Songs of Christmas…It Came Upon a Midnight Clear

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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,
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/It_Came_Upon_the_Midnight_Clear

http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-it-came-upon-a-midnight-clear

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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