We Three Kings of Orient are,
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain,
Moor and mountain,
Following yonder Star.
Star of Wonder, Star of Night,
Star with Royal Beauty bright,
Guide us to Thy perfect Light.We Three Kings of Orient Are
Origins of the Quote
“We Three Kings”, original title “Three Kings of Orient”, also known as “We Three Kings of Orient Are” or “The Quest of the Magi”, is a Christmas carol that was written by John Henry Hopkins Jr. in 1857. Hopkins served as the rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. It was the first widely popular Christmas carol written in America.
It was the first to be featured in Christmas Carols Old and New, a prestigious and influential collection of carols that was published in the United Kingdom. In 1916, the carol was printed in the hymnal for the Episcopal Church; that year’s edition was the first to have a separate section for Christmas songs. “We Three Kings” was also included in the Oxford Book of Carols published in 1928, which praised the song as “one of the most successful of modern composed carols.”
The History Behind the Words
The carol centres around the Magi, who journey across the dessert to visit infant Jesus. They bless him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh while paying homage to him. Acknowledging his presence on earth. Even though the event is recounted in the Gospel of Matthew, there are no further details given in the New Testament with regards to their names, the number of Magi or their royalty.
The verses in the Old Testament foretell of the visitors. Isaiah 60:6:”The wealth of the nations will come to you. A multitude of camels will cover you. The young camels of Midian and Ephah; All those from Sheba will come. They will bring gold and frankincense and will bear good news of the praises of the Lord.”
The New American Standard Bible, in two selections from the Psalms- Psalm 72:10: “The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall pay tribute, and the kings of Arabia and Saba offer gifts” and Psalm 72:15: “…and may there be given to him gold from Arabia”, New American Standard Bible.
Therefore, the names of the Magi are Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar and their royal status are legendary.
The number three stems from the fact that there were three separate gifts that were given. Also three is a mystical number in the Oriental tradition.
The Person Behind the Words
While composing “We Three Kings” in 1857, John Henry Hopkins Jr. was serving as the rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Originally a journalist in New York and a lawyer, he chose the clergy. He graduated from the University of Vermont. Hopkins studied at the General Theological Seminary in New York City. He has ordained a deacon in 1850, and became its first music teacher five years later, holding the post until 1857 alongside his ministry in the Episcopal Church.
During his final year of teaching at the seminary, Hopkins wrote “We Three Kings” for a Christmas pageant at the college. Interestingly, Hopkins composed both the lyrics and music; contemporary carol composers usually wrote either the lyrics or music but not both.
Originally titled “Three Kings of Orient”, was performed within his circle of family and friends. Because of the popularity it achieved among them, Hopkins decided to publish the carol in 1863 in his book Carols, Hymns, and Songs.
Some Final Thoughts
Hopkins Jr. organized the carol in a way that three male voices would each sing a solo verse in order to correspond with the three kings. The first and last verses of the carol are sung together by all three as “verses of praise”. The intermediate verses are sung individually with each king describing the gift he was bringing. The refrain proceeds to praise the beauty of the Star of Bethlehem.
Although the Magi’s solos are typically not observed during contemporary performances of the carol.
The melody has been described as lilting. It highly resembles a song from the Middle Ages and Middle Eastern music, both of which it has been frequently compared to.
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