In 1847, a French Catholic Priest commissioned a Christmas poem from local winemaker Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure.  This local poet penned the words to “O Holy Night” while traveling to Paris.  After writing the poem, Cappeau believed these verses would do well set to music.  Not being a musician, Cappeau approached noted composer Adolphe-Charles Adam to add music to his message.  After Adam added song to Cappeau’s words, the finished product was first sung by the choir at the Christmas Eve Mass in 1847.  The song quickly became popular and was sung all over France.  After time, however, Cappeau left the Catholic Church to become a socialist.  Adam (the song’s composer) was actually Jewish and did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God.  Once the church saw the exodus of Cappeau and learned of Adam’s religious beliefs, they banned the song from being sung in churches.  In fact, the church’s official stance on the song was that it embodied a “total absence of the spirit of true religion.”

Because this song was blackballed in its home country, it may have never reappeared had it not been for American John Sullivan Dwight who heard the song and fell in love with it.  On top of the fact that Dwight loved the total message of the song, he had a special affinity for the third verse that says of Jesus, “Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother, and in His name all oppression shall cease.”  Dwight was an abolitionist and found in Cappeau’s words a hymn that resonated deep within his soul.  Dwight translated the song into English and on the verge of the United States Civil War, introduced the song to American Churches.  The song gained quick acceptance in the North due to its anti-slavery message.  Once inside the American Church, the song exploded around the world and is one of the most famous Christmas songs today.  Eventually, the French Catholic Church reintroduced the song because of the deep love people had for it.

As I reflect on this story today, I am reminded of a couple of interesting passages of Scripture.  In Philippians 1:15-18 the Apostle Paul says, “It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill.  The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel.  The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains.  But what does it matter?  The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached.  And because of this I rejoice.”  Also, Mark 9:38-40 says, “‘Teacher,’ said John, ‘we saw a man driving out demons in Your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.’  ‘Do not stop him,’ Jesus said.  ‘No one who does a miracle in My name can in the next moment say anything bad about Me, for whoever is not against us is for us.‘”  These two passages of Scripture remind me that God does not use perfect people to accomplish His plans.  In fact, He does not always even use believing people to accomplish His plans.  God can call forth praise for Himself from any vessel He chooses to use.  In the case of “O Holy Night,” God used a Socialist French poet and a Jewish composer to inspire praise and worship among His people.  Now THAT is sovereignty.

Sometimes we begin to think that God only chooses those with the most pristine resumes to accomplish His plans, but the fact is that God will do His work through whoever He chooses to use.  This is good news for those of us with less than perfect resumes (read: all of us).  If God can call forth praise from those who reject Him, how much more can He use those of us who (though imperfect) are looking to Him for direction and leaning on His grace for daily strength!  If you are a believer in Christ rejoice this Christmas as you hear “O Holy Night” sung.  On top of the great truth this song puts forth, the story behind it reminds us of God’s gracious intentions of using fallen people to accomplish His grandest plans.

One last note about this great Christmas song . . . in 1906,  Chemist Reginald Fessenden (working with Thomas Edison) turned on a microphone on Christmas Eve and spoke into it, reading the Christmas story from Luke 2.  After reading the story, Fessenden picked up his violin and played the hymn “O Holy Night” into that mic.  What makes this significant was that Fessenden’s performance was the first ever broadcast of music over the new technology of radio.  Telegraph operators on ships and in newspaper offices around the country, instead of hearing their usual codes of clicks and pops, heard clearly the words of the Bible and the beautiful tune of Cappeau and Adam.  If you ever get asked the trivia question, “What was the first song played on radio,” you now know the answer!  From its very beginning, radio (like the printing press before it) was being used to spread the knowledge of Christ to all the people!

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Saviour’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining.
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!
O night divine, the night when Christ was born;
O night, O holy night, O night divine!
O night, O holy night, O night divine!

Led by the light of faith serenely beaming,
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.
So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming,
Here came the wise men from  Orient land.
The King of kings lay thus in lowly manger;
In all our trials born to be our friend.
He knows our need, to our weakness is no stranger,
Behold your King! Before him lowly bend!
Behold your King! Before him lowly bend!

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.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! O praise His name forever,
His power and glory ever more proclaim!
His power and glory ever more proclaim!

One thought on “Behind the Music: O Holy Night

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