Commentary: 'The Star of Bethlehem' had a missionary impact


A Christmas carol first published in a hymnal in 1812 was titled The Star of Bethlehem. The author, Henry Kirke White (1785-1806), had been a skeptic before his conversion. His career path was redirected from the law to the ministry. Already an accomplished poet, his life held great potential. Then tragically, at age 22 while a student at Cambridge University, Oxford, England, he became ill and died.

In the same year, 1812, three people set sail on a long journey from docks at Salem, Massachusetts and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. They were heading to India to become America’s first foreign missionaries. Appointed by the Congregationalist Mission Board, they were Adoniram and Ann Hasseltine Judson and Luther Rice. 

Planning to work alongside the English Baptist missionary William Carey, the Congregationalists traveling on two separate ships began studying the subject of baptism in the New Testament. They knew this would be an issue with Carey since the Congregationalists practiced infant baptism. Along the way, both Judson and Rice concluded that the New Testament taught believers’ baptism by immersion.

Upon their arrival in India, the trio was not allowed entry. At the time, the United States and Great Britain were at war and India was a part of the British Empire. They chose to redirect their efforts to Burmah, modern Myanmar. They also needed to resign from the Congregationalist Mission Board and seek Baptist support for their work. Finances dictated it was more economical for the single Rice to return instead of the two Judsons. Rice would seek the financial and spiritual support of Baptists before returning to the mission field in Burmah.

Rice received a warm welcome from Baptists in America. He began traveling the backroads of the country in a “sulky,” a small two-wheel horse-drawn carriage generating support. His hopes of returning India were never realized, instead, he began a lonely existence as an itinerant preacher, proclaiming the gospel while raising support for missions and education.

He wrote Judson stating, “Georgia has become my winter home.” He spent much of the time at the homes of Dr. Trupin in Augusta and Dr. Battle in Powelton. Two of Rice’s closest minister friends in Georgia were Adiel Sherwood and Jesse Mercer. It was Sherwood who made the motion to create the Georgia Baptist Convention which organized in 1822, and Mercer would be its president for its first 18 years.

Rice’s efforts led to the establishment of a national denomination, the Triennial Baptist Convention in 1814, and the creation of both Foreign and Domestic Mission Boards. He founded Columbian College, a Baptist-affiliated school in Washington, D.C. Furthermore, he founded several periodicals including The Christian Index.

For all his accomplishments, Rice lived a lonely existence. Several women turned down his marriage proposals, some more than once. His hopes of a family were never realized; Rice died a bachelor in 1836 in South Carolina. He became ill while on a preaching tour, lingering on his deathbed for several days before dying.

His final instructions were to sell his few earthly possessions, a horse, the sulky and to send the books and other materials to his friend Adiel Sherwood in Georgia to dispose of. The money from the sale of those few items was to be applied to the debts of the Columbian College.

What is the connection between Luther Rice, White’s hymn, and missions?

Some songs are described as being “an earworm.” They are songs that someone cannot seem to get out of their head. Sometimes these songs become a motivating factor for not giving up when the going gets tough, at other times they become like a companion on a journey. Rice’s favorite hymn, his earworm, was W. K. White’s “The Star of Bethlehem.” Probably because of its missionary message combined with its catchy musical climax. The final lines were intended to be sung with gusto, proclaiming: “For ever and for ever more, The star! -- the star of Bethlehem!”

The International Mission Board of the SBC recently announced the commissioning of two missionaries sponsored by the Myanmar Baptist Fellowship, who will serve in North Africa. They are the continuing legacy of the work of the Judsons in Burmah (Myanmar) and the lonely, tireless efforts of the journeys of Rice. Just as the Judsons were worthy of Baptist support, these new missionaries are too through gifts to the Cooperative Program and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering!

At times, to his detriment, the outgoing Rice was loud and boisterous. With a little imagination, it might be possible to imagine the little horse-drawn sulky traveling dusty country roads, with a solitary occupant holding the reigns, while hearing the words of the carol echoing throughout the surrounding fields and forests.

  1. When marshall'd on the nightly plain,
    The glittering host bestud the sky;
    One star alone, of all the train,
    Can fix the sinner's wandering eye.
  2. Hark! hark! to God the chorus breaks,
    From every host, from every gem;
    But one alone the Savior speaks,
    It is the star of Bethlehem;
  3. Once on the raging seas I rode,
    The storm was loud—the night was dark,
    The ocean yawn'd—and rudely blow'd,
    The wind that toss'd my foundering bark.
  4. Deep horror then my vitals froze,
    Death-struck, I ceas'd the tide to stem;
    When suddenly a star arose,
    It was the star of Bethlehem.
  5. It was my guide, my light, my all,
    It bade my dark forebodings cease;
    And through the storm and dangers thrall,
    It led me to the port of peace.
  6. Now safely moor'd— my perils o'er,
    I'll sing, first in night's diadem,
    For ever and for ever more,
    The star!—the star of Bethlehem!

“The Star of Bethlehem” was later published under the title, “When Marshalled on the Nightly Plain.”