History of Hymns: 'He Came Down'
By C. Michael Hawn
“He Came Down”
Trad. Cameroonian Song
The Faith We Sing, 2085
He came down that we may have love;
he came down that we may have love;
he came down that we may have love;
Hallelujah for evermore.
“So the word of God became a human being and lived among us.” (John 1:14a, J.B. Phillips N.T.)
This song appears to have Cameroonian origins. John Bell (b. 1949), a troubadour of the Iona Community in Scotland, first heard it in the mid-1980s when officiating the wedding of a Cameroonian couple in Frankfort, Germany. Hymnologist Nancy Graham noted, “They requested that it be sung unaccompanied with the guests in a circle, reminiscent of the ring shout prevalent in the music of enslaved Africans in North America and the Caribbean” (Graham, Canterbury Dictionary). Copyrighted by the Wild Goose Resource Group in 1986, Bell included it in his first collection of songs from the world church, Many and Great (1990). In this collection, Bell states, “The song was experienced in Germany at an international conference in 1986 when a group of Presbyterians from Cameroon broke into a song and dance. They moved in a circle, counterclockwise, using their hand to beckon Christ, as it were, from heaven to earth” (Bell, 1990, p. 15). Bell transcribed the song from this experience.
This song is quickly learned through oral/aural transmission because of the repetition of the lines in each stanza with only one word in subsequent stanzas. Most hymnals include “love,” “peace,” and “joy.” Others add “hope,” “light,” and “life.” In the oral tradition style of sub-Saharan Africa, a lead singer prompts the next stanza with the question, “Why did he come?” The stanzas suggest that this song is most appropriate during Advent when many congregations light the candles of hope, peace, joy, and love on successive Sundays. Hymn writer and hymnologist Carl P. Daw Jr. correctly notes that the “intention of the text is not narrative but anamnetic: it is not meant to impart new knowledge but to evoke memory and thankfulness” (Daw, 2016, p. 143).
Nancy Graham cites an observation by Ghanaian ethnomusicologist J.H.B. Nketia (1921–2019), who suggested an affinity between the melody of this song and the Caribbean Christmas calypso, “The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy.” They both begin with a rising perfect fourth and have a strikingly similar melodic arch in each subsequent phrase. The rising fourth and rising sequence of each of the following phrases is also a pattern familiar to many oral tradition melodies. “The Virgin Mary,” undoubtedly a product of the African diaspora in the West Indies, may have traveled to West Africa via missionaries (Daw, 2016, p. 144). Thus, a common origin cannot be ruled out.
United Methodist minister John Thornburg (b. 1954) prepared a bilingual English and French collection, O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing/Mille Voix pour Chanter tes Louanges (2009), for the United Methodist mission in Cameroon. Nigerian composer Godwin Sadoh (b. 1965) included this song as a Nigerian composition in his collection Ę Korin S’Oluwa (2005). As Thornburg notes, the border between the adjacent countries of Cameroon and Nigeria is porous. He verifies that the song is widely sung in Anglophone Cameroon. While West Africans undoubtedly respond physically when singing this song (and most songs), Thornburg indicated that a Presbyterian missionary suggested the counterclockwise circle dance mentioned by Bell was usually reserved for “singing competitions” and not a normative performance practice (Westermeyer, 2010, p. 19).
Most versions follow Bell’s lead by notating the song in 4/4 meter with quarter-note triplets over beats 3 and 4. Notation of West African melodies is not easy. While the other more complicated and perhaps “accurate” versions exist, this is probably the easiest way to bridge the gap between West African performance practice and the experience of Euro-American congregations. Using the West African agogo bell (gong) as an accompanying instrument, play a traditional rhythm opposite the melody—quarter-note triplets over beats 1 and 2 of each measure followed by quarter notes that sound against the triplet figure of the melody.
Supplement this with a calabash shaker playing eighth notes, and the celebratory soundscape of the song comes to life. A simple wind instrument playing only the melody is sufficient if any melodic instrument is needed. Harmony can be improvised by ear. While the song’s appearance in a printed collection is helpful, encourage choral enablers and song enliveners to risk singing the song “by ear” and invite them to shift their weight from one foot to another on each measure to enter into a fuller experience of the music.
The question may arise among some, “Why should I add a song from another culture to our repertoire when we have so many beautiful Christmas carols and hymns to sing in our tradition?” Perhaps a response is evident in John 1:14a, cited at the beginning of this article. Scholars remind us that the word for “lived” has its root in a word that means a tent—a humble, even portable, dwelling reminiscent of the shelter (tabernacle) used by the Israelites and a symbol of God’s presence in the wilderness from bondage in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. This tent has been pitched around the world as God’s presence has spread through the centuries. Perhaps singing “He Came Down” is one way to understand the immensity of the tent and God’s living presence among us—all of us.
John L. Bell, ed. Many and Great: Songs of the World Church, Vol. 1 (Chicago: GIA Publications, Inc., 1990).
Carl P. Daw Jr., Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016).
Nancy Graham, “He Came Down,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology, Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/h/he-came-down (accessed September 19, 2022).
_____, “The Rehabilitation of George Pullen Jackson and African American Spirituals,” Ph.D. diss., Foundation House, Oxford University, 2015.
Paul Westermeyer, Hymnal Companion: Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2010).
Verses marked Phillips N.T. are from The New Testament in Modern English by J.B Phillips copyright © 1960, 1972 J. B. Phillips. Administered by The Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England. Used by Permission.
C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor, and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.