The hymn was thought by some to be created as a German folk hymn around 1662 by German Jesuits who had traveled to Jerusalem singing it. There is evidence that it was sung by John Huss’ followers on their departure from Bohemia to Silesia to escape further persecution around 1620 after Huss was burned at the stake by the Catholic Church in 1415. (Huss lived before Luther, Calvin or Zwingli.) The exact origin of the words has been lost, and the text has gone through several variations. The music, called CRUSADER’S HYMN by some or ST. ELIZABETH by others, was made from a Silesian folk song composed by Henrich von Fallersleben (full name was August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben) in his Schlesische Volkslieder (meaning Silesian Folk Songs) in Leipzig, Germany in 1842. The lyrics were almost lost, but it was discovered in Westphalia, Germany in 1850 among other papers. The song was translated and arranged into the hymn we have today, except for the fourth verse, by Richard S. Willis and published in his Church Chorals and Choir Studies in 1850. Joseph A. Seiss added the fourth verse in 1873. The song has a meter of 18.104.22.168.5.8 which can be seen in counting the syllables in the phrases of the song.
August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben (1798-1874), Poet
Fallersleben was born April 2, 1798 in what is modern day Wolfsburg, Germany during the days of the Holy Roman Empire. His first interest was to study theology; however, he opted to pursue literature. Some of his writings got him into political trouble resulting in him having to flee his homeland to travel to neighboring countries until the political landscape of the day changed. He wrote "Das Lied der Deutschen" which the third stanza was taken and set to music to Hayden’s The Kaiser-Quartet, Op. 76/ and is now Germany’s national anthem, Das Deutschlandlied. His last official positon was librarian for the Duke of Corvey Castle. It was a monastery castle in the day. The library takes up 15 rooms today, and it was one of the most extensive libraries in the area in its day. He died on January 19, 1874 and was buried in the cemetery at Corvey.
Richard Storrs Willis (1819-1900), Translator & Arranger
Richard Willis was born February 10, 1819 in Boston, MA. He attended school at Yale College. Interestingly, he was part of the Skull and Bones secret society in 1841. He did go to Germany to study, and even became friends with Felix Mendelssohn. He was a popular music critic for several newspapers. He wrote several musical works including the melody to “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” in 1850. We sing his arrangement of the melody today. He published a copy of this hymn, three verses, with German and English translation in 1850. Some credit Willis’ work on this hymn as one of the main reasons we have it to sing today. Willis was careful to be sure people understood he was not the one solely responsible for this hymn, as one historian noted: “For a time Mr. Willis’s name was attached to the hymn, the impression given being that he had either written or translated it. He, however, disclaimed any literary connection with it and stated that he did not know where he had found it.” (Our Hymnody, p. 142.) He died May 7, 1900 in Detroit, MI and was buried there in Woodlawn Cemetery.
Joseph Augustus Seiss (1823-1904), Translator
Seiss was born March 18, 1823 in Graceham, Maryland. He was a Lutheran preacher and part of the Moravian Church. He did located work in Martinsburg, WV; Shepherdstown, WV; Cumberland, MD and others. He was also known for his writings on pyramids and dispensational premillennialism. His writings were among those who influenced Charles Taze Russell whose teachings led to the formation of the Jehovah Witnesses. He also wrote several commentaries, plus a biography on Martin Luther. He translated and added the fourth stanza in 1873. The original poem has probably been lost, but an old version had five verses; however, the fifth verse includes the concept of transubstantiation made popular by the Catholic Church but rejected by the Protestant Reformation. He married Elizabeth S. Barnitz and they had five children. He died June 20, 1904 and is buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery of Philadelphia, PA.
Fairest Lord Jesus
Perhaps we should being with a clear explanation of the term “fair”. The usage of the term “fair” means different things to different people in different contexts. One of the definitions for our English word “fair” today includes being neither excellent nor poor. The German title for the song was Schönster Herr Jesu. The term schönster is a superlative form of the German schon, which means beautiful, lovely, pretty, handsome, good, great, splendid, nice or pleasant.
We certainly do not know much about the physical appearance of Jesus; however, there is an interesting prophecy about his appearance—“For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant, And as a root out of dry ground. He has no form or comeliness; and when we see Him, There is no beauty that we should desire Him” (Isaiah 53:2, NKJV.) If there was no comeliness (or physical attraction) to his appearance, that what was His drawing power? One of his drawing powers was his teaching. When soldiers were sent to arrest him, they returned without him to the chagrin of their superiors. When asked why they had not arrested him, they replied, “No man ever spoke like this Man!” (John 7:46, NKJV) Perhaps these words better summarize why Jesus is the fairest, than anything I could add: “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they” (Hebrews 1:1-4, NKJV.)
It is interesting to notice by how many hands these thoughts have passed on to us. We do not know the exact origin of the words, but we certainly appreciate the thoughts of Lord Jesus being both beautiful and great, both handsome and splendid, both lovely and pleasant to the superlative degree!
Eddy Craft, “Fairest Lord Jesus,” Curtis A. Cates, Editor, Lessons in Lyrics, Memphis, TN: Memphis School of Preaching, 1998, pp. 458-472.
John P. Wiegand, Editor, Praise for the Lord, Nashville, TN: Praise Press, 1997.
Richard Storrs Willis, Church Chorals and Choir Studies, New York, NY: Clark, Austin and Smith, 1850.
Robert Guy McCutchan, Our Hymnody, Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1937.
V. E. Howard, Editor, and Broadus E. Smith, Associate Editor, Church Gospel Songs & Hymns, Texarkana, TX: Central Printers & Publishers, 1983.