The abolitionist history of ‘O Holy Night’
Editor's Note: Over the four weeks of Advent, alongside the release of season three of “Hark!,” our podcast about the meaning and making of our favorite Christmas carols, America staff will also share their reflections on each week’s carol. This week’s episode on “O Holy Night” features Greg Boyle, S.J., founder of Homeboy Industries and author of Tattoos on the Heart and Barking to the Choir; conductor Colin Britt; and Daniel Williams, a historian of American religion and politics. It’s available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
The Incarnation is the great miracle of salvation history, and perhaps no song better expresses that miracle—and its continued implications—as well as “O Holy Night.” With its soaring high notes and poetic depiction of God’s light breaking through to a world cloaked in sin, the song helps us to revel in that glory. The man who translated “O Holy Night” into English, John Sullivan Dwight, believed that reflection on this miracle had the potential to confront oppression and injustice in his day.
In an article published in America in 2020, Benjamin Ivry explored the origins of “O Holy Night.” The carol originated as a French poem, “Minuit, Chrétiens” (sometimes known as “Cantique de Noël”), written by Placide Cappeau, a leftist wine merchant, and was set to music by the secular composer Adolphe Adam in either 1843 or 1847.
The carol gained popularity in France, then quickly drew criticism from official publications of Catholic music, which faulted the carol’s “militant tone and dubious theology.” French-Catholic criticism would endure for over a century after the release of “Minuit, Chrétiens,” but despite church opposition, French Catholics continued to sing it.
In North America, however, the song quickly gained a foothold in the Christmas canon. It was introduced in Canada in 1858 by the musician Ernest Gagnon, and the song became a staple at Midnight Masses in French-Canadian parishes on Christmas.
“O Holy Night” is a reminder that in Christ, we all belong to one another, slave and free.
The song was introduced to the United States by a Unitarian minister, John Sullivan Dwight, remembered as the first American music critic. According to Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, by Ace Collins, Dwight encountered “Minuit, Chrétiens” while searching for new material to review in his publication Dwight’s Journal of Music. He translated the poem into English and released it in 1855.
Mr. Ivry called the original French “didactic,” “as if lecturing a crowd.” In Dwight’s rather liberal translation, the text takes on new life. The French, which would directly translate to “People kneel down, wait for your deliverance,” becomes “Fall on your knees; O hear the angel voices!” The meanings are similar, but Dwight’s rendering evokes the awe-inspiring grandeur of the coming of the Lord. Cappeau’s French lyrics provide a historical and theological recounting of the nativity narrative; Dwight’s English text suffuses the events with rich emotion, placing listeners beneath the radiant star that marked the Savior’s birth.
The most interesting part of Dwight’s translation appears in the third stanza. A literal translation of the original French goes:
The Redeemer has overcome every obstacle.
The Earth is free, and Heaven is open.
He sees a brother where there was only a slave.
Love unites those whom iron had chained.
Dwight translated the verse to:
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.
To Dwight’s American contemporaries, this would have been a radical political statement. By 1855, it had become increasingly clear that the long series of compromises that preserved slavery in the South was untenable.
Dwight himself was an ardent abolitionist. He wrote publicly about his horror that “three or four millions of our human brethren [are] in slavery” and believed that the United States was committing “moral suicide,” according to his biographer, Bill F. Fawcett. Dwight’s translation confronted listeners with the truth that Christ came to free humanity from sin, and therefore aligned the Christian witness with the abolitionist cause that sought to eliminate the evil of chattel slavery. It is thus unsurprising that “O Holy Night” gained fast favor among Northerners during the Civil War.
However, “O Holy Night” is a hymn before it is a political anthem—its primary focus is not abolition, but the Incarnation. Its epic heights are designed to make us revel in the glory of God; from there, we will be transformed.
In “O Holy Night,” we are reminded of the promise of the Incarnation and its continuing resonance today. The Incarnation marks God’s entrance into humanity, done to fulfill the promise to “bring good news to the poor…. Proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Lk 4:18-19). As Christians, we must participate in this mission in the present, striving constantly to bring forth the kingdom of God. For Dwight, that called him to an abolitionist witness.
“O Holy Night” can still remind us of Christians’ duty to participate in Christ’s liberating mission. Our guest on “Hark!,” Gregory Boyle, S.J., says that he adopted the lines, “Long lay the world, in sin and error pining/ until he appeared and the soul felt its worth” as a kind of mantra: “It’s a song about Christmas and it’s a song about Jesus, but how is it not the job description of anyone who is the proud owner of a pulse?”
From Dwight’s abolitionist cause to Father Boyle’s ministry with gang members, we are all called to see the worth in each soul, and to fight against a world that denigrates it. “O Holy Night” is a reminder that in Christ, we all belong to one another, slave and free.
Correction: The original copy of this article misquoted Father Boyle to say "depiction" rather than "description." The quote has been updated.
Correction, Dec. 6, 2023: The original copy, which has since been updated, said that Ernest Gagon, rather than Ernest Gagnon, brought “O Holy Night” to Canada.