote that there will come a day when all true Christians will “come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:13 NKJV) Until the day dawns in Christ’s Kingdom, Christians of various denominations will have their differences, some very important ones. But our Christmas carols remind us that we can bow in awe before the Holy Child of the manger in Bethlehem, and worship our God made flesh who dwelt among us.


Article and Photo credits: Copyright 2009 by Thomas L. Jones


  1. Thanks for the link. I enjoyed reading the blog. It is good to look back and see the contributions of those with whom we will one day spend eternity.