06 January 2015

Carols and Hymns for Christmas (13):
‘We three kings of Orient are’ (No 201)

The Adoration by the Magi ... an Ethiopian artist’s impression (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Each morning during this Season of Christmas, I have been reflecting on an appropriate hymn or carol. Although liturgically the Christmas Season continues until Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation [2 February], for most people Christmas comes to an end today [6 January 2015] with the Feast of the Epiphany.

This morning, I am reflecting on the hymn ‘As with gladness men of old,’ sometimes known as ‘The Quest of the Magi,’ which is No 201 in the Irish Church Hymnal but is not included in the New English Hymnal.

This carol ranks alongside ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ by Bishop Phillips Brooks (ICH 174, NEH 32), among the best-known and popular American carols. But few people in Ireland realise that the author’s father was born in Dublin and was one of the bishops who played a pivotal role in the formation of the Anglican Communion.

‘We three kings of Orient are’ was written in 1859 by the Revd John Henry Hopkins (1820-1891). He was the Rector of Christ Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, when he wrote this carol for a Christmas pageant in the General Theological Seminary, New York, although it did not appear in print for another six years.

The Adoration of the Magi, by Peter Paul Rubens ... the Altarpiece in the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge

The Revd John Henry Hopkins, jr, was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on 28 October 1820, the son of John Henry Hopkins (1792-1868), an Irish-born Episcopal bishop who was the first Bishop of Vermont and later the eighth Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.

Bishop John Henry Hopkins was born in Dublin on 22 or 30 January 1792, the son of Thomas Hopkins and his wife Elizabeth nee Fitzakerly.

The Hopkins family emigrated from Dublin in 1800 to Philadelphia. There he began his education at home with his mother, and he was reading Shakespeare before the age of nine. Elizabeth Hopkins established a school for girls in Trenton, New Jersey, and eventually sent her son to a Baptist boy’s school in Bordentown, and then to Princeton University.

Because of his family’s straitened circumstances, Hopkins took a job at a counting-house, although his mother always wanted him to become a lawyer. At that time Hopkins was not particularly religious and his parents’ marriage was troubled. When his mother moved to Frederick, Maryland, to establish another school, he remained in Philadelphia with his father and friends.

Hopkins decided to become an ironmaster and worked for an ironmasters in New Jersey and in Philadelphia before moving west to manage the ironworks at Bassenheim in Butler County.

James O’Hara, an Irish immigrant who became the wealthiest man in Pittsburgh and Quartermaster-General, employed Hopkins to run the ironworks in the Ligonier Valley. There Hopkins got to know the Muller family, descended from a long line of German Lutheran ministers, and, after a religious awakening, began studying the Bible and other books, including works by Quakers and Swedenborgians.

He travelled back to Harmony, Pennsylvania, to marry Caspar Muller’s daughter Melusina and they settled at Hermitage Furnace. However, the iron business failed, and Hopkins returned to Pittsburgh where he taught drawing and painting while studying law with a local lawyer. He was called to the bar in April 1819 and set up a legal practice in Pittsburgh.

John and Melusina attended the Presbyterian Church, but he was also the organist and choirmaster at Trinity Church, the local Episcopal Church. When the Rector of Trinity Church moved to New Jersey and the next priest proved inadequate, Hopkins applied to be accepted for the priesthood, planning to merge his ministerial and legal vocations after ordination.

In 1823, he was licensed as a lay reader by William White, Bishop of Pennsylvania, was ordained deacon on 14 December that year, and was ordained priest on 12 May 1824. He was placed in charge of Trinity Church, Pittsburgh, and from 1824 to1830, he was Professor of Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres in the Western University of Pennsylvania (now the University of Pittsburgh). He read the works of the Church Fathers in the original Greek and Latin, and although in principle committed to high churchman liturgical practices he opposed the introduction of the Confessional to the Episcopal Church.

In 1827, he stepped back from the opportunity to become a coadjutor bishop to Bishop White, who was also the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. He realised his own vote would have decided the election in his favour, and lost by one vote. Later he would tell his son that had he voted for himself he would have wondered for the rest of his life whether his will or God’s had been done.

In 1831, he accepted the charge of Trinity Church, Boston, where his great vision was to establish a diocesan seminary, although support for this plan never fully materialised.

In 1832, Hopkins was elected the first Bishop of Vermont, and was consecrated in Saint Paul’s Church, New York, on 31 October 1832. At the same time he became the Rector of Saint Paul’s, Burlington. While he was Bishop of Vermont, the Diocese faced financial depressions, mass migration from Vermont to the west which was opening up, personal bankruptcy, and controversies. He took a great interest in education and made economic sacrifices for its promotion. After 1856, he devoted his whole time to the care of the diocese.

Hopkins is credited with introducing Gothic architecture to the Episcopal Church, and was the architect of Trinity Church, Rutland, where he was the Rector from 1860 to 1861. In 1861,he published a pamphlet, A Scriptural, Ecclesiastical, and Historical View of Slavery, seen as an attempt to justify slavery based on the New Testament, and giving a clear insight into the Episcopal Church’s involvement in slavery. He argued that slavery was not a sin per se but an institution that was objectionable and should be abrogated by agreement.

His lifelong dream of a diocesan seminary was realised in 1860 with the opening of the Vermont Episcopal Institute at Rock Point on Lake Champlain, outside Burlington. He also served for a time as the Chancellor of the University of Vermont.

In January 1865, he was elected the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. That October, he presided at the general convention in Philadelphia. Largely through his friendship with Bishop Stephen Elliott of Georgia, the Presiding Bishop of the breakaway Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America, the Northern and Southern branches of the Episcopal Church were reunited in 1866 after the end of the American Civil War. Subsequently, he presided in Christ Church, New Orleans at the consecration of Joseph Wilmer as Bishop of Louisiana, and in Louisville at the consecration of George David Cummins as Assistant Bishop of Kentucky.

His took a leading role in the first Lambeth Conference in 1867, bringing together all bishops in the Anglican Communion, and had suggested a similar assembly 18 years earlier in 1849.

He survived only two months after his return to Burlington in November 1867, and died of congestion of the lungs on 9 January 1868, at the age of 75. His funeral took place in Saint Paul’s Church, Burlington, and was buried in the cemetery at Rock Point. His monument was planned by his eldest son, the Revd John Henry Hopkins, the author of today’s carol.

John and Melusina Hopkins had 13 children. In 1866, most of their large family gathered at the family home at Rock Point to celebrate their Golden Wedding anniversary, and their daughter-in-law, Alice Leavenworth Hopkins, published a book to commemorate the event.

The University of Vermont and Harvard University hold many of the family papers. Most of his architectural legacy has been lost, including his Gothic Saint Paul’s Cathedral, Burlington, which was destroyed by fire in 1972. However, Saint Paul’s Lutheran Church, in Zelienople, Pennsylvania, which was built in 1826, still survives.

The Adoration of the Magi ... a window by Meyers of Munich in the south transept of Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The bishop’s son, the Revd John Henry Hopkins, jr, the author of this morning’s carol, was born on 28 October 1820, in Pittsburgh. He graduated from the University of Vermont with an AB in 1839, and received his master’s degree in 1845. He worked for a while as a journalist before entering the General Theological Seminary in New York. After ordination, he was the seminary’s first music teacher (1855-1857). He composed several hymns, and edited the Church Journal.

Hopkins wrote words and music for ‘We three kings of orient are’ as part of a Christmas pageant in 1859 when he was visiting his father’s home in Vermont, although it did not appear in print until his Carols, Hymns and Songs was published in New York in 1863.

While he was the rector of Christ Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania (1876-1887), he delivered the eulogy at the funeral of President Ulysses S Grant in 1885. He died in Hudson, New York, on 14 August 1891 and is buried beside his father at Bishop’s House, Rock Point, Burlington, Vermont.

I first learned this hymn when I went carol singing with school-friends from Gormanston and Muckross as a teenager in Christmas 1968 and sang the part of the Third King who brings the gift of myrrh. This hymn is based on the story of the Visit of the Magi in Matthew 2: 1-12, which is the Gospel reading at the Epiphany Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, this evening.

Hopkins organised the carol so that three male voices would each sing a single verse by himself, in order to correspond with the three kings.

The first and last stanzas of the carol are sung together by all three as “verses of praise,” while the intermediate stanzas are sung individually, with each king describing the gift he is bringing and revealing the sacramental nature of the gifts offered to the Christ Child. The refrain praises the beauty of the Star of Bethlehem.

The Adoration of the Magi ... a stained glass window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This is the first Christmas carol from the US to win widespread popularity, and it was included in Bramley and Stainer’s Christmas Carols Old and New in London in 1871. In 1916, it was published in the hymnal for the Episcopal Church, which for the first time included a separate section for Christmas songs.

When it was included in the Oxford Book of Carols (1928), when it was described as “one of the most successful of modern composed carols.”

The Visit of the Magi seen on a panel on the triptych in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford/Lichfield Gazette)

We three kings of Orient are by John Henry Hopkins

1, The kings:
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;
westward leading, still proceeding
guide us to thy perfect light!

2, First king:
Born a king on Bethlehem plain,
gold I bring to crown him again –
king forever, ceasing never
over us all to reign


3, Second king:
Frankincense to offer have I;
incense owns a Deity nigh;
prayer and praising, gladly raising
worship him, God Most High:


4, Third king:
Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
breathes of life of gathering gloom;
sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
sealed in the stone-cold tomb:


5, The kings:
Glorious now, behold him arise,
King, and God, and Sacrifice!
Heav’n sings: alleluia, alle-
luia the earth replies:


Series Concluded

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