15 December 1992
Few Christmases in our nation’s history have been as desperate as the Christmas of 1777. George Washington and the Continental Army were bottled up in Valley Forge. The British held Philadelphia and New York City. All sings pointed to defeat for the struggling colonies.
Nowhere was the disappointment felt more severely in than in the town of Fredrick, Maryland; nowhere was the patriotism more intense. The leader of the revolutionary struggle in Frederick was none other than the Anglican minister, Douglas Abner. Since before the revolution—before the Declaration of Independence—Abner had railed against the injustices of the British monarchy from his pulpit every Sunday. “We have no king but Christ on high,” he often said, “no government but that which every free man chooses for himself within these 13 colonies.”
By Christmas of 1777, the patriotic fervor had grown into anti-British mayhem. Loyalist houses and businesses were looted and burned. Tea was boycotted to show solidarity with the residents of Boston. Even in little ways, the colonists showed their contempt for the British. Playing cards which had once included four sets of kings and queens were now printed with likenesses of George Washington and Betsey Ross instead.
Despite the bitterness, Christmas crept ever closer. Townspeople readied themselves for the holiday season, and looked forward to Frederick’s Christmas tradition—the community symphony’s annual rendition of Handel’s “Messiah.” Thirty-five years earlier, at the oratorio’s debut, the majestic strains of the Hallelujah Chorus had brought King George I to his feet. At the sight of this standing king, the other concert-goers had followed suit. Since that time, standing during the Hallelujah Chorus brought to mind the King of England as well as King of the Jews.
The Sunday before the performance, Reverend Abner condemned the English for being slaves to a tradition set by despotic rulers—a tradition that refused to let the colonies have their freedom.
The members left the church bewildered in spite of their patriotism. What about “Messiah”? Would this Christmas tradition continue? Would anybody stand?
The community orchestra practiced pensively that week for the Friday performance. The church choir seemed distracted as they went over the songs they had sung every year since 1760. No one talked about the final chorus. No one thought of standing. No one mentioned the word, Hallelujah.
The night before Christmas finally arrived. Colonists came from Frederick and several nearby villages to hear the oratorio—more than had ever come before. But Christmas joy was nowhere to be found. Every jaw was set. Every eye looked unwaveringly forward.
Reverend Abner set a somber tone for the evening when he began the program with a special prayer for the American soldiers on the front lines. He included a moment of silence for five of Frederick’s sons who had died in battle that year.
After Abner’s prologue, the concert progressed horribly. The orchestra had to stop four times to retune. The soloists sang without any hint of emotion or praise as Christ’s story unfolded. Every eye in the hall was on Reverend Abner. Every hand moved in applause with his hands. Every head nodded in approval with his.
At last the moment came. The strings sang the joyous entrance to the Hallelujah Chorus; the choir began to sing. Everyone watched Reverend Abner’s jaw become suddenly tense. He clutched his hands together. He crossed his legs. He stayed seated.
Back in the tenth row sat Francis Weaver, the 8-year-old son of a Frederick carpenter. He couldn’t see Reverend Abner over the heads of the other concertgoers. He could only see the choir and listen to the words as the choir sang distractedly: “For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth, Hallelujah.”
Francis didn’t know what omnipotent meant. He didn’t even know where England was. But somehow he knew exactly what the music had called him to do. Francis stood up.
No one noticed at first—that is, until Francis stood up on the chair to get a better look at the orchestra. Then a murmur arose. Reverend Abner turned to quell the talking, only to look with horror at little Francis standing in the tradition of King George.
Next others stood in acclamation as the choir sang—a little more boisterously now—“And He shall reign for ever and ever, Hallelujah.” The strings seemed to pick up the tempo, and soon that hall in Frederick, Maryland, barely a hundred and fifty miles from Valley Forge, was ringing with the music of angels. Abner sat still, a lone dimple in the rejoicing, standing mass of Marylanders.
He lowered his head and squeezed his eyes shut. “King George, King George,” he muttered, “That’s all that it is. I am a patriot. I will not honor such a king.”
But the choir continued, building to the song’s climax: “And His name shall be called, Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”
Abner looked up at the words, “Prince of Peace.” Like Paul before the gates of Damascus, he opened his eyes to see something he had never expected. Instead of a haughty, white-wigged King George of England, the King of Kings reached out to him. Calling him. Electing him.
“Hallelujah,” the choir sang. “Hallelujah!”
Abner looked around at the festive citizens of Frederick. With a loud sigh he looked forward at the choir and stood—a testament to the fact that no revolution nor war nor evil empire could stay seated before the King of Kings.
When the Chorus ended, the applause filled the church. Francis’s father hoisted him up on his shoulders as the mass of patriots clamored for more. The choir obliged and sang the Chorus again, this time even livelier and more joyously than before. Next the orchestra played Christmas carols. The throng joined the choir, and that tiny hall in colonial Frederick, Maryland, literally glowed with the joy of the Christmas season until midnight.
As the gathering dispersed, a Christmas star shone in the heavens. The colonists went happily to their homes, festive and merry. No one watched Reverend Abner slip away into the cool night. No one noticed the tears flowing down his cheeks or his shaking hands. No one saw him gaze up into heaven, nor did they hear him whisper the word, “Hallelujah.”