Here’s a bit of sage pastoral advice: If you don’t want to tick people off, then don’t change the words of the hymns and carols. Throughout my pastoral career I’ve seen the opposite principle at work many times over: If you want to make folks mad, then change the words of their beloved songs. Sometimes even little changes, even the most sensible ones, will turn Christian saints into irate meanies.
There’s nothing new in this, you might be interested to know. Throughout Christian history people have been changing the music. And throughout Christian history others have been getting mad about it. When my church (0r our hymnal) makes some small change, usually trying to update unfamiliar language, almost always a few people will complain. Usually they’ll say something like this: “Why did you change the lyrics? Why can’t we just sing the original ones?” Yet in many cases the very words that people think are the original ones turn out not to be original at all. There’s no better illustration of this truth than the carol “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”
‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,’ from A Charlie Brown Christmas
The story begins in the mid-18th century with the prolific hymn-writer Charles Wesley. Brother of the Methodist founder, John Wesley, Charles wrote literally thousands of hymns, including “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus,” “Jesus Christ (Christ the Lord) is Risen Today,” and “O, for a Thousand Tongues to Sing.” One of his hymns, which he called, “Hymn for Christmas Day,” began this way:
Hark, how all the welkin rings,
“Glory to the King of kings;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconcil’d!”
Joyful, all ye nations, rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
Universal nature say,
“Christ the Lord is born to-day!”
Now that sounds an awful lot like “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” doesn’t it? In fact this is the precursor of our popular carol, the one that once flowed from the pen of Charles Wesley.
What in the world is welkin? you may wonder. It’s not actually in the world at all. “Welkin” is an archaic term for heaven or the vault of the sky. Originally, Wesley wasn’t thinking about angels singing, but the whole universe ringing with the good news of Christmas. (If you’d like to see the lyrics of Wesley’s original and hear one of the earlier tunes to which it was sung, click here.)
From An Americana Christmas, Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi All-Stars with a hill country instrumental version of ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.’
So how did the welkin morph into singing angels? This was the editorial innovation of Charles Wesley’s close friend and fellow minister, George Whitefield. Whitefield omitted a couple of later verses and changed a few other lines, including “Hark, how all the welkin rings” to “Hark, the herald angels sing.” Quickly Whitefield’s version caught on, far outstripping Wesley’s original in popularity. Now you might think Wesley would have been grateful to his friend for helping this carol to soar in the polls. But if you did, you’d be completely wrong. In fact Wesley was peeved. He didn’t approve of Whitefield’s assertion that angels sang the good news of Christ’s birth because that wasn’t in the text of Luke. (In Luke 2:13 the angels are saying, not singing, “Glory to God in the highest.”) Of course when I last checked, “welkin” wasn’t in Luke 2 either.
So the first irony of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” is that the words we know so well were not penned by the original writer, and he disliked what his friend the editor produced in their place.
The second irony has to do with the tune. We can’t be sure what tune Charles originally intended for “Hark, How All the Welkin Rings.” But Charles had specifically stated that this hymn required solemn, slow music. Nevertheless, in 1855, after Charles had gone to meet his Maker, an enterprising musician named William Cummings married the revised version of “Hark” to the music of Felix Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn had written a joyous piece of music for the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the inventing of printing. Cummings took this music and adapted it for the meter of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” The result–which we know so well today–was magic.
From his 1957 Nelson Riddle-arranged classic Christmas album A Jolly Christmas, Frank Sinatra offers ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’
Yet this is not something Mendelssohn anticipated, or even wanted. In a letter to his publisher in 1843, the composer said his song “will never do to sacred words.” His tune was appropriate for “something gay and popular” because the music was “soldierlike and buxom.” (Now when did you last see the words “gay,” “soldierlike,” and “buxom” in the same sentence? How times change!) Yet William Cummings took the song that Wesley wanted sung in a solemn manner, and the music Mendelssohn considered unfit for sacred themes, and blended them into a Christmas classic. Go figure!
Even in the form Charles Wesley didn’t like, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” still abounds with solid theology. More than almost any other Christmas carol, it expresses the theological heart of Christmas.
Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the new-born King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations, rise. Join the triumph of the skies.
With angelic hosts proclaim, “Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the new-born King.”
Christ, by highest heaven adored, Christ the everlasting lord
Late in time behold him come, Off-spring of the virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail th’ incarnate deity
Pleased as Man with men to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.
Hark the herald angels sing, “Glory to the new-born king!”
Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace, Hail, the Son of Righteousness
Light and life to all He brings, Ris’n with healing in His wings.
Mild He lays His throne on high, Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth, Born to give them second birth.
Hark the herald angels sing, Glory to the new-born king.
Here we have such foundational themes as: reconciliation between God and sinners, the Incarnation, and the truth that Christ’s birth leads to new birth for us. As powerful as these themes are, consider the relatively unknown final stanzas of Charles Wesley’s original:
Come, desire of nations, come, Fix in us thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conquering seed, Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Now display thy saving power, Ruin’d nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join Thine to ours, and ours to thine.
Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface, Stamp thy image in its place.
Second Adam from above, Reinstate us in thy love.
Let us thee, though lost, regain, Thee, the life, the inner man:
O, to all thyself impart, Form’d in each believing heart.
Judith Durham, lead singer for Australia’s The Seekers, one of the ‘60s great folk groups, makes a solo appearance to offer ‘Hark The Herald Angels Sing’ at Woolworths Carols In the Domain 2014, an annual free Christmas concert held in the Domain Gardens in Sydney, Australia.
Here is an astounding poetic statement of the broader implications of salvation. Not only do we inherit eternal life, but also through Christ, God restores “ruin’d nature” and joins us to himself in “mystic union.” Where we once bore “Adam’s likeness,” the likeness marred by sin, now we are formed in the image of the sinless Christ, the “Second Adam.” Someday, if I get enough courage, I’m going to have my congregation sing the full text of the “Hark” carol. I’ll leave in Whitefield’s edits, but add the final verses.
As you go to church tonight or tomorrow, most of the music will be familiar. Most of the words will be the same ones you sang when you were a child. But if it just so happens that a few words are different, remember the ironic story of the “Hark” carol, and rejoice that the astounding truth of Christmas can be expressed in such varied and magnificent ways!
With old words or new words, singing familiar carols or new songs, may you have a truly merry Christmas!
Note: The information in this post came mostly from three different sources: The New Oxford Book of Carols; Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas by Ace Collins; and the notes at The Hymns and Carols of Christmas website.
The Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a pastor, author, retreat leader, speaker, and blogger. Since October 2007 he has been the Senior Director and Scholar-in-Residence for Laity Lodge, a multifacted ministry in the Hill Country of Texas. Before then, he was for sixteen years the Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church in Irvine, California. Prior to coming to Irvine, Mark served on the staff of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood as Associate Pastor of Education. This chapter on the origins of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is Part 5 in the series “Christmas Carol Surprises” posted at Rev. Roberts’s website, www.markdroberts.com. It is reprinted with the author’s permission. (Photo: Janel Pahl)