“O Come, All Ye Faithful,” is said to have been translated into at least 125 languages and may be called the most popular of all Christmas hymns.
The origin of this hymn is not known. There is much speculation about both the words and the tune.
The hymn begins with a call to go to Bethlehem and see the “King of angels.” the hymn has to do with the incarnation, God clothing Himself with human flesh and providing a way of reconciliation between God and man. And this is the reason for calling upon the choirs of angels to sing glory to Him.
Seven manuscripts of the hymn are known containing the Latin, dated from 1743 to 1761. All of these seem to have been written, signed, and dated by John Francis Wade (1710-1786), an English layman who made his living by copying and selling plainchant and other music. Wade lived in France at Douay, a Roman Catholic center with an English college and a haven for English refugees.
The hymn is said to have had seven stanzas in the original. There are many English translations of it, but the one we use is by Frederick Oakely (1802-1880), a minister in the Church of England. Oakeley published four volumes of poetry and several prose works but is best remembered because of his translation of Adeste Fideles, the one we use.
The hymn in this translation appeared in Murray’s Hymnal in 1852 and has been sung at Christmas perhaps more than any other except possibly “Silent Night.” If one uses a precessional on Christmas Eve, what better is there than this one which urges us to come on to Bethlehem and see God lying in a manger, God come down in human form.
Adeste Fideles, sometimes known as Portuguese Hymn, is doubtless an 18th Century tune. It and the words appeared in 1751 and then in “Essay on the Church Plain Chant” in 1784. It was in use in the Roman Catholic Church in the 18th Century, especially in private chapels of prominent families.
Vincent Francis Novello (1781-1861) is credited for the arrangement in which the tune has come down to the present. Novello was an organist, a publisher, and a Roman Catholic, and we are indebted to him for his fine arrangement of this tune. This Christmas hymn and many others show us that the message that God became man for sinners is not limited to one group of Christians, for Christmas hymns especially are of an ecumenical nature.
This hymn can be found in the Trinity Hymnal #208 and in The Hymnal #170. Click here to listen to the hymn.