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The Dispute About "O Holy Night"

So the word is out that “O Holy Night” was originally written by a French atheist, then translated by a Unitarian (or Transcendentalist?) into English, set to music by a Jew. Really? Let’s take a closer look and see what we find, and see how much difference it makes, if any.

Whether or not he was actually an atheist or a mere unbeliever, Placide Cappeau was a famous poet paid to write a piece to commemorate a new organ in his town. Using Google Translate and a little grad school French, let’s see what he wrote:

Midnight, Christians!

It is the solemn hour when the Man-God came down to us

To erase the original stain

And from His Father to stop the wrath.

The whole world trembles with hope

On this night that gives him (them) a Saviour.

People on their knees, await your deliverance!

Christmas! Christmas! Behold the Redeemer!

Christmas! Christmas! Behold the Redeemer!

The Redeemer has broken every barrier:

The earth is free and the sky is open.

He sees a Brother or (who?) was only a slave,

Love unites those enchained by iron.

Who will tell Him our gratitude?

It is for all of us that He is born,

May He suffer and die.

People, up! Sing your deliverance!

Christmas! Christmas! Let's sing the Redeemer!

Christmas! Christmas! Let's sing the Redeemer!


Not bad! See how much is missing from our English version. Where did the “original stain” and the wrath of God go in our version? And where did our English composer get “long lay the world in sin and error pining, till He appeared, and the soul felt its worth”? Or where did he get, “Truly He taught us to love one another, His law is love, and His gospel is peace”? Here we can see that the English hymn we know is not a translation at all, but a completely new composition, even if it may have been “inspired” by the original.

So it really doesn’t matter whether the French author was an atheist, or what. Is truth negated or canceled, simply because it is spoken by an atheist? If there is no effect to mislead or ridicule, I think the answer is no, truth is truth, regardless of who penned it. Placide Cappeau got it right.

Ironically, the supposed atheist’s theology (whether or not he believed it) is actually better that the theology of the Unitarian, whose English version waters down “the Man-God came down” to “it is the night of our dear Savior’s birth.” Nothing false about “our dear Savior,” but look how much the Unitarian left out! And again, where did the substitutionary atonement go?

There’s nothing wrong with singing the English total rewrite. There’s nothing misleading here, although I’ve always felt like the lyrics bordered too much on worshipping the night itself. But I would prefer the French original, if only it was singable.

As for the music, so what if Adolphe Adam was Jewish by descent? So was Felix Mendelssohn, who gave us the music to “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” (And I’ve heard the rumor that Mendelssohn was Christian by belief. Who knows what Adolphe Adam believed?)

Finally, a shout-down to [name withheld], the guy who recently claimed to his online followers that we today supposed refuse to sing the verse that says “chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother.” Ever since the early 1970’s, I’ve never heard or sang the song without those words. Such a claim shreds his credibility for me.

So “O Holy Night” passes inspection for me. What we sing in English is true enough, even if the re-writer’s theology was seriously defective, and even though he rendered the original barely recognizable. And the original proves to have been even more true, even if the composer did not believe what he was writing. We’ll let God handle that.