The Scandal of Silent Night

What Silent Night scandal? You are probably wondering what I could possibly be talking about? How could the most-recorded, most well-recognized Christmas carol, labeled an “intangible cultural heritage” by UNESCO, be a problem? How dare I make such an accusation?!

Let me explain.

My husband has been preparing Advent sermons using various Christmas carols as springboards. A couple of weeks ago, during his preparation for his sermon using Silent Night, he came across a new English translation of the hymn. The information was too important to ignore. He didn’t have time in his sermon to address it, but I said I could write about it in my blog. And so I am.

The original lyrics to Silent Night were written in 1816 by Josef Mohr, a Catholic priest in Austria. In 1818, he asked his friend Franz Gruber to set the text to music, and this became the tune we know today. The original version has six verses. In 1859, the song was translated into English by John F. Young, an Episcopal priest, who was serving at Trinity Church in New York City at the time. He translated only three verses: 1, 2, and 6.

In 1998, the Silent Night Museum in Austria asked Bettina Klein to make a new English translation of the original text – all six verses. It’s interesting (and somewhat shocking) to see the differences between her translation and the one by John Young.

The first glaring difference is that John Young changed the words in the first verse from “Round yon godly, tender pair/ Holy infant with curly hair” to “Round yon virgin, mother and child/ Holy infant so tender and mild.” I don’t believe this is an instance of wanting to use better syntax or better sounding words. He also changed words in verse 2 (in the English, verse 6 in the German) from “Of angels singing alleluia/ Calling clearly near and far” to “Glories stream from heaven afar/ Heav’nly hosts sing Alleluia.” This creates a change in meaning. Instead of the angels calling out to those near and far, they are calling from afar. The three verses that John F. Young left untranslated support the idea that he was translating according to his own convictions and theological bias. The remaining three verses in the German reiterate that Jesus came for the entire world, an idea that John F. Young seems to have avoided. (You can find Bettina Klein’s translation here, and this website provides the original German and additional translations. You can find John F. Young’s translation alongside the original German here.)

I hesitate to make judgments about people I have not met and cannot question, but there is a lot of evidence that John F. Young was choosing to align himself with racism against Black people.

To give a little background, John Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism, was an abolitionist. In 1784, the Methodist-Episcopal church (MEC) was founded. Due to the MEC’s anti-slavery stance (prior to the split and formation of the MEC-south), by 1790 20% of the membership was made up of free and enslaved Black people. The MEC established Wesleyan University, named after John Wesley, in Middletown, CT. John F. Young attended this school, but dropped out after his freshman year.

After leaving Wesleyan University, John F. Young attended Virginia Theological Seminary, part of the Episcopal Church. Unlike the MEC, the Episcopal Church did not question the institution of slavery in the United States. In fact, the Episcopal Church was the only denomination in America that did not split over the issue of slavery prior to the Civil War. When the Civil War broke out, the southern dioceses formed the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States and celebrated having thrown off the “hateful and infidel pestilence” of abolitionism. After the war ended, the Episcopal Church did not question legalized segregation and discrimination toward Black people. Even after Black people were finally allowed to form their own Episcopal churches and have their own clergy, these congregations were disallowed from voting in the diocesan conventions. Nor were Black students accepted into the Episcopalian seminaries until the mid-20th century. Understandably, a large number of Black people left the Episcopal Church for other denominations, especially in the South. (You can read more of the Episcopal Church’s own words on this facet of its history here.)

This was the community John F. Young chose to join after leaving the anti-slavery MEC.

After graduating from Virginia Theological Seminary in 1845, John F. Young ministered throughout the South, including Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. He eventually was elected second bishop of Florida and taught in the Department of Liturgy and Ecclesiastical Music at the University of the South.

I can’t say for sure what John F. Young’s motivation was for translating Silent Night the way he did, but I dare say it would not have been socially acceptable for John F. Young to describe the holy infant as having “curly hair.” Leaving out the verse that references Jesus as a “brother [to] all nations on earth” is another way to avoid upsetting the social balance. Translating the hymn as it was originally written would likely have risked giving legitimacy to Black Christians, something the Episcopal Church was not willing to do at that time.

Sadly, it is John F. Young’s translation that has been used ever since in most English-speaking places. Those of us who do not know German and are unfamiliar with the original text are none the wiser. We have happily sung a favorite hymn not understanding how this translation has limited our view of the scope of the Gospel. We sing, disconnected from Mohr’s words reminding us that redemption is available to all people.

It creates a bit of a cognitive dissonance, loving a favorite hymn while also recognizing its troubled past, tainted by omission.

In 1978, Alfred Schnittke composed an arrangement of Silent Night for violin and piano. With it’s abrasive dissonances that seem at points to be needling, the piece caused a scandal in Austria. Years later, after a performance of the piece in Cambridge, MA, the Boston Globe titled the review, “With ‘Stille Nacht’, Schnittke Couched Protest in Tradition.” It makes me wonder how much Schnittke, himself a late convert to Christianity, might have known about the history of Silent Night. I know the unsettled harmonies he used reflect the cognitive dissonance the hymn now brings to my mind.

It seems to me that couching protest in tradition is the right way to go. Let’s start singing the updated, more accurate translation of Silent Night. Let’s sing all six verses and celebrate that, through Jesus, “all the world is redeemed.” But let’s keep the melody – it’s a good one!

If you wish to hear Schnittke’s version of Silent Night, listen here.

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