We Three Kings: A Brief History
This Sunday we will sing the beloved Epiphany Carol “We Three Kings.” This beloved hymn has a storied history.
The hymn was written by the Rev. John Henry Hopkins, Jr, a priest and the son of the Rt. Rev. John Henry Hopkins, first bishop of Vermont and the 8th presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. His son, the hymn's author, John Henry Hopkins, Jr. served as a minister in Pennsylvania and New York and was the first professor of music at the General Theological Seminary in Chelsea, in New York City.
The hymn was written for a Christmas pageant held at that Seminary in 1857 in which Hopkins’ nieces and nephews had important roles. The hymn was then published in Carols, Hymns and Songs in 1863 and became the first widely popular Christmas carol written in the United States.
“We Three Kings” tells the story of the visit of the Magi from the Gospel of Matthew - the appointed Gospel text for the feast of the Manifestation of Christ to the Nations, or the Epiphany celebrated annually on January 6th. Each verse elaborates on the gifts brought to the Christ child: Gold for a king, Frankincense for a priest, and Myrrh, an embalming spice. Its beautiful and haunting melody evokes ancient harmonies and gives the song a “time out of time” quality.
Thanks to its longstanding popularity it has been widely parodied since the 1950s, with the lyrics varying widely with references to smoking explosive rubber cigars, selling unmentionable delicates, or traveling to an Irish bar by taxi, car, and scooter. - GLKP