One of my favorite songs this time of year is “O Holy Night.” It is one of the few Christmas songs that can move me to tears. To me, it embodies so much of what is right about Christmas. But the story of how it came to be might surprise you.
Late in 1843, the Catholic parish of Roquemaure, France, was renovating its church organ. The parish priest sought out a local poet, Placide Cappeau, to write a Christmas poem to use at the dedication. The priest not only wanted a good poem, he hoped that in writing it, Cappeau would return to the church; he had left it years before and declared himself an atheist.
When Cappeau completed the poem, he asked Adolphe Adam, a renowned composer, to set it to music. Adam himself had no connection to the church, and was said to have been Jewish. But Adam was well known for his operas and ballets, and gave the new poem its classical note.
On Christmas Eve that year, “Cantique Noel” (“Christmas Song”) was sung in Roquemaure, and within a few years was sweeping France. The church leadership, however, declared it unfit for church services, probably because of those who wrote it.
By 1855, “Cantique Noel” had made its way to the United States where a Unitarian minister, John Sullivan Dwight, translated it into the now familiar verses we hear every year. Dwight, an abolitionist, was particularly intrigued by the third stanza. A literal translation reads:
The Redeemer has broken every bond,
The Earth is free, and Heaven is open.
He sees a brother where once there was only a slave,
Love unites those whom iron had chained.
The original idea was that all of us had been slaves of sin and death, but Jesus had redeemed us and set us free; now we are his brothers and sisters.
In Dwight’s translation, the third verse reads:
Truly he taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother,
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Dwight had taken the idea of our spiritual freedom and recast it as a call for freedom for slaves and all who are oppressed. Remember, this was just a few years before the Civil War began and slavery was the most burning question on the minds of Americans.
We cannot know the degree to which “O Holy Night” contributed to the anti-slavery sentiment in the days leading up to the Civil War. But I do find it amazing that God used such a diverse set of people, including two who had no Christian sentiments at all, to provide us such a moving song of faith.
The Bible is filled with examples of those who, willingly or not, took part in the grand plans of God. Even atheists can play a part.
If God can do such things with those who don’t love him, imagine what he can do with us. How blessed we are to serve the King of Kings!
~ Glenn Hawley