Tuesday, December 22, 2009

O Holy Night, or abolitionist theme song?

This song is a standard for Christmas Eve church services and programs. It is an old Christmas standard, plus lends itself to dramatic presentation.

However, like many songs we sing, including some in our hymnals, the words we know to this song are not the original words.

The original text to this song, or “carol” if you prefer, was written in French as a poem in 1847 by Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure. It was titled “Mi­nuit, chré­tiens, c’est l’heure so­len­nelle”. Here are the lyrics, translated into English.

Midnight, Christians, it's the solemn hour,
When God-man descended to us
To erase the stain of original sin

And to end the wrath of His Father.
The entire world thrills with hope
On this night that gives it a Savior.

People kneel down, wait for your deliverance.
Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer,
Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer!

The Redeemer has overcome every obstacle:
The Earth is free, and Heaven is open.
He sees a brother where there was only a slave,

Love unites those that iron had chained.
Who will tell Him of our gratitude,
It's for all of us that He is born,
That He suffers and dies.

People stand up! Sing of your deliverance,
Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer,
Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer!

These words are Biblical. (Although my Arminian brothers might squirm a bit.) They deal with incarnation, original sin, God’s wrath on sin removed by the Savior, humility before God, worship and celebration of salvation.

But, you say, I never heard these words! That is true, because someone changed them before you heard them.

That someone was John Sullivan Dwight, an American Transcendentalist , Unitarian and abolitionist.

A Unitarian does not believe in the deity of Christ. He believes Jesus was a prophet and good man, but not God or God’s son.

The Transcendentalists came out of Unitarianism, stressing the inner essence of man as capable of finding and celebrating truth and beauty and unity with all mankind. (It reminds me of my hippy friends in the ‘60s and ‘70s, all carrying around their paperback copies of Walden Pond.)

In short, Dwight was not a Christian, not a Trinitarian and not a believer in Jesus as savior in the orthodox sense. Therefore, he did not translate the lyrics, but changed them and adapted the thought to his philosophy.

Given Dwight’s religion and philosophy, you can see why he changed the reference from ending God’s wrath on original sin to “the soul felt its worth”. In other words, Jesus showed us our worth, rather than our need for salvation. This may be why this song is so popular today, it says Jesus came to raise my self esteem.

Much of the English lyrics are abolitionist. Though the original had a reference to slave and brother, it has greater emphasis in Dwight’s version.

Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease.

There is nothing about atonement, or turning away the wrath of God, but in universal brotherhood and the defeat of slavery. At least it does not tell me I should “fall in love with Jesus”.
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