Beloved Christmas carols: O come all ye faithful

O come all ye faithful shows that conspiracy theories are not new in our time.  Once scholars turned their attention to Christmas carols, its origins had been forgotten, but both the words and music turn out to be the work of John Francis Wade, an English Catholic born in 1711.

Eighteenth-century England knew nothing of religious liberty. Being Catholic was dangerous. The English Civil War that began in 1642 and ended with the beheading of King Charles I took place in part because Parliament suspected the king of Catholic leanings. The Glorious Revolution of 1689 deposed King James II specifically because a son had been born to that Catholic monarch and thus the throne would no longer naturally be passed down to his Protestant daughters.

When his younger daughter, Queen Anne, died without heir in 1714, Parliament feared the rest of the Stuart family, who were all Catholic. It gave the throne to a German relative (King George I), who happened to be Protestant. James had already tried to regain the throne by force. Both his son and grandson pursued their  own claims, meeting military defeat in 1715, 1719, and 1745.

In the midst of all this political and religious strife, many English Catholics, including Wade in about 1731, went into exile in France. Wade made his living there by teaching music and making beautiful musical manuscripts. He apparently wrote the words (in Latin) and music to “Adeste fideles” some time between 1740 and 1743. Here is the first verse:

Adeste, fideles læti, triumphantes;
Venite, venite in Bethlehem:
Natum videte Regem Angelorum.
Venite, adoremus Dominum.

Some English Protestants apparently suggested that the words had some hidden Jacobite meaning. According to this theory, “Bethlehem” was a standard code word for England. “Angelorum” means angels, but take away the “e” and it become “Anglorum,” or “English. So the first verse really meant to glorify Charles Stuart as king (‘regem” of England!

That may or may not be true, but after the final defeat of the Stuarts no one remembered such theories for long. Wade  himself returned to England before his death. Both his words and music became popular all over Europe. The carol was first printed in England in 1782, but without attribution. Wade’s authorship remained unknown until more than two hundred years after he wrote it.

At least 50 English translations have appeared over the years. Frederick Oakeley, an English Anglican priest, made the most popular one in 1841. Ironically, he converted to Roman Catholicism in 1845. He changed his original first line, “Ye faithful, approach ye,” to the familiar and more singable “O come, all ye faithful” at about the same time.

And isn’t that the real message of the entire text? O come all ye faithful: Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Coptic, it doesn’t matter. Come and worship not only the King Angels, but the Lord of the Universe, born in human flesh to redeem all humanity from sin and death. Let us all adore him.

Sources: Hymns and Carols of Christmas; Christmas Classics: The Story Behind 40 Favorite Carols / by David McLaughlan (Barbour, 2010)

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