This post begins a series on Christmas carols.

The majority of the videos in this series come from the University of Cambridge. Whilst I realise that some of my regular readers have direct ties to Oxford, our household is similarly linked to Cambridge. That said, a future post discusses the unarguable influence which Oxford graduates and faculty had on the popularisation of the Christmas carol during the Victorian period. If it weren’t for them, these beautiful Christmas melodies would never have been so well known today.

Clare College Choir (Cambridge) sing the version below:

Most of us who have sung ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’ in anticipation of Christmas are probably most familiar with these lyrics (click on link for all the verses):

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

The Clare College Choir sing a different set of lyrics, which you can find by clicking the ‘Show more’ option underneath their video. The lyrics to the first and third verses are as follows (compare it to the more commonly sung version above):

O come, O come, Emmanuel! Redeem thy captive Israel That into exile drear is gone, Far from the face of God’s dear Son.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, O come, thou Dayspring bright! Pour on our souls thy healing light; Dispel the long night’s lingering gloom, And pierce the shadows of the tomb.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Indeed, this link reveals that there are several versions of the lyrics and even one different melody, which the 19th century composer Charles Gounod wrote.

The Revd John Mason Neale (1818-1866) is most often listed as having translated the words into English from 8th century Latin. Neale was a High Anglican priest who was descended from a famous Puritan (Calvinist) minister and hymn writer, John Mason.

Neale’s lyrics are also different to those which most of us know. His version was called ‘Draw Nigh, Draw Nigh, Emmanuel’. The first and third verses go as follows. Compare them with the first and third verses from the other compilations above:

1. Draw nigh, draw nigh, Emmanuel
And loose Thy captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear;
Rejoice! rejoice! Emmanuel
Is born for thee, O Israel!

3. Thou, the true East, draw nigh, draw nigh,
To give us comfort from on high!
And drive away the shades of night,
And pierce the clouds, and bring us light!
Rejoice! rejoice! Emmanuel
Is born for thee, O Israel!

Another clergyman who is often credited with Neale as co-translator or lyric writer is the Revd Henry Sloane Coffin. They are often mentioned together as if they collaborated on the translation. However, Coffin was born in 1877, 11 years after Neale’s death. Coffin lived in the United States and Neale in England.

Coffin’s contribution was a version of the second and third verses, which he wrote in 1916. It is unclear what version of the refrain is used below, although I have sung verse 2 in church with the more usual ‘Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel / Shall come to thee, O Israel’:

2. O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
And order all things, far and nigh;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And cause us in her ways to go. Refrain.

3. O come, Desire of nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease;
Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace. Refrain.

The hymn is based on Isaiah 7:14:

Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel.

It is also has its roots in what were known as the O Antiphons, all of which begin with ‘O’. These were widely used from the 8th century in European monasteries and convents.

The music for ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’ is thought to have come from a 15th century French processional hymn for Franciscan nuns, although some historians believe it dates back to 8th century Gregorian chant.

The O Antiphons are an additional part of Vespers which religious orders recited in the eight days — octave — just before Christmas. They are also thought to date back to the 8th century during Charlemagne’s lifetime, although some religious historians believe they could be older. The congregations sang or chanted the antiphons. Combined, the first letters of the the first words in each spell SARCORE. Backwards, this spells a Latin expression ero cras, which translates as:

I shall be [with you] tomorrow.

These are the first few words of each antiphon, one of which was sung from December 17 through December 23, as the Christmas Eve service would have taken place on December 24:

  1. “O Sapientia, quae ex ore altissimi…” (O Wisdom from on high…)
  2. “O Adonai et dux domus Israel…” (O Lord and leader of the house of Israel…)
  3. “O Radix Jesse qui stas in signum populorum…” (O Root of Jesse who stood as a standard of the people…)
  4. “O Clavis David et sceptrum domus…” (O Key of David and scepter of our home…)
  5. “O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae…” (O Dayspring, splendor of eternal light…)
  6. “O Rex gentium et desideratus…” (O longed-for King of the nations…)
  7. “O Emmanuel, rex et legifer noster…” (O Emmanuel, our king and law-giver…)

The O Antiphon page lists the Scripture references for each.

One could easily write a term paper on this haunting Advent hymn, written in a minor key. I’ve barely scratched the service of the various translators, nor have I discussed Gounod’s alternative melody.

In closing, here is a bit more information about the lives of John Mason Neale and Henry Sloane Coffin.

Neale became the chaplain of Downing College, Cambridge, at the age of 22. At that time, the Oxford  Movement, which produced the High Church and resulted in John Henry Newman’s conversion to Catholicism, was highly controversial among Low Church Anglicans who believed it to be uncomfortably close to the Roman Catholic Church.  (The controversy and tension between Low and High Church continues to the present day in the Anglican Communion.)

As the Oxford Movement began at the University of Oxford, one wonders whether he had problems from Downing College and the Cambridge University administration in admiring the High Church. In any event, he did have problems during his time as Vicar of Crawley (Sussex, near Gatwick Airport) between 1842 and 1846. His differences with his congregation and his diocesan bishop were so severe that he resigned the appointment in 1846.

He then moved to nearby East Grinstead where he assumed the post of warden at Sackville College. Sackville College is not an educational institution but an almshouse accommodating 31 poor men and women. It still exists today and was founded and funded by Robert Sackville, the 2nd Earl of Dorset in 1609.

Neale spent the rest of his life at Sackville. However, in 1854, he founded the Society of Saint Margaret, an Anglican women’s order (what some would consider as ‘nuns’) devoted caring for the poor. He was the head of the order and after his death the sisters did not appoint another. Although most of their convents are in England, they do have two in Massachusetts (a small group lives in Boston and the main convent is in Duxbury on the South Shore). When I had some interaction with them in the 1980s, they were still wearing the full habit, although they have since modernised. They also addressed each other as Sister, although that might have also changed by now.

Coffin‘s career was very different. Born in New York City, he was heir to a furniture company, W. and J. Sloane & Co. Located on Fifth Avenue, it catered to the wealthiest clientele. Its influence in style extended to the rest of the country as their furnishings and interior design enhanced the nation’s best houses. Renowned cook Julia Child worked there for a time when she graduated from Smith College in 1935.

Coffin’s brother William was president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art as well as an executive of the family furniture company. William’s eponymous son was the left-wing, if not radical, minister of New York City’s Riverside Church.

Henry Sloane Coffin earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at Yale, where he was a member of Skull and Bones. He obtained his Bachelor of Divinity from the Union Theological Seminary in 1900. Union gradually moved towards a progressive Christianity. (His nephew William Sloane Coffin, Jr (mentioned above) was enrolled there for a year before joining the CIA during the Korean War.)

Coffin went on to become Moderator of the progressive branch of the Presbyterians, the PCUSA. Although Coffin had moved leftward in matters theological, during his student days at Yale, he became friends with the famous evangelist Dwight L Moody and attended some of his Northfield Conferences in western Massachusetts.

Coffin later became the President of Union Theological Seminary, a post he held from 1926 to 1945. In 1926, he made the cover of Time magazine. Coffin died in 1954 and is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

And, in case you are wondering, yes, it is the same Sleepy Hollow that Washington Irving wrote about in 1820.