The Origins of Christmas Carols … Hark the Herald Angels Sing
By Charles Wesley (1707 – 1788)
This familiar carol or Christmas hymn has a rich history.
In the 1700’s Britain was under a radical transformation. The Industrial revolution was underway and people were moving from the rural, country style of living to find work in the quickly growing cities. London was dirty, dangerous and the line drawn between the “haves and the have nots” was clearly defined. The small middle class, called “yeomen” pretty much disappeared by the end of the 18th century.
Rich people lived in large houses filled with opulent furniture and enjoyed their wealth. Slavery was still practiced, especially in the Colonies, and would not be banned by the Slavery Abolition Act until 1833. The new industrial advances and the practice of slavery made men rich increasing the difference between the rich and the poor.
In the early years of the 18th century gin was readily available and commonly overused resulting in many lives were ruined by overindulgence.
Food was expensive and potatoes were the main diet for most families. Education was the sign of wealth. Universities and Colleges were opening across the land and many of these colleges had religious denomination affiliation. But religion was under the strong control of the government, so much so that only the church of England (Anglican) had official recognition. Most of the religious leaders graduated from these recognized and credentialed schools.
Britain was expanding it’s colonial rule but life in the colonies was anything but peaceful. In what is modern day America, unrest was growing as the colonists took a strong dislike to this empirical rule. Canada was under British governance and that put the colonies in America and those in Canada at odds. The tension was growing.
It was into this quickly changing world that John and Charles Wesley were born. They were the sons of Samuel and Susanna Wesley. Charles was the eighteenth child of nineteen children, of which only ten reached maturity. He followed his father into service to the Anglican church after graduating from Westminster School and Christ Church at Oxford with a masters degree in classical language and literature. John went on to become a great orator and eventually, along with brother Charles established the Methodist movement.
Over time, Charles became the author and composer of many hymns, some of which are still sung in worship today. You might know some of these familiar hymns written by Charles: "Arise My Soul Arise," "And Can It Be That I Should Gain?," "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today," "Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies," "Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus," “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” "O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing," "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling," and "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today."
Charles was estimated to have written 10 poetic lines a day for 50 years. He composed the lyrics and sometimes the tunes for 9,989 hymns making him by far the greatest poetical hymn writer of all time.
And yet Charles has been referred to as ‘the forgotten Wesley.” He was a compatriot of George Whitefield, an Anglican evangelist and cleric who along with the Whitefield brothers was instrumental in the establishment of the Calvinistic Methodist church. Whitefield became the most popular preacher of the Evangelical Revival in Great Britain and the Great Awakening in America.
Even though George and Charles were friends, there was a time when Charles was greatly displeased with George. The original line of “Hark the Herald Angels sing” was, "Hark, how the welkin (heaven) rings, Glory to the King of kings" and George changed it to the words we sing today, “Hark! The herald angels sing, Glory to the newborn King.” He argued that the term “welkin” referring to “heaven” was outdated and antiquated. Charles disagreed.
The original tune was slow and methodical, as Charles Wesley liked his music.
The current tune for this carol was composed by Mendelssohn, who himself was a Messianic Jew. It is from the second chorus of a cantata he wrote in 1840. The cantata was originally written to commemorate Johann Gutenberg and the invention of the printing press. Mendelssohn strictly warned that his composition was to only be used in a purely secular manner. However, in 1856, long after both Wesley and Mendelssohn were dead, Dr. William Cummings ignored both of their wishes and joined the lyrics by Wesley with the music by Mendelssohn for the first time. As a result, the modern version of this beautiful, gospel-centered carol was born and generations have been singing it ever since.
We sing three verses to this Christmas hymn but there is a fourth verse that is seldom included in our modern hymnals. It goes like this:
Come, Desire of nations come, Fix in us Thy humble home;
Rise, the Woman’s conquering Seed, Bruise in us the Serpent’s head.
Adam’s likeness now efface: Stamp Thine image in its place;
Second Adam, from above, Reinstate us in thy love.
Hark the herald angels sing, Glory to the newborn King.
All together this well-known anthem is a wonderful presentation of the Gospel message.
When you lift your voice this season and your heart is filled with gratitude and memories of Christmas past and the hope and the promise of Christmases to come, remember the rich heritage that connects us to Christ followers of years gone by.
“Glory to the newborn King”
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