Collection: We Three Kings
ARTIST: Dan Paulos
We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
Following yonder star.
"We Three Kings", also known as "We Three Kings of Orient Are" or "The Quest of the Magi", is a Christmas carol that was written by John Henry Hopkins, Jr., in 1857. At the time of composing the carol, Hopkins served as the rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and he wrote the carol for a Christmas pageant in New York City. It remains one of the most popular and most frequently sung Christmas carols today.
John Henry Hopkins, Jr., organized the carol in such a way that three male voices would each sing a single verse by himself, in order to correspond with the three kings. The first and last verses of the carol are sung together by all three as "verses of praise", while the intermediate verses are sung individually, with each king describing the gift he was bringing. The refrain proceeds to praise the beauty of the Star of Bethlehem. Nowadays, however, the Magi's solos are typically not observed when singing the carol.
The carol's melody has been described as "sad" and "shifting" in nature. Because of this, it highly resembles a song from the Middle Ages and Middle Eastern music, both of which it has been frequently compared to.
The context of the carol centers around the Biblical Magi, who visited Jesus during his Nativity and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh while paying homage to him. Though the event is recounted in the Gospel of Matthew, there are no further details given with regards to their names, the number of Magi that were present or whether they were even royal. Hence, the names of the Magi—Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar—and their status as kings from the Orient are legendary and based on tradition. The notion of three kings stems from the fact that there were three separate gifts that were given.
Background and influence
At the time he was writing "We Three Kings" in 1857, John Henry Hopkins, Jr., was serving as the rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Although he originally worked as a journalist for a New York newspaper and studied to become a lawyer, he chose to join the clergy upon graduating from the University of Vermont. Hopkins studied at the General Theological Seminary in New York City and—after graduating and being ordained a deacon in 1850—he became its first music teacher five years later, holding the post until 1857 alongside his ministry in the Episcopal Church.
During his final year of teaching at the seminary, Hopkins wrote "We Three Kings" for a Christmas pageant held at the college. By authoring the lyrics and composing the music, he did something extremely uncommon among carol composers, who would usually write either the lyrics or music but not both. Originally titled "Three Kings of Orient", it was sung within his circle of family and friends. Because of the popularity it achieved among them, Hopkins decided to publish the carol in 1862.
Although written in 1857, "We Three Kings" was only first published five years later in 1862, when it appeared in Hopkins' compilation titled Carols, Hymns and Songs. It was the first Christmas carol originating from the United States to achieve widespread popularity, as well as the first to be featured in Christmas Carols Old and New, a "prestigious" and "influential" collection of carols that was published in the United Kingdom. In 1916, the carol was printed in the hymnal for the Episcopal Church; that year's edition was the first to have a separate section for Christmas songs. "We Three Kings" was also included in the Oxford Book of Carols published in 1928, which praised the song and labelled it "one of the most successful of modern composed carols."