We Three Kings Of Orient Are
Original Title: Three Kings of Orient
& Music: John Henry Hopkins, Jr. (1820-1891), 1857.
Carols, Hymns and Songs. New York: Church Book Depository, 1863.
Music: "Three Kings of Orient," John Henry Hopkins, Jr.
Meter 88 446 with Refrain
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1. We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts, we traverse afar.
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.
O Star of Wonder, Star of Night,
Star with Royal Beauty bright,
Westward leading, Still proceeding,
Guide us to Thy perfect Light.
2. Born a King2 on Bethlehem plain,
Gold I3 bring to crown Him again,
Over us all to reign. Chorus
3. Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a Deity nigh:
Prayer and praising
All men raising,4
Worship Him5 God on high. Chorus
4. Myrrh is mine; it’s bitter perfume;
Breathes a life of gathering gloom: —
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb. Chorus
5. Glorious now behold Him arise,6
King and God and sacrifice.
Hallelujah the earth replies.7 Chorus
1. The order given by Rev. Hopkins in Carols, Hymns and Songs (1863) is Gaspard (gold), Melchior (frankincense), and Balthazar (myrrh). The following sources follow that order:
Shaw and Dearmer in The English Carol Book, Second Series,
The Episcopal Hymnal of 1916,
Hutchins in Carols Old and Carols New,
Bradley in The Penguin Book of Carols,
Ronald M. Clancy, American Christmas Classics
The following sources give the order of Melchior, Gaspar, Balthazar:
Dearmer, Shaw and Vaughan Williams in The Oxford Book of Carols
Clancy, Best-Loved Christmas Carols
Hardwig and Hollister, wisely, do not enter the fray.
The 15th century carol Out Of The Blossom Sprang A Thorn (from Rickert) gives the following order of kings: Balthazar (gold), Melchior (frankincense), and Jasper (myrrh).
The verses sung by the kings should be performed as solos. Return
2. Or: 'babe' Return
3. Or: 'We bring' … Return
4. Or: 'voices raising' –OR- 'gladly raising' Return
5. Or: 'Worshiping,' Return
6. Or: 'rise' Return
Sounds through the earth and skies.
Heaven sings ‘Alleluia;’
‘Alleluia’ the earth replies.
Heaven and earth replies.
Heav'n singing Halleluia;
Joyous the earth replies. Return
In his preface, Rev. Hopkins had this to say:
Compilers of other Collections are at liberty to transfer any of the pieces in this little volume, provided they leave what they take unaltered. If any change be made in either words or music without my permission, I shall prosecute the offender to the extent of the law.
Sheet Music from John H. Hopkins, Jr., Carols, Hymns and Songs. New York: Church Book Depository, 1863.
Hopkins gives the following instructions for performance:
Each of verses 2, 3, and 4, is sung as a solo, to the music of Gaspard's part in the 1st and 5th verses, the accompaniment and chorus being the same throughout. Only verses 1 and 5 are sung as a trio. Men's voices are best for the parts of the Three Kings, but the music is set in the G clef for the accommodation of children.
Sheet Music by E. W. Kellogg from John Clark Hollister, ed., Chants, Carols, and Tunes: A Supplement To The Sunday-School Service and Tune Book (New York: E. P. Dutton and Company, 1863, 1865), Supplement pp. 28-9.
Sheet music from A. B. Goodrich, ed., A New Service And Tune Book For Sunday Schools (New York: Gen. Prot. Episc. S. S. Union and Church Book Society, 1863, New Edition, Enlarged, 1866), #149, pp. 136-7.
Goodrich gives exactly the same notes as did the author, Hopkins (above).
Rev. Hutchins gives the following instructions for performance:
Verses 1 and 5 are sung as a Trio. Each of verses 2, 3 and 4 is sung as a solo to the music of Gaspard's part in the 1st and 5th verses, the accompaniment and chorus being the same throughout. Men's voices are best for the parts of the Three Kings, but the music is set in the G clef for the accommodation of children.
Sheet Music "Kings of Orient" from O. Hardwig, ed., The Wartburg Hymnal (Chicago: Wartburg Publishing House, 1918), #150
The author of this carol, Rev. John Henry Hopkins, Jr., edited the final volume of music created by Bishop John Freeman Young, author of "Silent Night, Holy Night." His father, Bishop John Henry Hopkins, was the senior bishop at the consecration of Bishop Young.
The Gospel According to Matthew
Chapter 2, verses 1 - 12:
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him." When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet:
‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the ruler of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will govern my people Israel.’"
Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared; and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him." When they had heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departing to their own country by another way.
Just so we're clear on this point, the Gospel of Matthew is the only biblical reference to this episode. They are only referred to (in this translation) as "wise men" (the Greek is magoi, magoi -> magi). Their number is not given. Their names are not given. We don't know precisely where they came from, except that they came "from the East." We don't know what they looked like. We don't know their ages. We are told only that they gave three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. That's it. Everything else is speculation!
But oh what speculation there has been over the ensuing 20 centuries!
About The Song
Pittsburgh-born John Henry Hopkins, Jr., (1820-1891) wrote this work as part of a Christmas pageant for the General Theological Seminary in New York City, where he was instructor in church music.
William Studwell reports that his purpose was to devise a special Christmas present for his beloved nephews and nieces during his annual holiday trip to his father's home in Vermont. The song was published in Hopkin's 1863 collection, Carols, Hymns, and Songs, and subsequently in a separately published, specially illustrated 1865 version. Both the 1863 and 1865 publications carried the title "Three Kings of Orient."
In the 1863 edition, there were four other Christmas-tide carols: "The Shepherds of Bethlehem," "The Angel Chorus," "Evergreen, Holly And Laurel," and "The Christmas Tree (commonly known as "Gather Around the Christmas Tree." The edition contained a number of other hymns and songs.
He died August 14, 1891, Hudson, New York.
Several sources follow the lead of Martin Shaw and Percy Dearmer in The English Carol Book, First Series, with the following suggested performance:
This carol may be sung dramatically, in a hall or church, the three kings entering in procession as they sing the first verse. Standing together (and each holding a casket), each may turn to the people to sing his verse. The last verse may then be sung full, the three kings returning to their places during the last two lines.
About the Wise Men
Just so that we can "cut to the chase," here's a thumbnail description by William Sandys from his 1852 book Christmastide - It's History, Festivities and Carols:
There are numerous histories of the magi or kings themselves, all agreeing as to their number having been three, but some of them differing entirely in name. We may, however, consider Melchior, Jasper, and Balthasar, to be the genuine ones, and certainly more euphonious than Galagalath, Magalath, and Tharath; but even the legends that agree in the names, differ in the description of their persons, or in the appropriation of the presents given by them; but as Bede, in the seventh century, was the first writer in this country who has given a description of them, which he, no doubt, took from some earlier account, we may adopt, in the main, his history. According to this, Melchior was old, with gray hair and long beard, and offered gold to our Saviour in acknowledgment of his sovereignty; Jasper was young, without any beard, and offered frankincense in recognition of the divinity; and Balthasar was of a dark complexion, as a Moor, with a large spreading beard, and offered myrrh to our Saviour’s humanity....
A. H. Bullen, writing in 1885, concurs, adding
The bodies of the three kings were taken, about three hundred years after their death, by the Empress Helena to Constantinople; thence by Eustatius to Milan; afterwards by Renaldus the bishop to Cologne, or Collein. Hence they were commonly called the Three Kings of Collein. There is an old carol about the Three Kings. Wright, in his collection of “Songs and Carols” published by the Percy Society , has printed one version of it [Now ye Crystemas y-cum].
Ah, if only it were that easy.
How Many Were There?
At least since 1833, the settled number is three. William Sandys, in Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern stated that number without equivocation. He repeats this in his 1852 work, Christmastide: "There are numerous histories of the magi or kings themselves, all agreeing as to their number having been three ...."
Historically, however, the number has varied between two and a dozen. Since Matthew doesn't say, one guess is as good as another. There are two main arguments which favor the number three.
There is, first of all, the Biblical argument. In the Old Testament, two passages are cited in support. First is Psalm 72:10: "The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts." (KJV) And, of course, there is Isaiah: "The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah, all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall shew forth the praises of the Lord." (KJV).
The second argument is, of course, the number of gifts that were presented to the new-born Jesus: three gifts equals three wise men.
How Did They Become Kings?
Matthew speaks of "wise men." So how did they become either Magi or Kings?
As it relates to the title of "King," I've found at least three lines of arguments. First, again, we can turn to the Old Testament, and, again, Psalm 72:10: "The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts." (KJV; emphasis supplied by the editor)
The second argument is a bit of a stretch: gold and frankincense and myrrh were all expensive gifts. Expensive gifts could only be afforded by kings. Therefore the wise men were kings. By that logic, Bill Gates and Paul Allen are kings. But, hey, they might be okay with that.
The third line relates to writings which are ascribed to St. Bede the Venerable, a 7th century saint and historian. Modern scholarship seems to discount authorship by St. Bede, but for centuries, he has been cited as the source for most of what we "know" about the wise men, including their names, descriptions, etc.
First, a bit of background.
The Magi were a priestly caste of ancient Persian Zoroastrianism and were revered by classic authors as wise men. It was their alleged power over demons gave rise to the word "magic." Magi comes from Middle English magi, from Latin magě, pl. of magus (meaning sorcerer), from Greek magos, from Old Persian maguš.
According to Christian legend, the Magi were men who came, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, to adore the newborn Jesus. They were guided by the Star of Bethlehem. Their number was not identified in the Gospel of Matthew, but Christian tradition has set their number as three, called them kings, and named them Caspar or Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar (among others; more on their names below). The Feast of Epiphany, January 6th, commemorates their visit. This is also celebrated as the Twelfth Day of Christmas, and in most traditions signals the end of the Christmas-tide.
As noted above, their coming was foretold in the Old Testament: "The kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts, the kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute. All kings shall pay Him homage, all nations shall serve Him" (Psalm 72:10-11). Isaiah also prophesied the gifts: "Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; all from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the Lord" (Isaiah 60:6).
According to tradition, in the course of their journey, which lasted for twelve days, they neither took nor required rest or refreshment; indeed, it seemed to them as one day.
The Western tradition of the names of the Magi derive from an early 6th Century Greek manuscript, translated into the Latin Excerpta Latina Barbari The description seems to be of a mosaic of the magi, possibly those at Ravenna. The pseudo-Bedan text, Collectanea or Excerpta et Collectanea apparently continues the tradition of three kings. The text is said to be from the 8th or 9th century, of Irish origin, and first found in a printed edition of works ascribed (probably incorrectly) to St. Bede the Venerable at Basel in 1563.
One source states that the pseudo-Bedan text gives us the following clues about these men.
The oldest of the Magi was Melchoir, King of Arabia. He had a long gray beard and gave gold as a gift, symbolizing the acceptance of Christ as King. The gift of gold, by the way, included 30 individual pieces. Sandys includes a detailed history: The Three Kings (1833) and Christmastide - Chapter 09 (1853).
Balthazar, King of Ethiopia, was middle-aged, swarthy, bearded, and bore the gift of frankincense, symbolizing Christ as High Priest.
Finally, Caspar was King of Tarsus, in his twenties. His gift was myrrh, which was used in making medicines. This symbolized Christ as the healer and great physician.
It is said that after discovering and honoring the Savior, the Magi returned home and surrendered their high positions, gave their property to the poor, and went to spread the Gospel. The apostle St. Thomas is said to have baptized them forty years later in India, ordaining them as priests. An excerpt from a Medieval saints calendar printed in Cologne reads: "Having undergone many trials and fatigues for the Gospel, the three wise men met at Sewa (Sebaste in Armenia) in 54 (AD) to celebrate the feast of Christmas. Thereupon, after the celebration of Mass, they died: St. Melchior on 1st of January, aged 116; St. Balthasar on 6th of January, aged 112; and St. Gaspar on 11th of January, aged 109." They became martyrs and were buried in the walls of Jerusalem.1
The Empress St. Helena (circa 248-330, mother of Constantine I) supposedly discovered their bodies in Persia in 325 AD during her pilgrimage to the Holy Land and brought them to Constantinople, where their remains rested in the Mosque of St. Sophia. It was she who established their identity within the early church although the Magi were not referred to as saints until the twelfth century. St. Helena died in 330.
Shortly thereafter, Eustorgio I, ninth bishop of Milan, received the remains of the Magi inside a huge Roman marble sarcophagus from the Emperor Constantine I (circa 288-337), and brought them to Milan on a wooden cart pulled by a team of oxen. The cart entered the city through Porta Ticinese, and then sank into the mud. Eustorgio decided that this was a sign from God, and built the first basilica on that site.
In 1163 or 1164, the Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich I (called "Barbarossa" meaning "Redbeard," 1122-1190) presented Cologne (Koln), Germany with a gift which he had taken from Milan after he had captured the city in March, 1162 — the bones of the Three Wise Men. It is said that the remains were transported in three ships. It is from this tradition that the song I Saw Three Ships derives.
Within a few years, a shrine to house the relics was begun. The workshop of the goldsmith Nikolaus von Verdun was occupied for 50 years in the crafting of a golden shrine to house the relics (1180-1230). The shrine containing the relics can be seen today directly behind the high altar in the Cathedral. Fervent pilgrims began to flock to Cologne, which quickly became one of the primary religious sites in Germany.
A fabulous shrine was seen to need a stupendous church to house it, and the city of Cologne set about rebuilding its cathedral on a grand scale. Construction was begun in 1248 by the Archbishop Konrad von Hochstaden, in order to provide a more fitting cathedral to house the relics of the Three Magi. By 1265, the first of the chapels along the back of the cathedral were completed and in 1322, the Inner Choir with the High Altar was consecrated (even though this section had been completed around 1300). After 1322, the pace of construction slowed considerably, eventually grinding to a halt in 1560 due to a lack of funds. It was not until 1842 that construction was resumed by the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm IV. It took another 32 years of work to finish the Cathedral, with the last stonework being placed upon the South Tower in 1880.
After taking 632 years to complete (1248-1880), the Cathedral Church of SS. Peter and Mary in Cologne is the largest Gothic structure in northern Europe. It is currently the most visited building in Germany — with 15,000,000 people a year come to view its beauty and its treasures. The shrine of the Three Wise Men is so famous that the church itself has become popularly known as the Dreikoenigenkirche (the Church of the Three Kings).
During the Middle Ages, the names of the Three Kings, and especially a piece of paper that touched the shrine, was used as a "charm" or "protection." Hone reports that the following “Charm, or Protection,” was found in a linen purse, on the body of one "Jackson," a murderer and smuggler, who died in Chichester gaol, Feb. 1749. He was struck with such horror on being measured for his irons, that he soon after expired.
“Ye three holy kings,
Gaspar, Melchior, Balthasar,
Pray for us, now, and at the hour of death.”
"These papers have touched the three heads of the holy kings of Cologne. They are to preserve travellers from accidents on the road, head-achs, falling-sickness, fevers, witchcraft, all kinds of mischief, and sudden death.” (Citing Brand, Popular Antiquities)
In 1906, some of the bones were returned to Milan and are now kept in an urn just above the altar of the Magi.
The cathedral was severely damaged by Allied bombing during WWII. The restoration was finished in 1956. Thankfully, the golden shrine which contained the relics was not damaged.
Concerning the Names of the Magi
Neither the names nor the number of these wise men are given in the Gospels. However, because there were three gifts, tradition asserts that there were three wise men (although early traditions included as little as two, three, four, eight, or as many as a dozen kings). In time, these three were named: Melchior, Balthasar and Caspar (and numerous variants, including Kaspar, Gaspar, and Gaspard).
In October 1997, Vance Rains sent an email to the Spencer Abbey which asked:
I understand that Bede is responsible for the names that we associate with the three wise men. If that is true, where would I find that?
There was a lengthy discussion of this topic. In summary (as noted above), the names of the Magi derive from an early 6th Century Greek manuscript, translated into the Latin Excerpta Latina Barbari The description seems to be of a mosaic of the magi, possibly those at Ravenna. A pseudo-Bedan text, Collectanea or Excerpta et Collectanea apparently continues the tradition of three kings and gives additional details, including descriptions of the kings. The text is said to be from the 8th or 9th century, of Irish origin, and first found in a printed edition of works ascribed to Bede at Basel in 1563.
These messages can be found in the Medieval-Religion Archives, October 1997.
Note: One source asserted that the names of the Kings are Yazdegerd, Hormizdah, and Perozadh, as among the earliest names from the Eastern tradition. Presumably, this is from a sixth-century Syrian source, cited by Zoroastrian scholar Dariush Jahanian, which names the Three Kings as "Hormizdah king of Persia, Yazdegerd King of Saba, and Perozadh King of Sheba." However, it is said that those names are all Persian, not Sabaean or Arab. Source: Hannah M.G. Shapero, Ushtavaiti in The Three Magi, Zoroastrian Pilgrams. See also Rev. Dr. Steven A. Peay, Light of the World...or Only One Corner?
Another source gives the following names, among others, from a Christian writing preserved in Ethiopia: Hor, king of the Persians, Basanater, King of Saba, and Karsudan, king of the East. Source: Rev. A. Pieter Kiwiet-Pantaleoni First Baptist Church of Kalamazoo, Morning Worship, and Ed Evans, A Light In The Darkness.
Finally, the Catholic Encyclopedia notes that "the Syrians have Larvandad, Hormisdas, Gushnasaph, etc.; the Armenians, Kagba (or Kagpha), Badadilma, etc."
Some Names Given To The Magi
* Or Jasper or Gaspar or Gaspard.
Alternate Hebrew Names: Galgalath, Malgalath, and Sarrachim.
Gallery from The Adoration of the Kings
Rev. George R. Woodward, 1924
William Sandys, Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (London: Richard Beckley, 1833), Introduction, pp. lxxxi-xc, contains a lengthy discussion concerning The Three Kings. In his 1853 work Christmas-tide, he devoted an entire chapter to the Kings: Christmastide - Chapter 09.
Ron Clancy, author of the Christmas Classics series of Christmas carol books, has now created a number of "The Story Behind The Music" YouTube™ videos recounting the histories of numerous Christmas carols, including this carol.
The Story Behind the Music of
links to all of Clancy's carol videos, go to
Christmas Classics Videos
I do not have any financial or other relationship with Ron Clancy, The Christmas Classics, or YouTube.
1. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the story is traceable to an Arian writer of not earlier than the sixth century, whose work is printed, as "Opus imperfectum in Matthćum" among the writings of St. Chrysostom. This author admits that he is drawing upon the apocryphal Book of Seth, and writes much about the Magi that is clearly legendary. Return
A. H. Bullen, A Christmas Garland (London: John C. Nimmo, 1885)
Percy Dearmer, et. al., eds., The Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1928)
Earthly Delights: Xmas Carols
William Hone, The Year Book of Daily Recreation and Information. London: Thomas Tegg, 1832. December 29 – Characts
Robert Joseph, The Christmas Book
Marsha Galbiati, The Procession of the Magi [in Milan]
History of the Christian Church, Chapter 4
Keyte and Parrott, eds., The Shorter New Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993)
Alan E Mack from postings to Christmas International at Yahoo.com on January 5 and January 11, 2003
The Penny Magazine, Cologne
William Sandys, Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (London: Richard Beckley, 1833)
William Sandys, Christmastide - It's History, Festivities and Carols (London: John Russell Smith, 1852)
William L. Simon, ed., The Reader's Digest Merry Christmas Songbook (Pleasantville, NY: Readers Digest Association, revised 2003)
Martin Shaw and Percy Dearmer, The English Carol Book, First Series (London: A. R. Mowbray & Co., Ltd., 1913)
William Studwell, The Christmas Carol Reader (New York: Harrington Park Press, 1995)