Posted by: rcottrill | October 28, 2010

Today in 1817 – Henry Harbaugh Born

A farmer’s son, Henry Harbaugh worked as a carpenter, a teacher, and a writer. Then, after theological training, he became the pastor of a series of German Reformed Churches in the northeastern United States. Around 1863, he became professor of didactic and practical theology at Mercersburg Theological Seminary, the school from which he had graduated.

Graphic Ted CottrillDr. Harbaugh wrote or translated several hymns, among them is a lovely little song of his own, Jesus, I Live to Thee, which became popularly known as the Mercersburg Hymn.

A personal note on this one. My father, Edward Cottrill (pictured here), was organist and choir director for Garside Bible Church (then Garside Gospel Church) in Hamilton, Ontario, for nearly 20 years. Around 1955, he wrote his own tune for Harbaugh’s hymn, and it was sung by the choir. Why not take a few moments to read the full hymn, and hear my father’s tune, Garside.

Jesus, I live to Thee,
The loveliest and best;
My life in Thee, Thy life in me,
In Thy blest love I rest.

Whether to live or die,
I know not which is best;
To live in Thee is bliss to me,
To die is endless rest.

(2) Today in 1820 – John Hopkins Born
John Henry Hopkins Jr. worked in New York City as a reporter, intending to pursue a career in law. But instead he decided to attend the General Theological Seminary there, from which he graduated in 1850. He became the seminary’s first music teacher, and edited the Church Journal, as well as serving later as a clergyman at Trinity Church, Plattsburg, New York.

Hopkins wrote a number of hymns, but he is best known for the carol, We Three Kings, written for a Christmas Pageant at the General Theological Seminary. The hymn is supposed to describe the visit of the wise men to the young Jesus, as recorded in Matthew 2:1-12. It is difficult to imagine, however, that a scholar of his stature could make so many mistakes in the opening line of the song–unless he simply didn’t care!

First, the biblical text nowhere tells us how many men there were. They are referred to in the plural, which could mean there were two or twenty-two. We don’t know. That there were three gifts presented  tells us nothing. (If you receive three gifts for Christmas, will that without doubt prove there were three separate gift-givers?)

Second, they were not from the “Orient,” which refers to the Far East, or Eastern Asia. Rather, they were likely from Persia (present day Iraq), in the Middle East. [A reader quite rightly corrected me on this. Before the Orient meant the Far East, it was simply applied to countries east of the Mediterranean. On this one, Hopkins was on solid ground.]

Third, they were not kings at all, but “wise men” or magi. The magi were men expert in the study of the stars. The Persians placed much faith in astrology, which is the reason they needed men trained to know the location and movement of the stars.

To Hopkins’s credit, however, he correctly identifies the symbolic meaning of the three gifts presented to Jesus. Whether the visitors fully comprehended it or not, in the providence of God, each of them is appropriate to the person of Christ.

  • As Hopkins indicates, gold speaks of Christ’s kingly majesty–“Gold I bring, to crown Him again.”
  • And “incense [frankincense] owns a Deity nigh,” because its rising smoke symbolizes prayer and worship.
  • Myrrh’s “bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom,” and points to the Lord’s death, because it was used as an embalming spice. (cf. Jn. 19:39-40).

As John Hopkins’s song says of the Lord Jesus Christ, “Glorious now behold Him arise: / King and God and Sacrifice.” At least in that, he got it right!

We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.

O star of wonder, star of light,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.


  1. […] (2) Today in 1902 – Edward Cottrill Born My father was a gospel musician with many years of experience playing in a church orchestra, playing the organ, and leading choirs and other musical groups. He also composed a simple tune called Garside to go with Henry Harbaugh’s hymn, Jesus, I Live to Thee (see Today in 1817). […]

  2. […] Wordwise Hymns Discovering the Songs of Christmas The Cyber […]

  3. Good post. I disagree about Orient, though. Orient simply means east and in earlier times it was often used of places that weren’t so far east as China or Japan. In fact, places as far west ad Egypt used to be considered part of the Orient. See the Wikipedia article on Orientalist for more information.

    • Ah! You’re absolutely right. Thanks for catching that. Before the word meant the Far East, it was simply used of places east of the Mediterranian. (Being an Agatha Christie fan, I should have remembered the Orient Express, running from Paris to Istanbul.) I’ll make the correction. Thanks again. Drop by any time to keep me on my toes. 🙂


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