Here’s the carol I’ve been mulling this week:
Hark the Herald Angels Sing
Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled.
Joyful, all ye nations, rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim
Christ is born in Bethlehem!
Hark the Herald Angels Sing
Glory to the newborn King!
A classic, am I right? Bing, Nat, Mariah, The Peanuts Gang and countless others have recorded it.
Charles Wesley, a PROLIFIC hymn writer in Britain who wrote over 6000 hymns, wrote the words to this favorite, familiar Christmas carol in 1738.
His life was interesting, including the little tidbit that he was born the 18th and last child of his parents. His brother John and he, while studying at Christ College in Oxford, formed “The Oxford Holy Club” for the purpose of worship and to organize visits to the sick and incarcerated. The really interesting thing about THAT student-run college club? It became a “Revival movement” within the Church of England which became known as The Methodist Movement, which became THE METHODIST CHURCH!
It was this hymn writer who – with his brother and a good friend and fellow evangelist, George Whitefield – became the founder of The Methodist Church – HE wrote Hark the Herald Angels Sing!
But, of course, that’s not the whole story.
You know how sometimes people will say something and then be misquoted, or have their words twisted or just changed? Doesn’t that drive you crazy?
How about this one:
“Houston, we have a problem.” Who said that? You may very well be thinking “Jim Lovell.” Apollo 13 was a historical event in 1970 and an amazing movie in 1995. I think it’s mostly due to the movie and Tom Hank’s touching portrayal of this smart and courageous astronaut, that this quote is often attributed to Commander Jim Lovell. BUT – the actual quote was “OK, Houston; we’ve had a problem here” after the explosion in the service module of the space craft caused the oxygen to start leaking – and it wasn’t Lovell who said it, it was command module pilot John Swigert. (Portrayed in the movie, without the line, by Kevin Bacon.)
OK how about this one?
“Do you feel lucky, punk?” Famous line uttered by Clint Eastwood in the movie, Dirty Harry, right?
Not exactly. It’s: “You’ve got to ask yourself one question. Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”
OK those are pretty harmless –
But how about “Money is the root of all evil.”
From the bible right? Nope – Here’s what the Bible actually says:
“The LOVE of money is the root of all evil.”
Big difference, right?
Well, Charles Wesley was a biblical scholar, and he understood that back then, in the 18th Century, before the mechanized printing press was accessible to most populations, many people didn’t read or write. He wanted to get biblically sound inspiration to them through the hymns that he wrote, and – as we know – music is a quintessential oral teaching tool.
The story goes that, one Christmas Day, 1738, Wesley heard bells ringing on his way to church, and it filled him with such joy and fervor that he was inspired to write this Christmas hymn. He wrote the words and his own original tune to it.
But the first line that HE wrote was:
Hark how all the WELKIN rings! Glory to the King of Kings!
What’s the welkin? It’s not a word we hear these days, and even back then, it was considered archaic.
Welkin means Heaven. It literally means “vault of heaven makes a long noise.” So when heaven sends out a loud pronouncement, the fullness of the power of the King is expressed or revealed!
Isn’t that interesting? That’s ringing though. Where did the singing come in? Where are the angels singing?
I mean just think of all of the Christmas cards we’ve seen, through the years, of angels heralding the birth of Christ with singing!
The hymn, with Wesley’s words and original music, was published by Charles and John in “Hymns and Sacred Songs” a few months after it was written.
Then fourteen years later, in 1753, his good friend, George Whitefield published the hymn, but HE thought that that first line was too old fashioned, so he changed it to Hark the Herald Angels Sing! What’s more, he made the change, without permission! I’ve read accounts that say that Charles Wesley was “irritated” by this, and I’ve accounts that say he was infuriated and never EVER sang Whitefield’s lyrics to the day he died. Remember, Wesley was a biblical scholar, and Whitefield (a former bartender turned preacher) wasn’t as much of one. In fact, (now this might sting a little – are you sitting? Everybody sit down and take a deep breath for this:) There is NO mention of angels singing at the birth of Christ in the bible.
Luke 2:13 – Most of us recall the scripture in question as being about singing angels, but here’s what it actually says: “A great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel praising God and SAYING (not singing) ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.’”
Remember that Whitefield and Wesley worked together to create Methodism, but Wesley was pushing for REFORM, and Whitefield wanted to lead a REVOLUTION. So his words weren’t biblically sound, but they have proven to be very moving. In fact, as an ordained priest in the church of England, he was constantly in trouble with the church because of his fiery rhetoric and militant approach. He actually got himself banned from Anglican churches and began holding open-air meetings. What does that bring to mind? Revival tents! Yup. Whitefield became the father of the Revival movement which became very popular in the United States.
Very moving words can start revolutions whether they are correct or not. Something to think about.
Now, as if it wasn’t bad enough for poor Charles Wesley to have his words changed, the melody that he wrote would also eventually be replaced! There was a tenor who had worked with Felix Mendelssohn. His name was William Cummings. In 1855, he combined one of the only pieces Mendelssohn ever composed that had anything to do with religion, Festgesand an die Knustler, which was a tribute to Johann Gutenberg, who is credited as having invented the movable type printing press, which launched the ability to mass produce bibles.
Cummings combined the melody of Festgesand an die Knustler with Whitefield’s rewrite of Wesley’s words, and Hark, the Herald Angels Sing as we know it today it was published in the first Methodist hymnal in 1857. Over the next few years, other denominations also adopted it.
I think that one of the really interesting aspects of this carol’s road to fame is that – the work of this man – Charles Wesley- who lived to evangelize the world for Christ, would be, unwittingly, married to a tribute to a man who invented the means to mass produce God’s Word for the world to read!
And now – you Nowell!
Renae Baker is the founder/director of a large caroling organization based in NYC and author of the best-selling book Defeating Scrooge – How to Harness the Power of Christmas Carols to Revive Your Spirit Any Time of Year. She leads live Zoom carol sing-alongs, and shares her carol history stories to keep spirits up all through the year, whether live or remotely. See her TEDx talk, “Can Caroling Lead to World Peace?” at bit.ly/watchRenaeBakerTEDx and read more about her, her carolers and her programs at www.RenaeBaker.com.