Moore’s classic more than ‘trifle’

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 17, 2011

I never dreamed when I pulled my copy of Then Sings My Soul, Book 2, from a shelf to look for some of my favorite Christmas hymns that my search would stir my curiosity about Clement C. Moore, the author of that delightful poem, A Visit From St. Nick.

The book, by Robert J. Morgan, was a Mother’s Day gift from my daughter. Inside are stories of 150 hymns. It is a book I reach for when I am curious about a hymn; things like who wrote the words and music, when, and under what circumstances. Or sometimes I refer to it when I get a hymn on my mind and can’t remember all the words. It is a handy, easy to read reference and song book.

When I started turning the pages, I couldn’t help pausing at familiar songs to hum a line or two. Since no one could hear me, I sang several stanzas aloud. The first Christmas hymn I found was Joy to the World, based on Psalm 98, written by Isaac Watts. As I mouthed the words, it was if I were slipping into the past. How many times had I joined in the congregational singing of this song during Advent seasons?

When I found We Three Kings of Orient Are, I read again the words of that moving hymn by John H. Hopkins Jr. Hopkins, a reporter, graduated from General Theological Seminary in New York. He became the seminary’s first music instructor. He wrote the hymn for a Christmas pageant produced by the seminary in 1857. Think of that, 1857, and we still sing it today.

Here is where the connection with Clement C. Moore comes in. He was the son of an heiress, Charity Clarke, and the Episcopal Bishop of New York, Dr. Benjamin Moore; his father was also Rector of Trinity Church, and President of Columbia College. When Clement wrote his famous poem in 1822, he was Professor of Oriental and Greek Literature and Divinity and Biblical Learning at General Theological Seminary—the seminary that Hopkins, the writer of We Kings of Orient Are, attended years later. Moore had donated the land for the seminary.

Moore was a well-known scholar who was apparently embarrassed by the popularity of the poem he wrote for his children. To him, it was a mere trifle. After all, he edited his father’s sermons, and published writings on religion, languages, politics, and poetry. A family member submitted the poem to a newspaper a year after he wrote it. It is no surprise that it was an instant success. Didn’t it delight you the first time you heard it? Some say it was 15 years, others say it was more than 20 years before he acknowledged it by including it in a small poetry book. Even then, he published it at the request of his children.

As accomplished as he was, we remember Clement C. Moore today not for those scholarly works, but for that “mere trifle.”