FAQ for Christmas

Adeste Fideles - Oh Come All Ye Faithful

words and music John Francis Wade (c 1711-1186)

Adeste Fideles
Laeti triumphantes
Venite, venite in Bethlehem
Natum videte
Regem angelorum
Venite adoremus
Cantet nunc io
Chorus angelorum
Cantet nunc aula caelestium
Gloria, gloria
In excelsis Deo
Venite adoremus
Ergo qui natus
Die hodierna
Jesu, tibi sit gloria
Patris aeterni
Verbum caro factus
Venite adoremus

The History of Adeste Fideles


The history of Adeste Fideles was shrouded in mystery for many years. At various times, the lyrics were attributed to St. Bonaventura, the 13th century Italian scholar (and others, including the Portuguese, the Germans, the Spanish, and the Cistercian order of monks). The music was attributed to many composers, including the English organist John Reading, Sr. (d. 1692), John Reading, Jr. (1677-1764), Handel, and Marcos Antonio da Fonesca (1762-1830), a Portuguese musician (who, it was later determined, was born 19 or 20 years after the first publication).

However, in 1946, Rev. Maurice Frost, Vicar of Deddington, Oxford, discovered a new manuscript of the hymn (written in Latin). Regrettably, it's cover -- and the possible signature of its author -- was missing. The next year, Dom John Stéphan, OSB, published his 32-page monograph, The Adeste Fideles: A Study On Its Origin and Development (Buckfast Abbey Publications: Devon, 1947) concluding that the hymn and the tune were both written by the same man:

John Francis Wade was born circa 1711 in England the son of a cloth merchant, John Wade, who had numerous connections to Leeds. A Catholic layman, he fled religious persecution in England, and by 1731 he was copying plainchant at the Dominical college at Bornhem, Flanders. Subsequently, he settled in Douai (or Douay), France, the location of a major Catholic college established by Phillip II of Spain in 1559. Wade made his living "by copying and selling plain chant and other music,"1a and the teaching of Latin and Church song. According to his obituary, he produced beautiful copies of plainchant and hymn manuscripts for local chapels and private use. Wade was also well connected with prominent Catholic musicians of the time, including Thomas Arne (1720-1778), and Samuel Webbe (1740-1816). According to Bennett Zon, Wade was also an instrumental force in the English revival of plainchant.1b

His famous "Adeste Fideles" appears to have been produced by at least 1743, and possibly as early as 1740. Both the words and the music appear in five existing manuscripts (four of which were signed by Wade1c) including:

  • The "Jacobite" manuscript was written circa 1743 or 1744 according to Dom Stéphan -- and possibly as early as 1740 according the editors of the New Oxford Book of Carols. This is said to be the earliest known copy in Wade's hand; a facsimile was reproduced in Dom Jean Stéphan's "The Adeste Fideles: A Study On Its Origin and Development" (Devon, England: Buckfast Abbey Publications, 1947). It was this copy found by Rev. Frost in 1946, and is the only one lacking the signature of Mr. Wade. According to Dr. Zon, this manuscript has now gone missing.
  • At Stonyhurst College, Lancashire, 1750. This is the version found in Wade's Cantus Diversi pro Dominicis et Festis. In that volume, the name of this carol is In Nativitate Domini Hymnus. According to the curator of the library at Stonyhurst College, the first line is spelled Adeste Fideles (and not Adeste Fidelis as some have asserted). This copy was written for the English College at Lisbon, Portugal.
  • At the Henry Watson Music Library, Manchester, England, around 1751.
  • Two copies at Edmund's College, Old Hall, Ware, England, 1760, a Graduale and a Vesporal.

A sixth copy at Clongowes Wood College, Kildare, Ireland, dated from 1746 or 1749, was reportedly lost or stolen in the 1940s. Until its loss, it was believed to be the oldest known copy.

Dom Stephan argues that Wade wrote both the words and the music, pulling together many facts concerning the manuscripts themselves, as well as the history of the time. There is, for example, a remarkable similarity to a tune from a comic opera, Acajou by Charles Simon Favart (1710-1792) (Paris, March 18, 1744; based on Comte d'Acajou by Devos). Dom Stéphan quotes G. E. P. Arkwright (The Musical Antiquary, Vol. I., April, 1910) to the effect that the song Rage inutile from Acajou was a transcription of the original tune from which the first part of Adeste Fideles is derived. The tune was called Air Angolis. The quotation from Arkwright concluded with the following: "This adaptation, by which a really fine tune was compounded out of rather incongruous materials, may have been made by some choirmaster (probably between c. 1740 and 1750), for the use of a Roman Catholic choir." Since the tune was used in Paris in 1744, the date of the composition would have to have been prior to that time.

In examining the "Jacobite" manuscript, Dom Stéphan went so far as to examine the watermarks, which were identified by an expert as being dated between 1720 and 1750. Dom Stéphan also examined other manuscripts, known to be by Wade, and concluded that they were by the same hand. He also examined other texts within the "Jacobite" manuscript and found a prayer for King James, whom he concluded was probably James III (nee James Francis Edward Stuart, a.k.a. "the Old Pretender," son of James II2). The hopes by James III to gain the English throne were crushed in 1745 when a Jacobite uprising (led by his son, Prince Charles Edward Stuart, "the Young Pretender") was crushed. Dom Stéphan noted that in a subsequent copy (the 1750 Stonyhurst copy), the "Prayer for the King" omitted James in favor of Joseph, the son of King John V of Portugal, who ascended to the throne in 1750.

Finally, Dom Stéphan noted that the version of Adeste Fideles in the "Jacobite" manuscript differed in some material respects to the other known versions, especially in the chorus which is changed from "Venite adorade" to "Venite adoramus" (the correct liturgical phrase in the Invitatory Response at Matins according to Dom Stéphan). In addition, the "Jacobite" manuscript is written in 3/4 time, while all subsequent versions are written in 4/4 time. Finally, the earlier versions are written in a 5-line stave, while subsequent versions were written in a 4-line stave.

The lyrics were printed in France in 1760 in the Evening Offices of the Church; according to Elizabeth Poston, previous editions did not contain them. In England, the hymn and tune first appeared in the Essay or Instruction for Learning the Church Plain Chant in 1782 in London (Keyte and Parrott state that this was anonymously published; Poston and Dom Stéphan indicate that the author was Samuel Webbe). Ten years later, in 1792, the hymn and tune were repeated in a four-part setting of the tune in Samuel Webbe's Collection of Motetts or Antiphons. Regrettably, Webbe did not give any attribution of the composer of the tune. It was likely this version which Webbe, a prominent organist, was playing three years later, in 1795.

The hymn has often been called "The Portuguese Hymn." This is because an 1795 performance of the hymn by Samuel Webbe was first heard by the Duke of Leeds at the chapel of the Portuguese embassy in London, one of the few strongholds of Catholic culture in the country at that time. The Duke was so impressed that he commissioned a fuller arrangement by Thomas Greatorex. This arrangement was performed at a "Concert of Ancient Music" (a.k.a. the Ancient Concerts) on May 10, 1797. According to Vincent Novello, the hymn was identified as "The Portuguese Hymn" since the Duke erroneously assumed that Portugal was source (Novello also wrote a popular arrangement).3 Soon the carol became very popular throughout England, Europe, and the United States.

Concerning this misunderstanding, William Henry Husk noted in 1863:

... accompanied of late years by an English translation of the Latin Christmas hymn, "Adeste, fideles," under the title of the Portuguese Hymn, or as one worthy printer calls it "A favourite Christmas Hymn, translated from the Portuguese," ignorant of the fact that its title of "Portuguese," was given to it by an English nobleman [the Duke of Leeds] who was a director of the Concerts of Ancient Music and introduced the hymn there, having previously heard it sung at the Chapel of the Portuguese embassy in South Street, Grosvenor Square, and assuming it to be a Portuguese composition.4

By the eighteenth century, Adeste Fideles was popular in Germany and France. There it was called "The Midnight Mass," because monks changed it into a Christmas Eve processional. In the early eighteenth century, it was possibly used by wealthy French Catholic families in their private chapels.

Originally, Wade wrote a four-verse lyric, but later additions increased the number to eight verses (although only 7 have any contemporary currency).

In 1751, Wade was back in Lancashire as a 'pensioner' in the house of Nicholas King, but he appears to have lived primarily in Douai. He died there on August 16, 1786. His obituary read:

Mr. John Francis Wade, a Layman, aged 75, with whose beautiful Manuscript Books our Chapels as well as private Families abound, in writing which, and teaching the Latin and Church Song he chiefly spent his Time.

The hymn has been translated into English many times. The earliest known, from 1789, opened with "Come, faithful all, rejoice and sing." By 1892, there were over 38 translations according to John Julian's Dictionary of Hymnology. William Studwell estimated almost 50 translations by the late 1990s. But the most popular is that by an English priest:

Frederick Oakeley, D.D., was born September 5, 1802, Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England. His father was Charles Oakeley, governor of Madras. Oakeley attended Christ Church, Oxford, and took Holy Orders with the Church of England in 1828. By 1839, he was the incumbent of Margaret Street Chapel, London, was the prebendary at Lichfield Cathedral, and was preaching at Whitehall. It was at Margaret Chapel in 1841 that Rev. Oakeley translated the Latin hymn Adeste Fideles into English. Originally, the first line was "Ye faithful, approach ye." It wasn't published at that time, but its use in the Margaret Chapel lead to widespread popularity.

Subsequently his interest in the Oxford Movement forced him to resign his appointments with the English Church. In 1845, he followed John H. Newman in converting to Roman Catholicism. He rewrote the opening of the hymn to read:

O come, all ye faithful,
Joyfully triumphant.

In 1852 - the same year he became canon at Westminster Cathedral - this revised version of the hymn was printed in F. H. Murray's A Hymnal for Use in the English Church.

For many years Oakeley worked among the poor of Westminster, and wrote extensively. His poetry collections include Lyra Liturgica: Reflections in Verse for Holy Days and Seasons (1865). He died January 29, 1880, at Islington, Middlesex, England, and was buried in St Mary's Catholic Cemetery, Kensal Green, England.

Originally Wade created the four verses in the 1740s. But, as noted above, three additional verses were added in 1822 by Abbé Étienne Jean François Borderies (1764-1832) when they were printed in his Office de St Omer. It has been suggested that Abbé Borderies heard the hymn sung while exiled in England in 1793 and wrote the three additional stanzas after he returned to France in 1794. Another Latin verse was written by an unknown author but of possibly Gallic origins and printed in Belgium circa 1850 and in Paris circa 1868.

Oakeley didn't translate the verses created by Abbé Borderies (or the anonymous verse), but another hymnologist did:

William Thomas Brooke was born January 9, 1848. He was educated at the City of London School and after entering commercial life, he became interested in hymnology, learning much from Daniel Sedgwick. Originally a Baptist, Brooke converted to the Church of England in 1867.

Inspired by the three Latin verses written by Abbé Borderies, and the fourth anonymous Latin verse, Brooke first translated the four new Latin verses, and then inserted these after the first two verses of the Oakeley translation. This new version was printed in the Altar Hymnal in 1884. Later, the last two verses from Oakeley were appended as the last two verses of the combined version. This became the basis of the version printed in The English Hymnal (1906), which has become the standard reprinting of this carol.

In his lifetime, Brooke contributed hymns to many Victorian periodicals. One of his other works was titled Churchman's Manual of Private and Family Devotion (1882). He died in 1917.

During the 19th century the melody was set to many texts, including "How Firm A Foundation" (Ira Sankey, et al, eds., Gospel Hymns: Nos. 1 to 6 Complete, New York: Biglow & Main, 1894, #613).

The hymn has been translated into at least 125 languages and is one of the most popular of all Christmas hymns.

According to J. F. Gannon, "The erstwhile chapel of the Portuguese Embassy associated with the hymn is still there on Warwick Street between Regent Street and Golden Square, but it is now simply a Roman Catholic church unconnected with any Embassy."

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