Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

The social justice Christmas carol
Rev. John Zehring
December 20, 2018
John Sullivan Dwight of Boston was a social activist in the 1800s. He graduated from Harvard College and Harvard University Divinity School and became a pastor in Northampton, Massachusetts. As an ardent abolitionist during the century marked by the Civil War, the pulpit could have become a launching pad for John’s advocacy on behalf of the oppressed. Except for one thing. John Dwight suffered from a queasy stomach.  Every time he stood up before his congregation, he grew sick. Many a pastor has suffered from Sunday morning stomach, although pastors do not talk about it much. Perhaps it is brought on by the anxiety of public speaking, which today ranks as a top fear of people in the United States. In John’s case, his panic attacks magnified to the point that he needed to find another occupation.

Leaving the pastoral ministry, John launched “Dwight’s Journal of Music,” a weekly periodical that became one of the most respected and influential such periodicals in the country. He edited the journal for thirty years.

Of all the things John Dwight might have been known for, one towered above all others: a Christmas carol he published in his journal in the mid 1800s. It was written by a local commissionaire of wines in a small French village, Placide Cappeau. Cappeau was not known to be a person of faith, yet he wrote the poem “Minuit, chrétiens” at the request of the parish priest for the dedication of the church’s renovated organ. For the tune, Cappeau turned to his Jewish friend Adolphe Charles Adam, who composed the tune “Cantique de Noël.”  The people of France loved it. The church didn’t and banned it, saying it was “unfit for church services because of its lack of musical taste and its ‘total absence of the spirit of religion.’” In the church’s view, the carol was not spiritual enough, perhaps because of who wrote it and composed it. The people of France apparently didn’t get the memo, because they continued to sing it and love it and no one was going to take it away from them.

John Dwight translated the carol into English and published it in “Dwight’s Journal of Music” under the title “O Holy Night.” 

O Holy Night! The stars are brightly shining,

It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining.

Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.


Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!

O night divine, the night when Christ was born;

O night, O Holy Night , O night divine!

O night, O Holy Night , O night divine!

The hymn’s verse which grabbed him and shook him by the shoulders spoke directly to his passion for advocating on behalf of the oppressed:

Truly he taught us to love one another;

his law is love and his gospel is peace. 

Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother;

and in his name all oppression shall cease.

The best songs lead us into the worship of God and also challenge us to do something for others, as “O Holy Night” does so well. It invites us to worship, to “fall on your knees!  O hear the angel voices!” Then, there is a time to get up from our knees and do something, because God needs everyday Christians in the work for social justice, for God, to stand with and speak for our brothers and sisters who are oppressed. The slave or anyone who is oppressed is our brother and our sister. God’s world is a world without borders, fences or walls, so we are beckoned to work for freedom from oppression for all people in our land or in faraway lands. God needs us to favor those who are oppressed. Should the oppressed become free and themselves become oppressors, God needs us to favor the new oppressed.

“Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him,” says Proverbs 14:31 (NRSV) We only sing “O Holy Night” once a year. Yet may this social justice Christmas carol call forth our determination and our action, in God’s name, that all oppression shall cease. The nature and characteristics of those who are oppressed change over time, but the need continues for God’s people of faith to serve God as abolitionists of oppression. May we honor God by being kind to those who are oppressed.

The Rev. John Zehring has served United Church of Christ congregations for 22 years as a pastor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. He is the author of more than 30 books and e-books. His most recent book from Judson Press is “Get Your Church Ready to Grow: A Guide to Building Attendance and Participation.”

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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