Beloved Williamsport rector composed Christmas classic, ‘We Three Kings’

KATELYN HIBBARD/Sun-Gazette This drawing of the Rev. Dr. John Henry Hopkins Jr., composer of the Christmas hymn "We Three Kings of Orient Are," hangs in the Christ Episcopal Church on Mulberry Street, where Hopkins served as rector for 11 years in the 1800s.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Today the Sun-Gazette offers the next installment in a weekly history series that tells the stories of those who came before us.)

The three wise men who followed the Star of Bethlehem to greet baby Jesus have long been the subject of lore in Christmas music, including the classic, “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”

The beloved hymn was written by Dr. John Henry Hopkins Jr., who devoted 11 years of his life to the Christ Episcopal Church, 426 Mulberry St.

Born in Pittsburgh, Hopkins found his way to Williamsport after working as a journalist for the New York Courier and Enquirer, and served as rector of the Christ Episcopal Church, also called Christ Church, from 1876 to 1887.

His was the longest rectorship in the church’s history, said Deb Porter, an archivist for the church.

Porter said Hopkins “was a real Renaissance man,” with interests in poetry and song writing, composing, architecture and more. Though Hopkins wrote the hymn “We Three Kings” nearly a decade before relocating to Williamsport, evidence of the actions he took within the community remain.

A parish is not officially consecrated until the debt accrued from building it has been paid off, Porter said, and Hopkins was a key figure in making that happen for Christ Church.

According to “The Christ Church Chronicles,” written by Edward Henry Eckel to document the history of Christ Church from its beginnings in 1841 until his time of 1910, the church’s building was constructed in 1869 with its first service taking place on Christmas Eve.

Porter said Hopkins pushed to have the debt paid by 1879, and the consecration ceremony was held in June of that year.

Within the parish, Hopkins lent his artistic mind to the design of church furniture including the bishop’s chair, complete with a place for the bishop’s crozier — an ornate, hooked staff which Hopkins also designed. The pastoral staves worn by the bishops of Central Pennsylvania and Wisconsin were designed by Hopkins as well, Eckel wrote.

During his time at the parish, a Sunday school building was constructed, the church gained steam heating, and its floor was tiled as it appears today.

Outside the church, Hopkins helped design some of the wrought iron tombs in Wildwood Cemetery, and is credited with helping to design the Church of the Good Shepherd and Church of Our Saviour in Montoursville, Porter said.

After his retirement, he also composed a tune called “Grand Isle” — many now know this as the hymn “I Sing a Song of the Saints of Gods,” which Porter said was one of her favorites growing up.

“It is difficult to say whether Dr. Hopkins was most widely appreciated as scholar, writer, preacher, controversialist, musician, poet or artist, because he was a man of ‘many parts’ and excelled in all,” Eckel wrote.

“He was very much beloved in this parish. He was totally devoted to the people here,” Porter emphasized. “He especially loved children and was very kind to anyone in need.”

Porter said Hopkins’ teachings continue to guide Christ Church, which sees the former rector as “a bit of a celebrity.”

“Sometimes the episcopal church can be seen as haughty, but he seemed to be very down to Earth,” she said of Hopkins. “In carrying on the traditions of Dr. Hopkins, we are a very inclusive congregation. Anyone is welcome here.”