The following information about each of the Christmas hymns found in the English 1985 LDS hymnbook is taken from "Our Latter-day Hymns: The Stories and the Messages"; and information from Karen Lynn Davidson, author of "Our Latter-day Hymns: The Stories and the Messages"; and Craig Jessop, dean of the Caine College of the Arts at Utah State University and former music director for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. For more information about the carols, click here.
201. England/Boston. Text: Issac Watts (1674-1748), alt. by William W. Phelps (1792-1872). Music: George F. Handel (1685-1759), arr. Lowell Mason (1792-1872).
The text came from English hymnist Issac Watts, who wrote more than 600 hymns.
Boston Presbyterian Lowell Mason arranged the tune, thought to be derived from some of the music of Handel’s “Messiah.” Mason himself gave primary credit to Handel for the tune.
William W. Phelps made some significant changes to the text. For example, he changed the phrase “the Lord will come” to “the Lord is come.” The phrase “saints and angels sing” is unique to the LDS version as well, different from the more common “heaven and nature sing.”
202. England. Text and music: attributed to John Francis Wade (ca. 1711-1786)
The origins of this hymn are still questioned. The oldest manuscripts in which it has been found date back to the 18th century.
All of those manuscripts list Wade as the copyist — and it’s possible he’s also the author. The hymn was originally in Latin, titled “Adeste Fidelis” and translated by Catholic priest Frederick Oakley.
203. France. Text and music: French carol (ca. 1862).
New to the 1985 hymnal, “Angels We Have Heard on High” is a traditional French carol.
The year 1862 is simply the first year it was seen in print — the carol could very well have been around for 100 or more years before then. Even the name of the person who translated the hymn into English is unknown.
Some other Christian versions include a fourth verse.
204. Austria. Text: Joseph Mohr (1792-1848), translated by John F. Young (1820-1885). Music: Franz Gruber (1787-1863).
Father Joseph Mohr, part of the parish at the St. Nikolaus Catholic Church in Oberndorf, Austria, wrote this song on Christmas Eve 1818 for that evening’s services.
The church’s organ was broken, so Franz Gruber accompanied the congregation with his guitar. The popularity of the tune spread so fast that it was mistakenly credited to other artists — including Mozart.
Episcopal bishop John Young translated the hymn seen in the LDS hymnbook. English-speaking congregations use the first, sixth and second verses of the original song.
205. Ireland/England. Text: Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895). Music: Henry J. Gauntlett (1805-1876).
Irish hymnist Cecil Alexander wrote other favorite hymns featured in the LDS hymnbook, “There Is a Green Hill Far Away” and “He is Risen!” This hymn started out as a popular children’s carol.
Alexander made a point of making the text of songs simple but powerful, so children could easily understand complicated accounts and doctrines. It shows in the storytelling of this hymn.
206. Philadelphia. Text: Anonymous (ca. 1883). Music: William J. Kirkpatrick (1838-1921), harmonized by Rosalee Elser (1925-2007). Tune name: “Cradle Song.”
It’s important to label the tune name for “Away in a Manger” because the text is sung to a few different popular tunes. In fact, the tunes in the hymnbook and Primary Children’s Songbook in the LDS Church are different.
The origins of the text are unknown, though one common myth attributes it to Martin Luther. It’s even been referred to as “Luther’s Cradle Hymn.” However, the text first appeared in Philadelphia in a Lutheran Sunday school collection of songs and not in Germany. The tune, “Cradle Song,” also has origins in Pennsylvania.
207. Boston. Text: Edmund H. Sears (1810-1876). Music: Richard S. Willis (1819-1900).
Jessop called this hymn a true American one because of its lack of European ties that many Christmas hymns have.
Edmund Sears was a Unitarian minister in Boston whose poem was originally titled “Peace on Earth,” aiming to express that Christ’s birth truly ushered in an era of peace. The accompanying tune in the LDS hymnbook was actually paired with two other Christmas carols first: “We Israel’s Gentle Shepherds Stand” and “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night,” which is also included in the hymnbook.
208. Philadelphia. Text: Phillips Brooks (1835-1893). Music: Lewis H. Redner (1831-1908).
Another American hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” was written about Episcopal priest Phillips Brooks’ travels to the Holy Land in 1865. While there, Brooks visited the field where it was traditionally believed that the angels came to the shepherds to declare Christ’s birth. His memories from the moving experience spurred him to write the text.
He enlisted the church organist to write music for his poem. The book “In the Dark Streets Shineth,” an excerpt of author David McCullough’s narration for the 2009 Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert, explains the story of this hymn. Redner, the organist for Brooks’ church, struggled to come up with the music on Christmas Eve in 1868. “My brain was all confused,” Redner said. “But I was roused from sleep late in the night hearing an angel-strain … and seizing a piece of music paper I jotted down the treble of the tune.”
The original hymn had five verses.
209. England. Text: Charles Wesley (1707-1788). Music: Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847).
Many hymn scholars regard this as one of the finest English hymns. It was first published in 1739, and many publishers made minor changes to Charles Wesley’s original words.
Two of Wesley’s original verses were left out of the LDS hymnbook because they weren’t entirely congruent with LDS beliefs.
The melody is taken from a cantata Mendelssohn wrote in 1840 in honor of the 400th anniversary of the invention of printing. Mendelssohn actually expressed doubt that the tune could be successfully used for sacred text.
210. “With Wondering Awe” Boston (?). Text and music: Anonymous (Laudis Corona, 1885).
Of all of the Christmas hymns in the LDS hymnbook, this one has perhaps the most ambiguous origins. “Laudis Corona” is the name of a Boston hymn collection that was published in 1885.
211. England. Text: Nahum Tate (1652-1715). Music: Yorkshire carol (ca. 1800).
Irish-born Nahum Tate was the poet laureate for England. He teamed with his friend Nicholas Brady to publish collections of hymns based on Psalms.
One volume, published in 1700, included 16 hymns based on other scriptural passages, including this hymn, which is based on Luke 2:8-14.
Although paired with a few different tunes, the “Yorkshire Melody” used in the LDS hymnbook is one of the most common.
212. St. George, Utah. Text and music: John Menzies Macfarlane (1833-1892).
“The text isn’t distinctively LDS,” Davidson said about this hymn. “It’s just interesting that in this one instance, an LDS author/composer struck gold. American Saints love it, and it’s translated for hymnbooks in other languages, too.”
Macfarlane was a choir director in St. George. In 1869, he decided his choir needed a new Christmas song. He originally enlisted his friend Charles L. Walker’s help for the text, but both words and music came to Macfarlane in the middle of the night (not unlike Redner’s experience with “O Little Town of Bethlehem”).
213. England. Text and music: traditional English carol (ca. 17th century).
Oddly enough, the word “noel” is French for birthday. But this carol is English through-and-through. The text was first printed in 1833, comprising nine stanzas detailing nearly all of the events of Christ’s birth. The two stanzas sung in LDS Church meetings stop at the sight of the star.
214. Cambridge, Massachusetts/England. Text: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882). Music: John Baptiste Calkin (1827-1905).
Jessop cited this hymn as a particularly good one to learn its history. Longfellow is practically a household name when talking about poetry.
“The story behind that is so poignant and touching,” Jessop said.
Longfellow was inspired to write the seven-stanza poem due to the previous death of his wife and his son’s involvement in the Civil War. The Christmas carol omits stanzas four and five because of their descriptions of the war, thus keeping the focus on hope and peace — better themes for a Christmas tune.