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Midweek Musing 12/28/2022 - The O Holy Night Controversy

I love music. All kinds of music. I especially enjoy music that tells a story and whose lyrics have meaning.

Now don’t get me wrong I enjoy just plain fun music too. However even though “boom chicka pow wow shoo bop woo” is fun – it isn’t exactly lyrically a life changing narrative.

I also enjoy the stories behind songs. For example, the classic Village People song YMCA is about the actual New York City YMCA which has dorm style housing for short stays that includes a meal. Knowing that those lyrics - it’s fun to stay at the YMCA, where you can get yourself clean, and good meal - makes more sense doesn’t it?

By the way back in college I stayed in that very YMCA with the Presbyterian College Choir on our spring tour.

Because of my geekish love for lyrics and the stories surrounding them I decided to read an article that I am sure many skipped. It was worth the read and also worth sharing.

I wish I could take credit for the words but it was written by Zach W. Lambert who describes himself this way:

born and raised in Austin. former mediocre athlete. Pastor, passionate about equality, holistic justice, full inclusion, and the way of Jesus.

If he was Presbyterian I might be worried for my job. 😊

May these words challenge you as they did me.

Do you know the story behind O Holy Night?

By Zach W Lambert

If you know me at all, you know that I love Christmas music. My favorite song is O Holy Night.

I’ve loved it since I was a little kid, but I didn’t know the origins of it until a few years ago... and it blew me away.

O Holy Night was originally a poem commissioned by a French priest in 1847, because he wanted something special to read at Christmas Mass.

In 1855, a Boston pastor named John Sullivan Dwight found and translated it. He fell in love with it primarily because of verse 3...

Which says:

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

Do you know what was happening in America in 1855? We were on the brink of the Civil War.

Over the next 6 years, 11 Southern States would secede from the US, primarily over the issue of slavery.

Probably not the safest time for a song like this, right?

But what you have to understand about John Dwight, is that he was staunch abolitionist.

At a time when over half of the published arguments IN FAVOR of slavery were being written by Christian pastors, this clergyman was publishing what would become an anthem of abolitionists.

He published O Holy Night in his magazine called “Dwight’s Journal of Music” and the song took off--gaining immense popularity in the North during the Civil War.

But as you can imagine, not everyone loved it, including many religious leaders.

In addition to over half of the published defenses of slavery being written by pastors in the South, the Southern Baptist Convention was founded a few years earlier (in 1845) for the sole purpose of allowing clergy and missionaries to continue enslaving Black people.

Even after the Civil War was over and O Holy Night became one of the most well-known Christmas songs around the world, many churches in the South still refused to sing verse 3 or just banned the song entirely.

These pastors and parishioners attended church services that were very similar to ours today.

They read from the very same Bible we do.

With the exception of O Holy Night, they sang many of the same songs we still sing. But...

When they finished their church services, many of them would head home to men, women, and children they considered property, not people.

They knew about Jesus, but they didn’t pursue the way of Jesus.

They called themselves “Christians,” but they didn’t follow Christ.

And we are still dealing with the consequences of their choices today.

In huge ways like racial inequality in almost every sphere of our society, and in small ways like the fact that many of the most popular versions of O Holy Night STILL don’t include verse 3.

In fact, arguably the most popular modern version of this song (sung by Carrie Underwood) changes the lyrics from “for the slave is our brother” to “for His child is our brother.”

Sin, pain, destruction, and death. Those are the effects of claiming to be a Christian without following the way of Jesus.

He came to bring fullness of life for all humanity and we are called to be a part of making that a reality for everyone, especially the oppressed.

So when you have a few minutes this Christmas season, put on O Holy Night (a version that includes verse 3) and spend time reflecting on what it means to truly follow Jesus.

We need it now more than ever.

Third Day Version – non-traditional

Lauren Daigle – traditional

Peace be with you all.



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