“O Come, All Ye Faithful” was also originally a Roman Catholic hymn, and it has a bit of a bumpy history. Originally written in Latin, but by an Englishman, in 1743, a time when all but the Roman Catholics would have been writing in English, folks were not exactly sure who the author was. At that time it was considered proper to leave liturgical pieces anonymous, since the song wasn’t really meant to be “his” but rather the church’s. Also, since it was in Latin, there was no reason to suspect that it was an Englishman who wrote it. The French began to claim that it was theirs. Some Irish said that they heard it first. Even in England, the tune picked up the name “The Portuguese Hymn” because it was played in the Portuguese chapel in England. This lead people to think that maybe it had been written by someone from Portugal, perhaps even the king! You can read all about the history here, but what seems to be proven (though wikipedia says that “it has been concluded that… probably…”, so take this “probable conclusion” how you will) is that it was written by the English Roman Catholic, John Francis Wade. Wade had spent some time in exile in France, and so the French may well have heard the tune there. He was also in Ireland for a while, so there’s the Irish’s claim. Wade wrote the tune in Latin, and so it was called Adeste Fideles, in 1743. In fact, the song is known by its Latin title in most all official discussions, particularly because this allows it to be shared in the multiple countries that all sing it.
Another reason that it was difficult to figure out who wrote Adeste Fideles is that various subsequent additions were made. Wade’s composition had four verses with the chorus. Another author, perhaps Abbe Etienne Jean Francois, added three more in 1827. Frederick Oakeley translated Wade’s Latin into English in 1841, and then later William Thomas Brooke translated the additional verses as well as one more which is of wholly anonymous origin. Folks weren’t even sure that Wade was the original author, and now there were at least two other authors and two translators to deal with. It was kind of a mess.
We said that John Francis Wade was a Roman Catholic. He lived in a time when this was quite dangerous in England. Catholics had not been terribly popular politically since they tried to blow up Parliament, and after James II’s failed reign and the “Glorious Revolution” with William and Mary, Catholics were further marginalized. Wade was also known to dabble in Jacobite revolutionary plots, which gave him need for exile from time to time. Adeste Fideles was published in books adorned with Jacobite artwork and liturgical propaganda, and some people even thought that the song itself was a sort of political code. The “faithful” weren’t just Christian in general, but the true Catholic faithful, and the king whom they were to come rally around was perhaps James Francis Edward Stuart. I think this interpretation is a bit of a stretch, but then again, it doesn’t have to be strictly true. All it takes is for the right people to think that it might be true in order for the song to be considered politically subversive. This is probably another reason why Wade was marginalized and his authorship obscured. Good Englishmen wouldn’t want too close an association with him.
Of course, that’s all water under the bridge now. No one considers Adeste Fideles to be particularly dangerous today. But wait, maybe that’s just what the Jesuits want… No one will expect it!
Wade’s lyrics seem superior to the later additions. The other ones tried to fill out the nativity scene and even add the Magi, who are really Epiphany characters, but still, the extra stanzas don’t seem to measure up in lyrical quality. I’m happy to not sing them, but you are free to do as you please.
The second stanza stands out with particular majesty, as it incorporates the concepts of the Nicene Creed. “God of God, Light of Light” is taken exactly from the Creed, and “Begotten not created” is a delightful way to make the point that while the eternal Son of God was “born” from God, this in no way made Him a part of creation. Also, the fact that He “abhors not the Virgin’s womb” shows that He who was in the form of God took upon Himself the likeness of man, being born of a woman.
Here is the song we have today, with all of the stanzas. Wade’s original ones are 1, 2, 7, and 8:
O come, all ye faithful, Joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye, to Bethlehem.
Come and behold Him, Born the King of angels;
O come, let us adore Him, O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.
God of God, Light of Light,
Lo, He abhors not the Virgin’s womb;
Very God, Begotten not created;
See how the shepherds, Summoned to His cradle,
Leaving their flocks, draw nigh to gaze;
We too will thither Bend our joyful footsteps;
Lo! star-led chieftains, Magi, Christ adoring,
Offer Him incense, gold, and myrrh;
We to the Christ Child Bring our hearts’ oblations.
Child, for us sinners Poor and in the manger,
We would embrace Thee, with love and awe;
Who would not love Thee, Loving us so dearly?
There shall we see Him, His Eternal Father’s
Everlasting Brightness now veiled under flesh;
We find there, A Babe in infant clothing;
Sing, choirs of angels, Sing in exultation;
Sing, all ye citizens of heaven above!
Glory to God In the highest;
Yea, Lord, we greet Thee, Born this happy morning;
Jesus, to Thee be glory given;
Word of the Father, Now in flesh appearing.