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John Francis Wade and “Adeste Fideles”

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John Francis Wade (1710  or 1711 – August 16, 1786) was an English hymnist who is sometimes credited with writing and composing the hymn “Adeste Fideles” (which was later translated to “O Come All Ye Faithful”), since, even though the actual authorship of the hymn remains uncertain, the earliest copies of the hymn all bear his signature.  Wade was born around 1710 or 1711 either in England or in Douai, Flanders, France.  Unfortunately, very little is known of Wade’s actual life. His father’s name may have been John Wade, as a Yorkish man of this name converted to Roman Catholicism around 1730, and John Francis Wade is known to have studied on the continent at a Dominican College in Bornhem, Flanders, and to have joined the Marian Confraternity of the Rosary at that time. From around 1737, Wade apparently lived in London and wrote his numerous chantbooks.

“Adeste Fidelis” is said by some to have been taken from a Graduale of the Cistercians, the original of which is sometimes ascribed to Giovanni Fidanza Bonaventura (1221-1274), but the hymn is believed to have been written around 1740 to 1744 and appears in seven known manuscript copybooks dating to the mid 18th century (beginning c. 1743) known as Cantus Diversi by Wade.  Wade’s Roman Catholic liturgical books were often decorated with Jacobite floral imagery, and some believe that the texts had coded Jacobite meanings, suggesting that the hymn “Adeste Fideles” was a birth ode to Bonnie Prince Charlie, replete with secret references decipherable by the “faithful” followers of the Pretender, James Francis Edward Stuart.

Though Wade seems to have personally espoused the Jacobite cause and hoped for a renewal of the Stuart line, his political activities may have been limited to propagandizing hymns such as “Adeste fideles” and “Vexilla regis.” At any rate, his musical influence was quite wide.  Samuel Wesley corresponded with him, and Vincent Novello published his work. His championing of Catholic plainchant helped fuel the British national revival of early music in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Though Wade’s name comes to our attention most often for his arrangement of the well-known carol “Adeste fideles” (O come, all ye faithful), he is more than a musical “one-hit wonder.” By far the more important work of his life was his production of a large series of books of Catholic plainchant, both printed and manuscript copies. An enthusiastic throwback to the old days of the monastic scriptorium, Wade perfected his own hand at calligraphy, illumination, and the copying of plainchant worship music.

Wade’s manuscripts served the Catholic liturgy in the chapels of most of London’s foreign embassies, as well as the private chapels of many English, American, and European Catholic aristocrats. He also published editions of Catholic liturgical books for wider dissemination. He has been called the “father of the English plainchant revival.”  Wade fled to France after the Jacobite rising of 1745 was crushed and settled in Douay. As a Catholic layman, he lived with exiled English Catholics in France, where he taught music, copied plain chant, published hymn manuscripts, and worked on church music for private us. A standard edition of his Cantus Diversi was made about 1750-1751 and discovered at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, England. Wade is now usually credited with being the author.  Wade died on August 16, 1786, at Douai, France.

My collection includes the following work by John Francis Wade:

Adeste Fidelis.

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