History of Hymns: “We Three Kings”

by C. Michael Hawn

"We Three Kings"
John H. Hopkins, Jr.
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 254

John H. Hopkins, Jr.

We three kings of Orient are
bearing gifts we traverse afar;
field and fountain, moor and mountain,
following yonder star.
O star of wonder, star of light,
star with royal beauty bright,
westward leading, still proceeding,
guide us to thy perfect light.

Every reader has probably seen a Christmas pageant where three young boys dress up as the three kings, complete with crowns and gifts, while the choir or congregation sang “We three kings.” This hymn may be the primary reason for this tradition and is a peculiarly American contribution to the repertoire of this season. 

The author and composer, John Henry Hopkins, Jr. (1820-1891), was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He received his education at the University of Vermont and at General Theological Seminary in New York City, graduating in 1850. Hopkins then became the first church music instructor at General Theological Seminary and was the founding editor of the Church Journal (1853-1868). 

Through these positions he became recognized as a leading Episcopal church musician. Following his ordination in 1872, Hopkins served as rector of two parishes: Trinity Church in Plattsburg, New York (1872-1876) and Christ Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania (1876-1887). 

Hopkins wrote the carol around 1857, based on the narrative of the journey of the magi in Matthew 2:1-12. It was first published in the author’s Carols, Hymns, and Songs (1863). United Methodist Hymnal editor Carlton R. Young makes an interesting observation: “Because the wealth of USA Appalachian and other folk carols was yet to be discovered, this carol for almost a century was regarded by hymnal editors as the sole USA contribution to the repertory of English language carols.” 

Indeed, “We three kings” has many features associated with Christmas carols including a refrain, a narrative-ballad style, and a lilting tune in triple meter. Compared to some of the other classic Epiphany hymns of this era, such as “As with gladness men of old” (c. 1858) by William Chatterton Dix (1837-1898), and “Brightest and best of the sons of the morning” (1811) by Reginald Heber (1783-1826), few would claim that “We three kings” is better poetry. Yet this carol makes a distinctive contribution. 

With simple naïveté, “We three kings” outlines its narrative in a manner with which children might identify. Though in triple rhythm, this is not a dancing tune like many of the more traditional carols, such as “Good Christian friends, rejoice.” “We three kings” is usually performed in a more plodding three, giving the feel of the long journey of the magi. 

While the traditional number of magi is usually set at three, probably because of the three gifts that the biblical narrative discusses, it is unusual for Epiphany hymns to actually identify the number of magi as three. Stanzas two, three, and four describe in detail the symbolic nature of each of the three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 

From its inception, the composer encouraged the song’s dramatic possibilities: “Each of verses, 2, 3, and 4, is sung as a solo [Kings Gaspard, Melchior, and Balthazar] to the music of Gaspard’s part to the 1st and 5th verses, the accompaniment and chorus being the same throughout. Only verses 1 and 5 are sung as a trio. Men’s voices are best for the parts of the Three Kings, but the music is set in the G clef for the accommodation of children.” 

The famous Oxford Book of Carols (1964) not only encouraged this dramatic presentation of the carol, but its editor Martin Shaw provided an arrangement suitable for three voices and labels them by the names Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. 

The imagery of the star is central to the Epiphany season and the narrative. The refrain focuses on the star and invites us to join the magi in following its light—“guide us to thy perfect light.”

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.

Categories: History of Hymns

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