It may be one of the most familiar songs of the Christmas season, and one you can’t resist joining in to sing. Notably: it was written by an Episcopal deacon.
“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.”
Here, it’s performed by the choir at Kings College in Cambridge.