I was sent this excerpted with permission from Then Sings My Soul Book 2: 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories by Robert J. Morgan. © 2004 Robert J. Morgan; published by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Both volumes are available at store.womenoffaith.com
Strange but true: A visit from St. Nicholas paved the way for “We Three Kings.” It happened like this: after the War of 1812, Anglicans in America decided to establish their own seminary for training Episcopalian ministers. In 1817, the Episcopalian General Convention voted to locate the school in New York City. But where in New York?
Clement Clarke Moore, son of New York’s Episcopalian Bishop, was an up-and-coming land developer. He had recently become well-known because of a poem he had written, which began:
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house’
not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse . . . .
The popularity of his poem (reportedly written following a sleigh ride home from Greenwich Village) made his name a household word. The fame and increased income made him a more generous layman.
Moore owned a large estate in the undeveloped northern regions of Manhattan. He referred to it as “a quiet, rural retreat on the picturesque banks of the Hudson.” Hearing that the Episcopalians needed land for their seminary, he offered a portion of this estate, and thus was born General Theological Seminary. Moore, also a linguist and Hebrew scholar, became one of General’s first professors, teaching biblical languages.
Some years later, a reporter named John H. Hopkins, Jr. enrolled in this seminary. Born in Pittsburgh, Hopkins had matriculated at the University of Vermont before moving to New York to pursue legal studies. But he fell in love with the Lord’s work, enrolled in General, and graduated from seminary in 1850. In 1855, he was hired as the school’s first instructor of church music.
Hopkins wrote “We Three Kings” as part of a Christmas pageant produced by General Theological Seminary in 1857. In 1863 it was published in his Carols, Hymns, and Songs. This hymnal went through three editions. He wrote other hymns, but most have fallen into obscurity. “We Three Kings” was his crowning achievement, made possible, in a way, through the generosity of another poet whose most famous work ends:
But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!