This is part 8 of an Advent/Christmas series titled “Songs of Christmas.” For other parts of the series see the index. The index also contains the introduction for the series.
Well, this beloved hymn falls into the category of “You learn something new everyday!” I can’t speak for you dear reader, but for me, almost everything I found about this hymn, except that Charles Wesley wrote the original piece was something new.
One day in 1737, the great Methodist hymn writer Charles Wesley, during his daily quiet time, wrote down a simple line, “Hark! how all the welkin rings, glory to the king of kings.” Welkin is an archaic word unfamiliar to most of us. The welkin refers to the sky or the firmament of the heavens, even the highest celestial sphere of the angels.
Bu 1753 the carol had seen the first of many editorial changes that happened over the years when George Whitfield, a preacher friend of the Wesley brothers made several changes. The most significant of these changes was to reword the hymn’s opening line. The Whitfield version began with the wording we know and sing today, “Hark! the herald angels sing.” Wesley was livid with the change. First of all, Whitfield did not consult with Wesley before making the change. Second, and probably more important to Wesley, Whitfield strayed from Scripture with the new first line. No where in the birth narratives of Matthew 2 and Luke 2 does the Bible say anything about angels singing. It is said that for the rest of his life, Wesley refused to sing the Whitfield version of the Charles Wesley carol.
Wesley’s original version set the song to an original melody by Wesley himself. The hymn debuted in Wesley’s own church. From there the hymn gained popularity throughout the Methodist movement.
In truth, even during Wesley’s day, few people actually would have known or recognized the word “welkin.” Whitfield’s version was much more understandable to those the Methodist movement in England was working to reach.
The other significant change coming to the hymn occurred almost 100 years later. It was a change in the tune. In 1840 Felix Mendelssohn composed a cantata (Festgesang) celebrating the 400th anniversary of Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press.
Working and studying under Mendelssohn was a young singer and musician by the name of William H. Cummings adapted a chorus from Festgesang and paired it with the Whitfield version of the Wesley carol. It was published a Methodist hymnal in 1857 and in an influential hymn collection in 1861 titled, Hymns Ancient and Modern.
Within the next ten years “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” with Wesley’s original version, as edited by Whitfield and given a new tune arranged by Cummings, became one of the best known songs in all of Christendom. There can be little doubt as to the power of Wesley’s original song. Whitfield and Cummings built on what Wesley had already done.
Based on Wesley’s reaction to Whitfield’s editing, he probably would not have responded well to Cummings’ changes either. There is no way to know what Mendelssohn would have thought. Still, what resulted has become an all-time Christmas favorite. The song blesses people the world over each year during the Christmas season.
Have a blessed day in the Lord.
Joy and Peace,
Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved
Collins, Ace, Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.
Collins, Andrew, Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.
Gant, Andrew, The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.
Osbeck, Kenneth W. Joy to the World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols, Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999.
Silent Night: The Stories of 40 Beloved Christmas Carols, Uhrichsville: Barbour, 2013.