O come all ye faithful

O come, all ye faithful,
Joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem;
Come and behold him,
Born the King of angels:
O come, let us adore him, (ter)
Christ the Lord!

This most popular of Christmas hymns has a complex history. The original four verses (O come..., God of God..., Sing, choirs..., Yea Lord...) are found in an eighteenth century Jacobean Manuscript entitled "a prayer for James", ie James III the Old Pretender. The handwriting is the same as that found in other manuscripts signed and dated by John Francis Wade (c.1711-86), a layman who copied and sold plainchant and other music. Wade worked at Douai, the great Catholic centre in France where there was an English college which was a refuge for English Catholics after the abdication of James II in 1688. The words may therefore be attributed to Wade or others, but certainly originate amongst exiled Jacobite Roman Catholics of the 1740s. The Jacobite colony did not survive for long after Wade’s death in 1786, but the verses may have survived in the hands of the Jesuits who returned from exile around 1798. The Jacobite Manuscript has the chorus ‘Venite adorate’, but this was later changed to ‘Venite adoramus’ to conform with liturgical practice by which the Invitatory Response at Matins ends with these words. The earliest Wade manuscript is from 1751 and is currently at Stonyhurst College, Blackburn. The modern form of words was translated by the Oxford Movement supporter Canon Frederick Oakeley (1802-1880) in 1841 for his congregation at Margaret Street Chapel (now All Saints, Margaret Street) London. Several verses have been added to the original four. See how the Shepherds... and Child, for us sinners... are by Abbé Etienne Jean François, Mgr. de Borderies, a distinguished French catechist who was exiled to England in 1793. Lo! Star-led chieftains... was added by an unknown author for the feast of Epiphany.

Tune - Adeste fideles

The tune Adeste Fideles accompanied the Latin words of the hymn on their earliest appearances. The tune is almost certainly by J F Wade. In its original form there were variants in the melody, often in triple time. A variant of the tune appears in duple time in a ‘Vaudeville’ comic-opera Acajou, produced in Paris in 1744; beginning ‘Rage inutile’, it is described as ‘Air Anglois’. It appears in duple time in a 1760 manuscript from St Edmund’s College, Ware, Hertfordshire, and again in An Essay on the Church Plain Chant (London, 1782), edited by Samuel Webbe the elder.

Nigel Day

© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 5th July 1997