For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder:
and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor,
The mighty God,
The everlasting Father,
The Prince of Peace.
“Who is He in Yonder Stall,” is a carol that is somewhat new to me. Although it is included in many traditional hymnals, it was not in the hymnals of my childhood. It has become one of my favorites because it not only tells the nativity story, but reminds us that Jesus, the baby, is the victorious “King of Glory.”
Interestingly, the fun Christmas song, “Up on the Housetop,” has something in common with this beautiful carol: both songs are by the same composer! Benjamin Russell Hanby was born in Rushville, Ohio in 1833. William Hanby, Ben’s father, who was bishop of the United Brethren church; had been indentured to an abusive master as a young man, and as a result, was sympathetic to the plight of those in slavery. The family was active in the Underground Railroad and their home was used as safe house. Benjamin grew up heavily influenced by both the abolitionist movement and the church. He graduated from Otterbein College in 1858, married, and pastored a circuit of churches. However, by 1864, he felt the need to better provide for his growing family, and found that focusing on music better fit his gifts. He began working for a music publisher in Cincinnati, and also started a singing school in New Paris, Ohio that became quite popular. Although he was no longer pastoring, Ben considered this his ministry to the young people of the area. Locally, it was called “Ben’s singing church.” In December, the singing school was to provide entertainment for a Christmas party for the area’s poor children. For the occasion, Ben wrote a song called, “Santa Claus,” which later became the song we know as, “Up on the Housetop.” His little brother appears in the song in the reference to “the stocking of little Will.” The song was extremely well received, and it was said that Will came just to hear its first performance. In 1865, Ben moved his family to Chicago, in order to accept a position with the Root and Cady music publishing company, the largest firm of its kind in the country at the time. He continued to compose many songs, but most of those have been forgotten. His final composition was “Who is He in Yonder Stall?” The song is used as a Christmas carol, but like several other hymns, it is a rehearsal of all of the life of Christ, not just His birth. The song’s verses are melodically repetitive, but the triumphant chorus makes up for what the verses lack. Benjamin Hanby died early, at the age of 33; but he left a mark on the world with his music.
At the end of one year and the beginning of another, what a blessing to consider, once again, the beautiful incongruities of our Savior. He was born, weak and helpless; yet He is the One who lives today, acting as our Great High Priest, making intercession for us. He lived a sinless, perfect life and yet He ministered with love and understanding to the down-and-outers of His day. He was approachable, even by children. He was both wholly ordinary and exraordinarily holy. And now, this ordinary Man, Who is God; is no longer the meek Man of Sorrows, but the Mediator to whom all power has been given; Who holds the keys of death and hell, Who sits at the Father’s right hand, presenting your needs to the throne of God! It is in His name and through His blood that we have access to a Holy God. And so, this Christmas and at the beginning of a New Year, may we rejoice in His story, and crown Him, Lord of all!
Who is He in yonder stall
At Whose feet the shepherds fall?
Who is He in deep distress,
Fasting in the wilderness?
Lo! at midnight, who is He
Prays in dark Gethsemane?
Who is He on yonder tree
Dies in grief and agony?
Who is He that from the grave
Comes to heal and help and save?
Who is He that from His throne
Rules through all the world alone?
'Tis the Lord! O wondrous story!
'Tis the Lord! the King of glory!
At His feet we humbly fall,
Crown Him! crown Him, Lord of all!
- Joy Barnett, writer for The Ladies' Companion