Part 2 of series: Christmas Carol Inspiration
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“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is surely one of the most popular and beloved of Christmas carols. Each year, it is sung in thousands upon thousands of churches at Christmastime, not to mention being played in countless stores across the world, beginning usually sometime in November. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” has been recorded in dozens of versions by many vocalists, including: Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Carrie Underwood, and Mariah Carey. Perhaps the most familiar version of this carol comes in the closing moments of the cartoon classic, A Charlie Brown Christmas, with its opening “Loo-loo-loos” and the orange-slice-shaped mouths of the singing children.
But “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” should never have come into existence, at least if its writer and composer had anything to say about it.
You wouldn’t discover this if you looked up this carol in a hymnal or songbook. There, the writer is identified as “Charles Wesley, 1739, alt.” 1739 is the date in which the lyrics were written. “Alt” means that the original words have been altered. The music for “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is attributed to Felix Mendelssohn, 1840, with arrangement by William Cummings, 1855. From this data you would conclude that the carol was written in 1739 by Wesley. In 1855, William Cummings used a melody of Mendelssohn, arranging it into the familiar tune we know today. All of this would be true, in a way. But this story misses the ironic drama of the origin of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”
The Story Behind the Lyrics
In 1739, John and Charles Wesley published Hymns and Sacred Poems, which included Charles’ “Hymn for Christmas-Day.” This hymn featured familiar lines such as: “Peace on Earth, and Mercy, mild, GOD and Sinners reconcil’d! Joyful all ye Nations rise, Join the Triumph of the Skies.” But it did not begin with the familiar opening line, “Hark! The herald angels sing, Glory to the newborn King.” In fact, the original Wesley carol began, “HARK how all the Welkin rings, Glory to the King of Kings.” No herald angels to be found here! (Photo: A page from Hymns and Sacred Poems, including “Hymn for Christmas-Day” with its “welkin.” Photo from Hymns and Carols of Christmas.)
If you’re like me, you haven’t used the word “welkin” recently. It appears eighteen times in Shakespeare’s plays, but hasn’t received a lot of play in the last couple of centuries. “Welkin” is a word for the vault of heaven, the place where stars and angels dwell. Charles Wesley began his hymn for Christmas with the heavens ringing with the glory of the King of kings. The rest of the original carol is similar to the one we sing today, with the exception of the ninth and tenth verses, which were deleted by some eighteenth- or nineteenth-century editor. These verses read:
Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp thy Image in its Place,
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in thy Love.
Let us Thee, tho’ lost, regain,
Thee, the Life, the Heav’nly Man:
O ! to All Thyself impart,
Form’d in each Believing Heart.
The one who omitted these verses, and, more importantly, the one who changed “welkin” to “angels,” was none other than the eighteenth-century evangelist and good friend of Charles Wesley, George Whitefield. Sensing the obscurity of “welkin,” Whitefield changed the Christmas hymn to read, “Hark the Herald Angels sing, Glory to the new-born King!” Whitefield went on to publish his version of the hymn, which, apparently, distressed his friend Charles Wesley, who resented, among other things, the unbiblical picture of angels singing. In Luke 2, the angels are “saying, “ not singing, “Glory to God in the highest . . . .” Other editors added to Whitefield’s changes, so that the carol we know today differs from Wesley’s original in several respects. (For more information, see Raymond F. Glover, The Hymnal 1982 Companion, #87.)
The Wesley brothers were not altogether happy about the changes made to their hymns, including “Hymn for Christmas-Day.” Here’s what John wrote in the preface to the 1779 edition of A Collection of Hymns for the use of the people called Methodists:
Many gentlemen have done my brother and me (though without naming us) the honour to reprint many of our Hymns. Now they are perfectly welcome so to do, provided they print them just as they are. But I desire they would not attempt to mend them; for they really are not able. None of them is able to mend either the sense or the verse.
Therefore, I must beg of them one of these two favours; either to let them stand just as they are, to take them for better for worse; or to add the true reading in the margin, or at the bottom of the page; that we may no longer be accountable either for the nonsense or for the doggerel of other men.
As it turns out, the doggerel of other men, including George Whitefield, prevailed over the careful poetry of Charles Wesley, and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” became a classic Christmas carol, while “HARK how all the welkin rings” disappeared into the dustbin of good intentions.
Yet the ultimate prevalence of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” had to do, not only with the revised lyrics, but also with the stirring melody, a melody that was never intended for such a sacred purpose by its composer. I’ll tell this part of the story tomorrow.