This is part 9 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.
This great hymn came about because of the struggles of a Unitarian preacher struggling with his Christmas Eve sermon in 1849. Though Unitarians are not known for their widespread beliefs on the divinity of Jesus, such was not the case for Edmond H. Sears. Later in his life he wrote that while a Unitarian, he believed and preached the divinity of Jesus Christ.
I certainly understand with struggling with sermons sometimes. At times we feel like we need just the right words to convey a particular point. That is where Sears found himself. Sears saw the country struggling through three different points of tension. Though the Civil War was more than ten years away, the national tensions over slavery were very present. The Industrial Revolution in the Northeast was another place where tensions ran high. The third element was the California Gold Rush of 1849. The triple-threat was anything but peaceful and this is where Sears found his struggle. At a time we read about “peace on earth” there just wasn’t much peace. Could it be that we are seeing history repeat itself today? Later, in the dark days of the Civil War, Sears wrote in his journal, “Desperately, desperately does this great but war ravaged nation need the healing power of the Prince of Peace.”
In writing the hymn, Sears primarily focused on Luke 2:8-9, “Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified” (Common English Bible). This focus makes “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” an unusual Christmas Carol because the focus is not on the Nativity but on the announcement of the angels to the shepherds. For Sears, there was a desire to focus on social justice. It may be the first social justice hymn written by an American.
After pondering these verses for a while, Sears began to write a five verse poem. He also retrieved from his files another Christmas poem had had written sometime before. He opened the sermon with the poem he wrote first, had a short sermon and closed the sermon with the new poem. The second verse having the social justice element.
Besides being a preacher, Sears was also a magazine and newspaper editor. He took advantage of his position the next week and published the poem in The Christian Register under the name, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”
It is likely that one reader, Richard Storrs Willis, an avid reader, saw the poem in the Register. Willis had spent part of his educational years studying in Germany under Felix Mendelssohn. Willis recognized that Sears’ him fit perfectly a tune Willis had simply named “Carol.” In 1850, Willis published Sears’ words with his own tune under the uninspired and unassuming tune, “Study Number 23.” Ten years later Willis did a new arrangement of the tune and republished it under the title, “While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks by Night.” While today we use Sears’ title to the piece, it is this second arrangement most commonly sung in the United States today.
It is interesting that a song that speaks so strongly of “Peace on Earth” and “peace” gained its world-wide fame due to war. American soldiers, during World War I carried the tune with them and sang it during the Christmas holidays. Several years later, World War II soldiers followed suit. The song was popular on USO tours in both the European and Pacific theaters with the likes of Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore singing the haunting melody. The lyrics of peace on earth resonated with homesick soldiers.
While wars helped the American hymn to become known and popular in other parts of the world, Willis’ “Carol” continues to be the tune used in American hymnals. Christians in England have taken a different route. British hymnals most commonly use the tune “Noel” by British composer, Sir Arthur Sullivan.
Regardless of the tune one uses to sing it by, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” remains one of the great joys of Christmas for Christians around the world.
Have a blessed day in the Lord.
Joy and Peace,
Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved
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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.