History of Hymns: 'Some Children See Him'
By Victoria Schwarz and Wilson Pruitt
“Some Children See Him”
By Wihla Hutson
Worship & Song, 3065
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them (Luke 2:15–18, NRSV).
Wihla Hutson (1901–2002), born in Lake Station (now East Gary), Indiana, was known during her lifetime as a lyricist, composer, organist, and choral director. She moved with her family to Detroit, Michigan, when she was twelve years old, and she took private lessons in piano and organ through her teen years. As a young woman, she continued her studies at the Detroit Conservatory of Music and graduated from the College of the City of Detroit (now Wayne State University). Soon thereafter, following her father’s death, she began to work in the Diocesan Office of the Episcopal Church. In 1929, Wihla became the organist for All Saints Episcopal Church in Pontiac, Michigan, where her career in composing Christmas carols and publishing was initiated through a fortuitous meeting of talents.
Bates Burt (1878–1948), the pastor at All Saints, was the originator of a unique Christmas tradition—the writing of an original carol accompanied by original art and sent as a Christmas card to family and friends. From 1922–1941, Bates, a self-taught musician, composed all the lyrics and music for the annual carols. In 1942, Bates asked his son, Alfred (1920–1954), who had studied music at the University of Michigan and was an accomplished trumpet player, pianist, vocalist, and composer, to provide the music to go with his lyrics for “O Christmas Cometh Caroling.” Alfred agreed to do so and completed the music in fifteen minutes on the day it was due. From 1942–1948, Bates and Alfred created the family carols together.
It was in the midst of the early days of the Burt Carols tradition that Wihla, who kept her residence in Detroit twenty-five miles away, began to stay over with the Burt family during inclement weather and between the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services. She was quickly welcomed into the family. The Burt children called her “Aunt Wihla,” and she participated in the Burt family festivities. Subsequent to an interview with Bates’s granddaughter, Diane Burt, Ace Collins wrote in his book, More Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas, that Wihla would place original poems in the Burt children’s stockings during Christmas each year (Collins, 2006, p. 76).
After Bates’s death in 1949, Alfred, along with his wife, Anne, decided to continue the tradition of the annual Christmas carol card; however, with the loss of Bates, Alfred needed a lyricist. Diane related the story:
When my father asked Wihla to write the Christmas-card lyrics, she agreed immediately. My mom and dad discussed what each wanted from the songs…[it was] decided their cards would be about what was happening in the family…Wihla and Dad [Alfred] then set a pattern of one year having a sacred carol and the next year a secular one. They also decided on three verses in each new son. (Collins, 2006, p. 76).
Once the pattern and form were set, Anne asked Wihla to write a lyric that could both be a carol and an announcement for the birth of their first child. The carol “Sleep, Baby Mine” was the result, but the conversation that night also inspired a second set of lyrics— those of the beloved song “Some Children See Him,” which is included in the United Methodist hymnal supplement Worship & Song. The account given by Diane and related to us from Collins is enchanting and poignant:
That night, as she listened to Mom [Anne]…Wihla noted that Mom even saw Jesus as a little child would see him…as she got back into her car to drive back to her home, Wihla’s mind was crowded with thoughts of children. She realized that if she were a child in Africa, she would see the world much differently…an African child would see Jesus as a black man. Then she realized a Chinese child would see the Son of God with almond eyes, while an Indian child would see Jesus with dark hair and brown skin. As she never had before, Wihla grasped the concept of God’s being a universal spirit…Wihla eased the car to the side of the road (Collins, 2006, p. 77–8).
All the lyrics were written on that roadside but were not set to music by Alfred until 1951—the next time a sacred carol was expected in the order that had been set. True to his practice, the music for the carol was composed in twenty minutes.
When considering the text of “Some Children See Him,” it is important to remember how few descriptions of the appearance of Jesus we have in the Scriptures. He is a famous rabbi and prophet across the land, and the soldiers need someone to point out who he is. They cannot trust a description to pick him out of a crowd in the Garden of Gethsemane. During the transfiguration, Matthew describes that “his face shone like the sun” (Matt 17:2, CEB), but otherwise, he goes without description. We know who his parents were and the rough complexion of Jews in Roman Palestine, but not much more. The most prominent description of the Messiah comes from the prophet Isaiah, “He possessed no splendid form for us to see, no desirable appearance” (Isa 53:2b, CEB).
From the days of the early church, Christians all over the world have projected onto Jesus the characteristics of their own individual people. We can see this in images from Ethiopia to Norway to China.
“Some Children See Him” is not a hymn of history and should not be read or sung as one. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus says, “I assure you that whoever doesn’t welcome God’s kingdom like a child will never enter it” (Mark 10:15, CEB). The hymn takes this verse seriously and tries to imagine how children view and understand Jesus. In this way, it does not take a leap of imagination to say, “Some children see him lily white,” or “bronzed and brown,” or “almond-eyed,” or “dark as they.” One way of accepting God’s kingdom as a child is to look with the openness of a child, where difference is not primary, but where baby Jesus is just like our own self.
A few years after “Some Children See Him” was written, the well-known touring singing group Blue Reys were introduced to Alfred’s carols and asked if they could perform them at the King Family Christmas Party. This party, given by the president of Columbia Records, James Conkling, was an annual event that was attended by some of the biggest names in music at the time. The carols were well-received, and in 1955, two years after Alfred’s death, Columbia Records released a holiday record that included “Some Children See Him” as well as other Burt carols. Since then, “Some Children See Him” has been recorded by numerous artists – James Taylor, Al Jarreau, Sandi Patti, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir are just a few. In 1995, the country of Palau issued a series of stamps commemorating the song and its message of tolerance (Brenda Huntsinger-Williams, “Wihla Hutson”).
Wihla's composing career continued after Alfred's death. She composed and published many carols on her own and was honored with a concert of eighteen of her works in 2001 by the combined choirs of All Saints and St. David's Episcopal Church of Pontiac. She spent the last thirty-five years of her life in Southfield, Michigan, where she was organist at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer for a number of years. She died on March 24, 2002, just before her 101st birthday.
For further reading:
Ace Collins, More Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006).
Kathy Warnes, “Alfred Burt and Wihla Hutson’s Carols Are a Musical Christmas Card to the World Every Year,” History? Because It’s Here!
https://historybecauseitshere.weebly.com/alfred-burt-and-wihla-hutson.html (accessed November 7, 2021).
Brenda Huntsinger-Williams, “Wihla Hutson,” http://www.alfredburtcarols.com/burt/Web%20Pages/Wihla.htm (accessed on November 7, 2021).
About this week’s writers:
Victoria Schwarz is a provisional deacon in the Rio Texas Conference. She serves as the associate pastor and minister of music at Berkeley United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas. She is active in the Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts.
Rev. Wilson Pruitt is the pastor of Berkeley United Methodist Church in Austin, TX. A graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and Duke Divinity School, Rev. Pruitt is passionate about the theological and formational aspects of hymns at the intersection of faith and practice in the liturgy of the church.