One of my favorite Christmas songs is We Three Kings. Written about the same time as Jingle Bells, these lyrics and tune are different than the sleighing song and originally intended for church and religious plays. Based on the Biblical account of the wise men traveling to worship Baby Jesus, the song focuses on the symbolism of the three gifts that they brought.
Today, we’ll explore some of the history of the song’s writer and the historical information behind the lyrics and tune.
Song For A Christmas Pageant
John Henry Hopkins, Jr. – a Pennsylvanian – graduated from University of Vermont in 1839 when he was nineteen and then went on to earn his Master’s Degree by 1845. The son of an Episcopalian bishop, Hopkins decided to pursuit ministry after briefly trying to work as a journalist. He finished theological seminary in 1850 and then returned to General Theological Seminary to teach music from 1855 to 1857.
Gifted as an author, illustrator, and musician, Hopkins edited the Church Journal and wrote several hymns. By December 1857, he served as pastor of Christ Episcopal Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. That year he wrote “Three Kings of Orient” for his nephews and nieces who were preparing a Christmas pageant.
The first and final verses were written to be sung in chorus while the middle verses were supposed to be solos, representing three “kings” who brought the gifts. Hopkins wrote the music which has hints of medieval and Middle Eastern tones and rhythm, different than most songs of that mid-19th Century era. In 1863 the Christmas song appeared in his printed collection Carols, Hymns and Songs, and it became one of the first American Christmas carol to gain widespread international popularity.
Hopkins continued to pastor churches in New York and Pennsylvania. In 1885, he gave the eulogy at General and President U.S. Grant’s funeral.
The Gospel of Matthew has the original historical inspiration for the song: “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him… Behold, the star which they had seen in the east went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Matthew 2:1-2, 9-11)
Notice that the men aren’t mentioned as “kings” nor are we told that there were just three! Those details came in later centuries. By the Middle Ages, church tradition dictated the idea of three kings based on the three mentioned gifts; they even gave the “kings” names and backstories. Though interesting, these added details might be powerful historical fiction!
We Three Kings of Orient are,
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain,
Moor and mountain,
Following yonder Star.
O Star of Wonder, Star of Night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Guide us to Thy perfect Light.
Born a King on Bethlehem plain,
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King for ever,
Over us all to reign.
Frankincense to offer have I,
Incense owns a Deity nigh:
Prayer and praising
All men raising,
Worship Him God on High.
Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;—
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
Glorious now behold Him arise,
King, and God, and Sacrifice;
Heav’n sings Hallelujah:
Hallelujah the earth replies.
Enjoy The Music
May you enjoy the truth and wonder this Christmas season and be drawn ever nearly to the perfect Light.