In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life,and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-5, 14)
“O Come, All Ye Faithful” is one of the most popular of all hymns typically associated with Christmas: it appeared in nearly every hymnal produced from the late 20th century; it is likely one of the oldest carols that is in common use. Yet, curiously, its origins are lost in the mists of time.
We do know that it was first written in Latin. We have probably heard it that way from time to time—Bing Crosby recorded a version of the original Latin hymn, “Adeste Fideles,” for instance. Perhaps for that reason, it has been attributed to everyone from the 12th century Franciscan friar St. Bonaventure to King John IV of Portugal in the 17thcentury, with a lot of anonymous Cistercian monks from various countries in between.
Most contemporary English songbooks, including our own, ascribe it to John Francis Wade in the year 1751. Wade was an English Catholic living in exile in France and working as a professional scribe. In particular, he specialized in copying musical manuscripts by hand, and was in great demand by choir leaders and institutions of higher learning. Wade was known for his beautiful hand, and thus often signed his copies, perhaps because his clients requested it.
In 1751, he published a collection of his manuscript copies, Cantus Diversi pro Dominicis et Festis per annum (Songs for Sundays and Holidays Through the Year). This is the first printed source for “Adeste Fideles.” It is at least possible that Wade composed it himself, but, given his occupation, it is probably more likely that he was copying someone else’s work—it has been said that the lyrics were sung in France before Wade was born—though there is no evidence of it.
In 1795, the Duke of Leeds heard a version of it being sung at the Portuguese Embassy in London. The Duke was the Master of Music at court and so introduced it to a group of concert singers he conducted. It is accordingly sometimes known as the “Portuguese Hymn,” and the most commonly attributed Portuguese author is the aforementioned John IV, the “Musician King.” John was, in fact, a composer, and 2 manuscripts of the “Portuguese Hymn” have been found in his palace and dated to 1640, a century before Wade’s work. Nevertheless, some musicologists argue for Wade’s authorship of the version we are familiar with.
What is certain is that it was translated into the English version we all know by Frederick Oakley, a Catholic priest, in 1841. Like the Latin original, the refrain of Oakley’s text calls repeatedly venite adoremus—O come, let us adore him!—Christ the Lord, the Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing, a reference to the prologue to John’s gospel.
That exhortation, hinging on the word “adore,” is significant, because adore is such an interesting word. We typically use it for things that are delightful, maybe even too cutesy for their own good: oh, isn’t that just adorable. And based on that normal usage, we might be inclined to think we are being called to Bethlehem to oooh and ahhh over the bouncing baby Jesus, because isn’t he totes adorbs?
But adore has a much more serious origin. As you can tell from adoremus, it comes to English from the Latin verb adorare, “to approach a god as a worshipper, treat with reverence; to pray or beseech.” This is not an invitation to admire the baby; it is an urgent appeal, to drop everything—come!—and gather round, fall on your knees, and worship him, born the king of angels.
Adoration is, fundamentally, the joyful response humans make when overwhelmed by the majesty of God. It is the only suitable reaction to what he has done in Christ.