Songs of Christmas…Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

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,
Keith

Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved

Sources

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.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hark!_The_Herald_Angels_Sing

http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-hark-the-herald-angels-sing

Author:

Spirita Spiro (Esperanza for "Spirit's Breath) is rather new in my life. But the blog is not. I began writing a blog several years ago. It lived under the title, "The Pastor Ponders." Over the years I have tried several different names and "The Pastor Ponders" always seemed to fit best. I am trying again with Spirita Spiro. For 27 years I was a full-time pastor in the United Methodist Church. This year, August 2018, I semi-retired (I can't actually retire quite yet) and began teaching social studies. It is something I have always wanted to do and if I was going to do this, I needed to make it sooner rather than later. So, I made the move. I thought with the career change there also needed to be a name change to the blog and other things, such as spiritual direction. Spirita Spiro is my attempt to share some of my thoughts. I often share what I am thinking with my dog "Bishop," but he keeps his thoughts to himself. He will even go to sleep sometimes while I am sharing my thoughts with him. The truth is, if it doesn't involve getting his ears scratched, his belly rubbed or some kind of treat, he really doesn't care. I will say this for him, he never argues with me or tells me I am wrong. So, I decided to share some of my thoughts with whoever might come across this blog in their ramblings around the Internet. I live with my wife Cindy and our little dog in Lufkin, Texas. I spent the past 27 years as a full-time United Methodist pastor. Most recently I served as pastor of First United Methodist Church in Sweeny, Texas. I have also served United Methodist congregations throughout East Texas including rural Madison County (Elwood UMC), Lovelady (First UMC) and Kennard (Center Hill UMC), Canton (First UMC), rural Smith County (Mt. Sylvan UMC and Union Chapel UMC), Grapeland (First UMC), Tyler (Pleasant Retreat UMC), Santa Fe (Aldersgate UMC), Freeport (First UMC) and Oyster Creek (Oyster Creek UMC), Diboll (First UMC), and now Sweeny (First UMC). My wife Cindy and I have been married for over 40 years. We have two grown sons. Wayne and his wife Nikki and all our grandsons (Kaleb, Noah, and Jaxon) live in Southern California. Christopher and his wife Morgan and both our granddaughters (Jenna and Natalie) live in Tyler Texas. I enjoy preaching and all aspects of preaching from research to writing to the actual preaching event. I also love writing, reading, playing the guitar as well as a bit of drawing. I have spent quite a bit of time over the past two years working with paracord on various projects, mostly prayer ropes I usually give away. I sing bass with a local barbershop chorus called The Coastalaires. I have also recently begun doing a little wood carving. I also enjoy playing with Bishop, something he likes a great deal better than listening to my thoughts. I hold an Associate of Applied Science Degree in Business Data Processing, specializing in Microcomputers from San Jacinto College in Pasadena, Texas, a Bachelor of Science in Political Science with a minor in History from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, TX, a Master of Divinity from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX and a Doctor of Ministry from Carolina University of Theology. When I was a student at Carolina, the school was in Iron Station North Carolina. They have since relocated to Manassas Virginia (Yeah, go figure, a school named Carolina geographically in Virginia). This blog is mostly devotional writing, but there are other things here too. Just about every week I will either post my sermon manuscript or a video of the worship service. On occasion, I will post something I see in society. Occasionally I write a short story, a poem, or a song and will post it here too. I will say this, my motivations for writing this blog are really selfish. I write it to get what I am thinking out of my head and onto something a bit more permanent. They say, after all, once something is on the internet it never really goes away. Still, I hope you enjoy reading it. And, should you desire, you can one-up Bishop and actually tell me what you think. Who knows, it might generate a bit of discussion between you and me and anyone else who might make their way here. With Joy and Thankfulness, Keith Sweeny, Texas May 2018

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