The words for this hymn were written by one great man and the music by another. The words were written by Henry van Dyke, a great 19th Century clergyman, poet, and educator. A graduate of Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary, van Dyke later taught English literature at Princeton University. It must have been in that setting that he came to know Woodrow Wilson, the university president, who appointed van Dyke to be Ambassador to the Netherlands when Wilson became President of the United States in 1913.
The music for this hymn comes from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. While Beethoven never wrote hymns, a number of people adapted portions of his music to serve as hymn tunes. “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” is the best known of those.
Van Dyke was quite taken by the joyful sound of Beethoven’s Ninth, and thought that it should be used as a hymn tune. Others had tried without great success. Then, while van Dyke was serving as guest preacher at Williams College in Massachusetts, he was seized by inspiration — perhaps because of the beauty of the surrounding mountains. He presented it to the college president to be sung in the chapel.
Van Dyke was the author of the Christmas story, “The Other Wise Man,” and wrote several books of poetry. He was known for his devotional writings as well. But this hymn, “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” is his more enduring work.
— Copyright 2006, Richard Niell Donovan