Reverend John Henry Hopkins
“WE THREE KINGS OF ORIENT ARE”
By John Henry Hopkins, Jr. 1857
John Henry Hopkins, Jr. is not a well-known name except to musicians and individuals in Plattsburgh, NY. but many people know his Epiphany song, “We Three Kings of Orient Are”. This Christmas carol was written around 1857 and some historians believe it was written for his nieces and nephews to help them understand the Matthew 1:1-12 story of the visit of the Magi to the manger in Bethlehem. It is popularly used today as part of a Christmas children’s program in many churches. Although little known, he was one of the great leaders in the development of hymnody in the Episcopal church during the mid-nineteenth century.
Hopkins was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on October 28, 1820. His father, John Henry Hopkins Sr., was a lawyer who played the organ at his church. Music was always a part of life in the Hopkin’s family. Hopkins Sr. was ordained in the Episcopal Church and became the Bishop of Vermont. While the family lived in Burlington, VT, Hopkins Jr. attended the University of Vermont where he received a Master’s degree in 1845. He then went to New York City to work as a reporter, but his goal was to become a lawyer. Instead, he enrolled in the General Theological Seminary. He was ordained a deacon in 1850 and from 1855 to 1857 he served as the first instructor in church music at the seminary. He was ordained as an Episcopal priest in1872.
After his ordination he became the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Plattsburgh. He designed the seal of the church which is still in use today. He also designed a communion set. Legend in the church is that he asked members of the congregation to donate jewelry to be used in the decoration of the communion set and some of the jewels on the set lend credibility to the story. This communion set is used for special services, especially at Christmas. He also designed a brass alms basin and an altar book rest.
In 1887 Hopkins moved to Williamsport, Pennsylvania where he was the rector of Christ Church. He also served at several other churches in New York, and Pennsylvania. John Henry Hopkins, Jr. became a rector in Hudson, NY. and during that time, he gave the eulogy at the funeral of President Ulysses Grant.
Hopkins was also a writer and a poet, author of a biography of his father and “Poems by the Wayside” (1883). His most important musical publication (1863) was a collection of his carols, hymns and songs.
In addition to “We Three Kings of Orient Are” he also wrote “Gather Around the Christmas Tree”.
Hopkins died in Hudson on August 14, 1891.
He is buried at Bishop’s House, Rock Point, Burlington, Vermont.
- Historical information - contributed by Martha Bachman who is a member of Trinity Episcopal Church. For more information about the history of the church visit trinitychurchplattsburgh.org Contact: (518) 561-2244
- Historical information – portions of an article (undated) written by Dayle Dermatis, Staff Writer for the Plattsburgh Press Republican
- Biography by Robert Cummings
- Book: “Champion of the Cross, Being the life of John Henry Hopkins, S.T.D. written by his nephew, Charles Filkins Sweet