Writing the story of this hymn is a task complicated by the hymn’s early origins, the many changes that it has undergone through the centuries, and the conflicting dates and data found in the various sources that I consulted.
Another problem is that it is possible to confuse this hymn with “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.” While the words to the two hymns are different, the first lines are similar. No serious musician will be confused by the similarity, but most of the people in the pews aren’t serious musicians.
Also, there are two tunes associated with these two hymns—”Easter Hymn” and “Llanfair”—and I found both hymns sung to both tunes, depending on the hymnal. In most cases, a hymnal will include one hymn or the other, but some hymnals have both. When both are included, one hymn will be sung to one tune and the other hymn to the other tune.
I should also note that there is a variant of “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” without the Alleluias (and sometimes without the verse that starts “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today”), and there are at least three tunes associated with that hymn— “Orientis Partibus,” “Savannah,” and “Resurrexit.”
Having noted the complications, let me do my best to outline the history of “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today.”
• This hymn had its origins in a 14th century Latin carol, “Surrexit Christus hodie,” the author of which is entirely anonymous.
• It was translated into English by Nahum Tate (a poet laureate) and Nicholas Brady (an Anglican clergyman) and paired with the tune “Easter Hymn” in the book Lyra Davidica in 1708.
• Then after major revisions and with new stanzas, it was published in Arnolds Compleat Psalmodist in 1779.
• The stanza that begins, “Sing we to our God above,” was written in 1740 by Charles Wesley and added much later—apparently long after the 1779 publication of Compleat Psalmodist.
Now to the tunes! “Easter Hymn” comes from Lyra Davidica (1708). The composer is unknown.
“Llanfair” was written by Robert Williams (1781-1821), a blind basket weaver who composed tunes and dictated them to a scribe. Williams lived on the Isle of Anglesey in Wales.
“Llanfair” is an abbreviated form for the name of a Welsh village with a very long Welch name, which means “Church of St. Mary in the hollow of white hazel near the rapid whirlpool of the Church of St. Tysillio by the red cave.”
On a modern map, I found a village named Llanfair on the mainland in Wales 25 miles (40 km) south of the Isle of Anglesey. I also found a village named Llanfairfechan on the island itself. I have not been able to determine which of those villages is the one associated with this hymn tune.
Copyright 2008, Richard Niell Donovan
P.S. Diana Robinson, who lives in that area, says that the Llanfair in question is the one on the island. The one on the mainland is Llanfairfechan.