In the early centuries of Christian art the kings were thought to be Persian, and were depicted wearing Persian clothing in mosaics and paintings, although the gifts of frankincense and myrrh would have come from Arabia or Yemen. A famous example of the Three Kings in Persian garb is in the 6th century Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, renowned for its magnificent Byzantine mosaics. There they seem to be striding forward with a remarkable feeling of animation and urgency, with very determined looks on their faces, which we see in profile. Another example is the Church of the Nativity in Jerusalem, which was supposedly saved from destruction by Persian invaders in 614 because of a fresco there which showed the kings in Persian dress. By the early Middle Ages the three kings were given names and featured in mystery plays, dramas with music that captured the imaginations of all classes of people. Their popularity survived the Reformation, as by then they were associated with a wide array of folk legends and beliefs independent of official church teaching. “We three kings,” though written and composed in the nineteenth century, fits securely into the ancient tradition, with its verses for solos by the individual kings, followed by a refrain for the congregation.
John Henry Hopkins, Jr., wrote both the word and music to “We three kings” in 1857, as part of a Christmas pageant for his nephews and nieces. He was a member of a family both clerical and musical – his father was the first Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont, who later, as Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church after the Civil War, was instrumental in reuniting with the breakaway Episcopal Church of the Confederate States. Hopkins Jr. became a deacon after graduating from General Theological Seminary, where he was the first music teacher and composed several hymns. We are also indebted to his nephew, John Henry Hopkins III, for the music to “I sing a song of the saints of God.” Hopkins Jr. eventually became Bishop of Vermont, like his father, and was chosen to deliver the eulogy at the funeral of President Ulysses S. Grant in 1885.
In writing “We three kings,” Hopkins was paying tribute to all the traditional lore, and showed a familiarity with the medieval plays and the symbolic meanings of the gifts. “Gold I bring to crown him again” - Gold symbolized royalty and sovereignty over the material world. “Incense owns a deity nigh” – frankincense symbolized divinity as well as prayer rising to God. “Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume” – myrrh was used for healing wounds, but also for anointing the dead, so it was seen as a symbol of Christ’s Passion and death.
The minor key of the melody to “We three Kings,” unusual in hymns of the mid-nineteenth century, gives it an archaic quality, consciously suggesting the ancient church modes of Gregorian chant. The hymn quickly became beloved in both America and England, and both words and music have been in the Episcopal Hymnal since 1916. We sing it as our Offertory hymn at the feast of the Epiphany – it’s only once a year, so don’t miss it!