Did you know? Most Christmas carols, as you might have noticed, start out as poems and later are adapted to music. That makes Episcopal clergyman John Henry Hopkins Jr., the writer of “We Three Kings”, groundbreaking – he both wrote and set his carol to music!
In 1857, Hopkins was ministering in Pennsylvania when he wrote a hymn for the General Theological Seminary’s New York Christmas Pageant. He was inspired by Matthew 2:1, where the Magi make the journey to visit Jesus and bring Him their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It wasn’t commonplace to focus on the Magi, but it caught his attention. He composed “We Three Kings” to be sung by three men, with each verse constituting a solo. The chorus, the first stanza, and the last stanza were to be sung as a group – perfect for a Christmas pageant!
It became a staple in his family that same year, and he then published it in a collection in 1863. It’s the first American-made hymn to be definitively credited and to gain notable popularity, one that is still very common in carols and Christmas pageants today.
Listen to the Northridge Preparatory School choir bring life to “We Three Kings” for your Advent cheer: