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150 years ago and more: another story of Silent Night

As we live into this Christmas season with different ways of celebrating – some sacred and some secular – it is likely that “Silent night, holy night” is near the top of our most favored Christmas carols. Even people who make no profession of faith in Jesus Christ enjoy this adorably sweet song about mother and child.

Many of us have heard something of the origin of this beloved song. The story goes that on Christmas eve of 1816, Father Joseph Mohr, a priest in St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria, faced a dilemma because the organ in his church was not working. He gave a poem he had written a couple of years before to his organist, Franz Gruber, and asked that he compose music for voices and guitar for the Christmas mass.

The rest, as they say, is history – almost.

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht! Alles sclaft, einsam wacht Nur das traute, heilige Paar. Holder Knab im lockigen Haar: Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!

It might have ended that night when the Christmas service was over, but it didn’t. Something unique and lasting happened that night. Some of those long-ago worshipers probably walked home humming the tune or singing the words. They told their neighbors. In a culture renowned for wonderful music, this new Christmas song was embraced, and it became known throughout Europe and then America.

There was a challenge. The original words are German, and many people in England and America do not read nor speak German. Several English translations were published. One of these translations are the words you and I know and love and sing this season. These cherished words are the gift of a man who lived much of his life in our part of the world.

His name is John Freeman Young. As a newly ordained Episcopal priest, he served in Florida for two years, 1846-1847.

He was born in Maine in 1820. As a young man, he began his study of theology in the Virginia Theological Seminary, Alexandria, and upon his graduation in 1845, he went to Florida where he became one of the only two Episcopal clergy serving in the state. Two years later, he moved on to serve in Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and New York City. He adapted well to serving in rustic, even wilderness settings, and then the city as he continued his interests in theology, poetry, music, and architecture.

He began his New York years in 1855 as an assistant in Trinity Church, Wall Street. There he married Harriet Ogden. There he got to know Richard Upjohn, soon to become a foremost architect of the present Trinity Church, Wall Street.

During this time, he began his collecting and translating great Christians hymns.

A 16-page pamphlet published in 1859 titled Carols for Christmas Tide included his English translation of Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht. This was the first of other translations and publications of hymns, although through the years, his name as translator was often lost.

In 1867, he was elected and consecrated to be the second Episcopal Bishop of Florida and served this ministry until his death in 1885. He left the comforts of New York to make the privations of reconstruction Florida his home and his passion for the remainder of his life. His ministry was that of a traveling missionary and pastor in dire circumstances. From Pensacola to Jacksonville to Key West and Cuba, traversed by horse, buggy, steamboat, sailboat, foot, and rarely by train, he began serving 20 congregations and 14 clergy. By the time of his death in 1885, there were 48 congregations and 36 clergy. He left behind a school for girls and a school for boys in Jacksonville, and he participated in the post-war revival of The University of the South, Sewanee.

He brought with him published plans for churches by his friend, Richard Upjohn, and these elegant frame country churches still house worshipers across the south. Among the six Episcopal churches in the Florida panhandle he served, one of them was begun the year he arrived.

To this day, worshipers in St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Milton, pray in a church which beautifully bears the best marks of his legacy.

Five other churches in the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast were already established when Bishop Young came to Florida and visited them: Christ Church, Pensacola (1827); St. James’, Port St. Joe (1835); Trinity, Apalachicola, (1836); Mariana, St. Luke’s (1838); and St. John’s, Pensacola (1850).

Bishop Young died at age 65 in November, 1885. He is buried in the Old City Cemetery in Jacksonville. For some years, his grave fell into disrepair, but with the care of the present bishop of Florida and various supporters, this has been made well. Today, local choirs and pilgrims from afar pay respects at his grave. In recent Christmases, an arrangement of evergreens had decorated his grave on behalf of Austria’s Silent Night Society.

This Christmas, however and wherever you remember the Christ Child born to us, and when you sing this revered carol, give a thought and a thankful prayer for a frustrated parish priest in Austria, a startled musician who put together, in a hurry, German words to a guitar-strummed tune for a Christmas service, and for a Yankee-born Episcopal priest and bishop who loved our southland and who gave the world the sublime English poetry of our favored carol.

Christ the Savior is born.


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