Christmas: The Story Behind “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”

Hi, everyone! This is the second Christmas carol post in honor of the upcoming holiday. Enjoy learning the history behind another beloved hymn for Christmas.

Charles Wesley

The Story Behind “Joy to the World” covered Protestant preacher and logician Isaac Watts. Charles Wesley, who lived 1707-1788, is more prominent historically because his brother, John Wesley, founded the Methodist church. [Side note: The Wesley brothers’ father was an Anglican cleric, and Charles supported Methodism but didn’t want to separate from the C of E. Unlike the non-Anglican Watts, who was disallowed from Oxford and Cambridge, the Wesley brothers were ordained in the C of E and, therefore, able to attend Oxford. John’s starting a denomination that the C of E would discriminate against is ironic.] The church began with a club at Oxford where the Wesley brothers and friends studied scripture, and they were sometimes mocked as “Methodists” for their discipline and meticulousness. Fast forward a few years, and they’ve both traveled to America and back, spreading their movement. Within the same week in 1738, both Wesley brothers experienced a sort of spiritual epiphany where they felt more connected to the Holy Spirit than ever. John’s occurred at Aldersgate Bridge where his heart “was strangely warmed” by the Spirit during a group meeting he had attended reluctantly. On May 21, on Whitsunday, Charles experienced Pentecost, writing in his journal that the spirit of God had chased away his unbelief. After that, his religion was actually a personal relationship (as Christian faith should be). He was a prolific hymn writer, producing over 6,000 of them, many remaining popular. After a life of travelling and field preaching, which the Wesley brothers started with friend George Whitefield after their 1738 conversions, he spent his last years working and living near St. Marylebone Parish Church in London; a statue honoring him stands in the gardens at Marylebone High Street.

“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”

aaron-burden-51331

This song appeared in Charles Wesley’s 1739 collection Hymns and Sacred Poems, one year after his spiritual epiphany. For context, “Joy to the World” was written just twenty years earlier. The uplifting carol we know and love today varies from Wesley’s original vision for the song. The tempo he imagined for the hymn was slow and somber, and the opening couplet read, “Hark! How all the welkin rings/ Glory to the king of kings!” Friend/co-worker George Whitefield altered the opening lines to the familiar version: “Hark! The herald angels sing/ Glory to the newborn king!” Welkin is an archaic term for the skies or the heavens. Several minute lyrical differences exist between Wesley’s version and the version we know. The backstory for the melody is more convoluted; in 1840, an English musician named William H. Cummings adopted music from an unrelated, secular cantata written by Felix Mendelssohn and used it for the hymn. [Funny enough, the cantata celebrated Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the first movable-type printing press in Europe in 1450.] Picturing the melody without the first couplet repeated feels wrong, but that wasn’t part of the original tune, either.

Comparison

The first verse of what we sing: Hark! The herald angels sing/ Glory to the newborn king!/ Peace on earth and mercy mild/ God and sinners reconciled/ Joyful all ye nations rise/ Join the triumph of the skies/ With angelic host proclaim/ Christ is born in Bethlehem/ Hark! The herald angels sing/ Glory to the newborn king!

The first verse in Wesley’s original version: Hark! How all the welkin rings/ Glory to the king of kings!/ Peace on Earth and mercy mild/ God and sinners reconciled/ Joyful all ye nations rise/ Join the triumph of the skies/ Universal nature say/ Christ the Lord is born today!

[All information came from Wikipedia and Christianity Today. Most information came from this Wikipedia article and this Wikipedia article.]

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