When I posted the lyrics to the first stanza of O Holy Night the other evening, I quickly checked an online source and listed the author of the stanza as Adolphe Adams. In fact, that was not correct.
According to www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com (a great site, and one far more thorough than whatever I checked originally) Adams actually composed the music to the carol. He was a French born Jewish composer best known for his ballet Giselle in 1841.
The words were penned by another Frenchman, Placide Cappeau (1808-1877) and then translated into English by John Sullivan Dwight (1813-1893), an American whose strong anti-slavery perspective shines forth in the later stanza: "Truly He taught us to love one another/His law is love and His gospel is peace/Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother,/And in His name all oppression shall cease."
Happily it sounds as though Cappeau was also against slavery; it would be interesting to compare the translation to the original and see if Dwight's rendering is fairly literal or if his own feelings were just more passionately expressed. I wonder if either or both was influenced at all by the evangelical fervor of the Clapham Sect in England that worked so hard to abolish slavery in Great Britain. The Slavery Abolition Act passed in Britain in 1833 (after William Wilberforce's tireless and repeated efforts to get it passed) a good thirty years before the Emancipation Proclamation here in the U.S.
Cappeau, who wrote the song originally, was a wine merchant. The story goes that his parish priest asked him to write a Christmas poem, and this is what he came up with. Would that more priests would challenge their parishoners with such a creative task!
There's another story that "O Holy Night" was sung during a truce in the Franco-Prussian War, much as "Silent Night" was sung during the impromptu Christmas truce in the trenches called by the soliders in WWI. I knew the latter story (and it almost always moves me to tears) but not the first.