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Following yonder star: the story behind the writing of ‘We Three Kings’

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Chances are, you’ll be hearing it this weekend. Here’s the story behind it:

We Three Kings“, also known as “We Three Kings of Orient Are” or “The Quest of the Magi“, is a Christmas carol that was written by John Henry Hopkins, Jr. in 1857. At the time of composing the carol, Hopkins served as the rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and he wrote the carol for a Christmas pageant in New York City. Many versions of this song have been composed and it remains a popular Christmas carol….

…At the time he was writing “We Three Kings” in 1857, John Henry Hopkins, Jr. was serving as the rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Although he originally worked as a journalist for a New York newspaper and studied to become a lawyer, he chose to join the clergy upon graduating from the University of Vermont. Hopkins studied at the General Theological Seminary in New York City and after graduating and being ordained a deacon in 1850, he became its first music teacher five years later, holding the post until 1857 alongside his ministry in the Episcopal Church.

During his final year of teaching at the seminary, Hopkins wrote “We Three Kings” for a Christmas pageant held at the college.It was extremely uncommon that Hopkins wrote both the lyrics and music; contemporary carol composers, usually wrote either the lyrics or music but not both. Originally titled “Three Kings of Orient”, it was sung within his circle of family and friends. Because of the popularity it achieved among them, Hopkins decided to publish the carol in 1862 in his book Carols, Hymns and Songs.

It was the first Christmas carol originating from the United States to achieve widespread popularity, as well as the first to be featured in Christmas Carols Old and New, a “prestigious” and “influential”  collection of carols that was published in the United Kingdom. In 1916, the carol was printed in the hymnal for the Episcopal Church; that year’s edition was the first to have a separate section for Christmas songs.  “We Three Kings” was also included in the Oxford Book of Carols published in 1928, which praised the song as “one of the most successful of modern composed carols.”

This account indicates the composer was probably a deacon at the time he wrote it:

He served as a deacon in 1850 and was priest in 1872. Then he became rector of Trinity Church in Plattsburg, New York, and later served as rector of Christ Church in Williamsport, Pa.

It was in 1857, while teaching music at the Seminary that Rev. Hopkins wrote the hymn, “We Three Kings” for a Christmas pageant that was presented at the Seminary that Christmas. He probably wrote the hymn with his nieces and nephews in mind. Since, he traveled from New York to Vermont every Christmas,where his father, John H. Hopkins. Sr., was the long time Episcopal Bishop for the State of Vermont. He always had a surprise for the youngsters at Christmas, and this year was no different. As usual, bachelor Uncle Henry did not disappoint the children. The family always had a dramatization of Matthew chapter 2, and the entire Christmas Story. The hymn was sung by the family for the next two years, and was so popular with family and friends that by 1863 it had been published by Rev. Hopkins in his first collection of “Carols, Hymns, and Songs.”

The rest, of course, is history. Below is part of that history: a pretty sensational performance of this classic by Hugh Jackman, David Hobson and Peter Cousen. I doubt you’ll be hearing anything quite like this in church this weekend. Enjoy.

 

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