O Holy Night

Joanna Fontaine Crawford
December 21 2022

By Joanna Fontaine Crawford

“At a time when over half the published arguments in favor of slavery were being written by Christian pastors, [Rev. John Sullivan Dwight] was publishing what would become an anthem of abolitionists.”

—@ZachWLambert, via Twitter

I’ve always loved the song “O Holy Night.” Learning its origin story only made me love it more. The story goes like this:

As a child in Rocquemaure, France, Placide Cappeau received a private school education, where he developed his talents as an artist and a writer. In 1843, the priest of Rocquemaure asked the now-famous Cappeau to write a poem commemorating the renovation of the church organ. Cappeau said yes and wrote “Minuit, chrétiens” (“Midnight, Christians”). Cappeau then asked composer Adolphe Adam to put his text to music.

“Cantique de Noël” was born. It swiftly became popular, sung at Christmas Masses across France.

Unitarian Universalists often struggle with questions about whether we should separate art and artist. In nineteenth century France, the Church hierarchy made evident their own answer: when it was discovered that Placide Cappeau was an open atheist and socialist, and Adam was Jewish, they banned the hymn from being used in any church services.

Meanwhile, in the United States, newly-ordained Unitarian minister John Sullivan Dwight—whose stagefright prevented him from preaching—turned to his love of music, which led him to discover “Cantique de Noël.”

Dwight was an ardent abolitionist, so Cappeau’s words about Christ breaking all bonds and seeing a brother where once was a slave, struck a chord with him. He loosely translated the song into English, including the third verse: “Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother, and in his name all oppression shall cease.”

Sometimes, the story of the artist makes the art even richer. Knowing this song came from a socialist atheist writer, a Jewish composer, and a Unitarian minister—all of them abolitionists—makes me cherish it even more.

Every year, I find a version of “O Holy Night” that includes the third verse and I sit alone in the dark, letting it fill me. If love is a law, how may I follow it with more faithfulness? What might it look like for me to love better?

I know that I am not alone. Across the ages, I'm connected to artists and activists who have used the story of a humble birth to inspire them to greater acts of compassion and justice.

Prayer

May our deepest held values shape the work that we do. May we create art that reflects the best of our character, and may we celebrate all that is good.