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  • Writer's pictureFr. Scott Haynes

History of Adeste Fidelis

Fr. Scott A. Haynes

John Francis Wade, an English Catholic, was forced to flee England in 1745. He was suspected of sympathizing with those who wanted to restore a Catholic to the Throne of England. Wade ended up in France where he took work copying music at the monastic center of Douai. In the monastery, he gained access to ancient Latin scrolls.

When he produced the carol Adeste Fideles (“O Come, All Ye Faithful”) a few years later, people assumed he had discovered an ancient manuscript and had set the poem to music. But, in fact, Wade wrote Adeste Fideles and it immediately became popular in the region of Douai.

Because of the terrors of the French Revolution, fifty years later, the Catholic center at Douai was disbanded. Many French Priests crossed the Channel to England to escape being guillotined in the name of “reason.” They brought Adeste Fideles with them.

At this time, the Anglican clergyman, Frederick Oakley, was introduced to the carol. He loved it so much that he translated the Latin into the stirring English words, “Ye, faithful, approach ye.” For some reason, it failed to catch on. Eleven years later Oakely became a Catholic and then took another crack at Wade’s hymn. Turning Catholic must have improved his Latin because he produced the translation we so love today: “O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.”

Who is being summoned to Bethlehem to adore Jesus? It is the faithful. It is those who experience the triumph. Who are the faithful? It is those who keep the faith. The faithful are those who believe in eventual victory even in dark days. In another sense, the faithful are also those who are true to the truth — who stand fast for what is right even in the face of scorn, rejection, and persecution. They hold the true faith without compromise. 

That leads us to another fascinating Christmas connection that comes in this carol — a jump through time and space. This is when John Francis Wade meets St. Nicholas. In 325 A.D., the Roman Emperor Constantine summoned three hundred leaders of the Christian Church to meet at the city of Nicea, now in modern Turkey. The primary concern of the Council was Christological. In other words, they were to answer questsions raised about the person of Jesus Christ.

There were some delegates led by a man named Arius who insisted that Jesus was just a man. They denied the divinity of Christ and His Incarnation. They were willing to agree that Jesus was sent in a very special way from God. Arians agreed that Jesus is the “son of God” in the sense that God adopted Him, but they insisted that Jesus was of another substance than God (homoi ousia in Greek). St. Athanasius and the Council Fathers knew this was faulty theology. They Council proclaimed that Jesus in is fact God incarnate (homo ousia), that Jesus is of the same substance with God himself.  

One of the orthodox bishops at the council was a man named St. Nicholas who was Bishop of the city of Myra, Turkey. He was a faithful Bishop with a passion for the truth. In fact, at one point in the Nicean debate, St. Nicholas became so passionate that he actually walked over and struck Arius in his face.  

St. Nicholas stood for the truth at Nicea and the truth prevailed. The Council developed the Nicene Creed and proclaims who Jesus is:

“God of God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father.”

Finally we come to the connection of all this with “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” The connection is that the second stanza hearkens back to St. Nicholas and the Council of Nicea:

True God of true God, Light from Light eternal,

Lo, he shuns not the Virgin’s womb;

Son of the Father, begotten, not created;

O come, let us adore Him, O come, let us adore Him,

O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.

And so we come. We come joyful and triumphant to a very unlikely place of victory. We come to a food trough (manger) in the forgotten town of Bethlehem. We come because, against all human expectation, God has chosen to show Himself in such a place and in such a way. As we sing Adeste Fidelis, we are invited to kneel by Mary and Joseph, to hover under angels’ wings. We are the faithful, the joyful and the triumphant. We are to come and adore.  


Hear this choral and orchestral arrangement of Adeste Fidelis as arranged by Vincent Novello conducted by Fr. Scott A. Haynes: Adeste Fidelis, Arr. Vincent Novello



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