History of Hymns: 'Jesus, Jesus, Oh, What a Wonderful Child'
By C. Michael Hawn
“Jesus, Jesus, Oh, What a Wonderful Child” (“Glory to the Newborn King”)
Margaret Wells Allison
Worship & Song, 3060
Jesus, Jesus, O what a wonderful child.
Jesus, Jesus, so holy, meek and mild;
new life, new hope the child will bring.
Listen to the angel sing:
“Glory, glory, glory!”
Let the heavens ring.
“Glory to the Newborn King” is listed as “Traditional African American” in most hymnals and as an “African American Spiritual” in a few. Beginning with the second designation – African American spiritual – this is almost certainly not correct. For example, no collections of spirituals list an entry by this name, including the monumental Lyrics of the Afro-American Spiritual edited by Erskine Peters (Westport, CN, 1993). Furthermore, within the larger corpus of African American spirituals, the theme of the nativity of Jesus is relatively rare. African American poet and scholar James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) discusses the historical and social context of the Christmas holiday in the antebellum South:
. . . the anniversary of the birth of Christ was not, in the South, in any sense a sacred or religious holiday. Up to within recent years [The Johnsons published their books of Spirituals in 1925 and 1926], at least, it has been celebrated chiefly with gunpowder and whiskey. It has there been the most secular, even the most profane of all holidays. In slavery times it was the one day on which the slaves were given a sort of freedom. The liberty of coming and going was greatly enlarged. On many plantations whiskey was distributed. The day was one given over to a good time; to singing, dancing, and visiting; to guzzling, gluttony and debauchery (Johnson,  1969, pp. 14-15).
Johnson continues to note that such a celebration “destroyed in the minds of the slaves any idea of connection between the birth of Christ and his life and death” (Johnson, , 1969, p. 15). As a result, the two collections totaling 120 spirituals published by Johnson and his brother J. Rosamond Johnson in the first quarter of the twentieth century records only two Christmas-related entries, a spiritual collected in Virginia, “Dar’s A Star In De East” (“Rise Up Shepherd An’ Foller”), and one from St. Helena Island (South Carolina), “Mary Had A Baby.” James Weldon Johnson contends that these spirituals and any others with references to the birth of Christ belong to the time after Emancipation and none of the earlier collections contained this theme. He also suggested that enslaved Africans thought of Jesus as a powerful Savior, exemplified, for example, in “Ride On, King Jesus,” rather than a helpless infant.
Accepting the idea that “Glory to the Newborn King” is not a spiritual, but does have African American origins, then what does the designation “traditional” mean? This author has noted on numerous occasions that composed works by African Americans in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries are often listed as “traditional” for a variety of reasons. In some cases, authorship is not documented or copyrighted, or the song was unpublished in its early years and transmitted primarily through oral/aural means. As a result, the author is lost. In numerous cases, white artists arrange and perform works known to be by African American composers without attribution and list them on recordings and in print as “traditional,” perhaps to avoid royalties or simply because, white and black publishers were often quite separate enterprises, mirroring segregation itself. This took place through the 1960s.
African American scholar Horace Clarence Boyer (1935-2009) implies that “Glory to the Newborn King” was composed by a popular black gospel ensemble, the Angelic Gospel Singers. Their founder and leader was Margaret Wells Allison (1921-2008), a South Carolina native who moved to Philadelphia when she was four. It was there that she was influenced by the music of her congregation, Little Temple Pentecostal Church. Limited piano study during her elementary years opened up the opportunity to play piano for B. M. Oakley Memorial Church of God. At age 21, she joined the Spiritual Echoes, a touring gospel choir. Her pastor suggested that she form her own gospel group, so she established the Angelic Gospel Singers in 1944, an ensemble that continued performing until Allison’s death. The all-female group was signed by Gotham Records in 1947. Their promoter suggested that they establish their own sound by recording a song no one else had used. Allison chose “Touch Me, Lord Jesus” by National Baptist Convention, USA gospel legend Lucie Eddie Campbell (1895-1963). The 1949 single recording was a phenomenal success (Cummings, 2011, n.p.). Their final album was published in 2000. The Angelic Gospel Singers was a signature group among Pentecostal Christians throughout the United States, and by 1949, they were known widely throughout gospel circles. In their later years, they added some male vocalists and instrumentalists, but Allison served as the primary keyboardist.
As Boyer notes, “Although not apparent from its early success, ‘Glory to the New Born King’ (1950) became as popular in gospel music circles as ‘White Christmas’ is in the popular music world” (Boyer, 1995, pp. 111-112). A list of the recordings of the Angelic Gospel Singers indicates a 1952 single record with “Glory, Glory to the Newborn King” on one side and “Jesus Christ Is Born” on the other (Angelic Gospel Singers, Wikipedia, n.p.). Information provided by Allison’s daughter in her obituary states, “Her legacy includes songs such as: the original composition of “Glory to the Newborn King” which is a Christmas Classic . . .” (Manovich, 2008, n.p.). For some time, it was not certain that “Glory to the Newborn King” and “Jesus, Jesus, Oh, what a wonderful child” were the same song, the latter perhaps being a later version (McIntyre, 2013, n.p.). An undated YouTube recording of the Angelic Gospel Singers (Lyric Video) that has surfaced recently indicating that they indeed are the same song with some subtle variations (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MlvxmYs2noY). An additional 1997 performance, “The Angelic Gospel Singers! 50 Years ‘Live’ in Birmingham,” while not including “Glory to the Newborn King,” demonstrates not only a close stylistic connection to the song, but also includes several songs that incorporate a rhetorical use of “Jesus, Jesus,” as found in the refrain (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pSDte7qCf2o).
Apparently, the song remained somewhat limited in use until Mariah Carey recorded it on her album Merry Christmas (1994), after which it became much more widely known and recorded. Carey’s performance on the recording (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2azO6P2QfQ) reflects a strong Pentecostal performance practice. Among numerous other recordings, a 2009 rendition by gospel singer Joy Gardner with Christ Church Pentecostal, Inc. Choir (a worldwide denomination based in Jacksonville, Florida) demonstrates the song’s ethnic crossover to broader audiences (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cLTbDVNpowc).
The refrain as recorded by the Angelic Gospel Singers is virtually the same as the version quoted at the beginning of the article with the exception of Allison’s line, “New life and hope to all he brings” and the use of “angels” (plural) rather than a single “angel”. Mariah Carey sings a slightly different version, “New life, new hope, new joy he brings.” Allison inserts a single soloistic stanza between the repetitions of the refrain. The stanza, provided below, is the text as sung by the Angelic Gospel Singers. Mariah Carey’s textual variations are in brackets:
He was herald by the angels,
Born in a lowly manger
The Virgin Mary [was] chosen as his mother
and Joseph as [was] his earthly father.
The [Three] wise men traveled [came] from afar,
they were guided by the [a] shining star
to see King Jesus as [where] he lay,
in a manger filled with hay.
An improvised bridge by Carey in a more current Pentecostal style has also been added with the following words:
Oh Jesus, Jesus, Mary's baby,
Lamb of God, Heavenly Child,
Jesus, Jesus, I Love Him;
Oh Jesus, Almighty God, King of kings;
Oh Jesus, Oh Jesus, Oh, oh, oh, Jesus
Wonderful, wonderful one
Oh, oh, Oh Jesus, Oh Jesus, Son of God;
Oh Jesus, Glory, Glory, Glory to the
new born King, yeah...
The vocal arrangement used in several hymnals is by Jeffrey Radford (1953-2002), a Chicago-born musician who studied organ with Robert Wooten, Sr., the conductor of the Wooten Chorale. Rev. Jeremiah Wright engaged Radford to develop the music program at Trinity United Church of Christ in 1972 and, with Wright, grew the congregation from 100 to 8,000 members with a choir program of 950 participants at the time of Radford’s death (Westermeyer, 2010, pp. 78-79).
Describing the music, Dean McIntyre states, “The song is in a heavily rhythmic 12/8 meter resulting from the triplet subdivision of a 4/4 meter. The melody is unusually restricted, consisting almost entirely of the notes G, A and B plus the lowered third of Bb. The melody rises and climaxes on a D in the ‘Glory, glory, glory’ angels’ song” (McIntyre, 2013, n.p.).
The first printed version of the hymn has not been determined. It is interesting to note that it rarely appears in any standard African American hymnals with the exception of This Far by Faith (1999), perhaps because of its early association with Pentecostal traditions. The New Century Hymnal (1995) included the refrain as “African American Traditional” with Radford’s voicing, and Sing! a New Creation (2001) provides the refrain with Radford’s vocal parts and an accompaniment by Horace Clarence Boyer. The text is listed as being written by “Doc Bagby” [perhaps a jazz musician, b. c. 1915-1970] and the music composed by Margaret Allison. The author could not find any further association between Bagby and this song. Since then the refrain has been included in several twenty-first century mainline hymnals. The original stanza sung by the Angelic Gospel Singers is obviously soloistic and, therefore, not included in any hymnal.
“Angelic Gospel Singers,” Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angelic_Gospel_Singers.
Horace Clarence Boyer, How Sweet the Sound: The Golden Age of Gospel (Washington, D. C.: Elliott and Clark Publishing, 1995).
Tony Cummings, “Angelic Gospel Singers: Margaret Allison still singing ‘Touch Me, Lord Jesus’,” Cross Rhythms (April 3, 2011), http://www.crossrhythms.co.uk/articles/music/Angelic_Gospel_Singers_Margaret_Allison_still_singing_Touch_Me_Lord_Jesus/43165/p1.
James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson, The Books of African American Spirituals, Vol. 2 (New York: The Viking Press, [1925, 1926] 1969).
Bob Manovich, “RIP: Margaret Allison of the Angelic Gospel Singers,” Journal of Gospel Music (July 31, 2008), http://journalofgospelmusic.com/gospel/rip-margaret-allison-of-the-angelic-gospel-singers.
Dean McIntyre, “Jesus, Jesus, Oh, What a Wonderful Child,” Discipleship Ministries (September 5, 2013), https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/jesus-jesus-oh-what-a-wonderful-child.
Erskine Peters, Ed., Lyrics of the Afro-American Spiritual: A Documentary Collection; The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Black Music (Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 1993).
Paul Westermeyer, Hymnal Companion: Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2010).
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.