The Abolitionists’ Carol

The other day I was listening to the essential Sirius XM Holiday Pops channel when a version of O Holy Night was played. It’s one of my favorite Christmas carols, and it was one of Mom’s favorites, too. She loved the Mario Lanza version, with the tenor using his great voice to hit some of the high notes that make the tune so stirring and powerful.

But the message of the song is powerful and stirring, too. Particularly the third verse that goes:

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.

For Christmas carols, that’s about as political a message as you are going to get — but of course the notion of ending human bondage and instilling brotherhood for all fits neatly with the entire redemptive thrust of the Christmas story. The verse got me to wondering, though: when was O Holy Night written, and was its author an abolitionist?

In fact, the song does have a significant abolitionist history. O Holy Night began as a French poem, called Midnight, Christians, that was written in the 1840s by an atheist to commemorate the dedication of a new church organ. The poem was later set to music and became the French carol Cantique de Noel. It became popular even though French church authorities criticized its message as not being sufficiently reverential. The song crossed the Atlantic and, in the 1850s, as tensions between the North and South reached the boiling point, an American abolitionist minister named John Sullivan Dwight translated the song into English and no doubt applauded the resulting anti-slavery message. As the Civil War neared and then burst over America, the song became extremely popular in the Union states — and probably was never played, or sung, in the short-lived Confederacy.

It’s not hard to imagine church congregations of the North belting out the song with relish during the holiday seasons in an era when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was enacted and adopted by the states, and the horrors of slavery in America finally ended, once and for all. And who knows? Music can have a powerful influence, and the song may have helped to create the political climate that allowed those momentous events to happen. For that reason alone, O Holy Night might be the most historically significant Christmas carol in the holiday playlist.

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