Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

As you wind down from your Christmas celebrations today, we hope you'll enjoy reading a story about the origins of one of The Creek's favorite Christmas hymns.

Imagine living in a time period where singing Christmas carols was against the law. For some of you non-Christmas-music people, you might be thinking, "Ah, sweet relief!" But really, is your heart two sizes too small like that of the Grinch? Most of us would find ourselves missing the tunes of nostalgic carols and even a few of the modern catchier Christmas tunes. (What child of the 90's didn't love taunting their Grandma about getting run over by a reindeer?)

In the 1640's and 50's, the Puritan Parliament in England, under the leadership of the famous Oliver Cromwell, abolished the singing of Christmas Carols and the celebrating of Christmas Festivities. As a result, the composing and singing of Christmas hymns and carols had somewhat disappeared in the late 17th and early 18th centuries in England. Charles Wesley penned "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" during this time and published the hymn in 1739. This carol is one of the only carols written during that time period to become popular for Christians to sing during Advent.

Wesley's "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" remains one of the most popular Christmas carols today. However, the carol is completely different today than originally written. Both Wesley's words and his tune have been changed.

The hymn as we sing it today is a result of alterations by various people. Wesley's original opening line read, “Hark! how all the welkin rings, Glory to the King of Kings.”  Welkin is an old English word that means “vault of heaven.” In 1753, George Whitefield, a famous English preacher, rewrote the first line of the carol into the familiar words, “Hark! the herald angels sing — Glory to the newborn King!” 

Despite Whitfield’s presumption that the angels sang, the hymn has remarkable theological accuracy, depth, and richness not often found in Christmas carols.  (Check it out for yourself: Luke 2:13-14 says the Angels were praising God and saying...we don't know for sure that they weren't singing, and the word "sing" certainly sounds more festive than "Hark! the herald angels said." Right?)

Wesley's carol beautifully explains the gospel through each of its stanzas. Ponder the words of verse 2:

Christ by highest heaven adored

Christ the everlasting Lord

Late in time behold Him come, 

Offspring of a virgin's womb.  

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; 

Hail, the incarnate deity, 

Pleased in flesh with us to dwell, 

Jesus, our Emmanuel! 

Hark! The herald angels sing, 

Glory to the newborn King. 

Although Wesley's lyrics were theologically rich and beautiful, his melody lacked greatly.  Wesley insisted that his hymn be sung to a slow and somber religious tune.  It wasn’t until another musician blended the lyrics with a more joyful melody that it gained its place among beloved Christmas carols.

The familiar melody for Wesley's carol was composed by Felix Mendelssohn, a Messianic Jew. The tune is from part two of his cantata, Festgesang. Mendelssohn composed the cantata in 1840, commemorating Johann Gutenberg and his invention of the printing press. Mendelssohn penned that his composition was to be used only in a purely secular manner. However, in 1856, after both Wesley and Mendelssohn had passed away, the English tenor, Dr. William Cummings, ignored both of their musical wishes and joined Wesley's beautiful lyrics with Mendelssohn's memorable tune. As a result, the beautiful, gospel-centered carol was born.  Generations have enjoyed singing, "Glory to the newborn King!"