Behind the Christmas Carol: Hark! the Herald Angels Sing
The hymn we sing today as Hark! The Herald Angels Sing has had many alterations since it originated.
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing first appeared in the 1739 Hymns and Sacred Poems. This is one of the few Christmas hymns written in the 17th and early 18th Centuries, after the English Puritan’s abolished Christmas Carols for being part of a “worldly festival”.
Charles Wesley, writer of numerous hymns, composed the piece as a “Hymn for Christmas Day” within about a year of his Aldersgate conversion.
Wesley opened the hymn with the lyrics “Hark! how all the welkin rings / Glory to the King of Kings.” Welkin’s is an old English word that means “vault of heaven.” So the tune would mean “Hark, how all the vault of heaven rings, glory to the king of kings.”
Wesley insisted that the tune be sung to a “slow, somber and boring” religious tune. He envisioned the hymn would be sung to the popular tune of his Easter hymn Christ the Lord is Risen Today.
In 1754, George Whitefield, a former student of Wesley’s and an evangelists in his own right, who changed the opening to the familiar “Hark! The herald angels sing” and published in the Collection of Hymns for Social Worship.
Charles Wesley incensed that George Whitefield changed the words and even more so that he did so without seeking Wesley’s permission. Wesley was incensed when the words of any of his hymns were changed. He refused to sing the altered versions of his hymns.
He even went so far as to write “Many gentlemen have done my brother and me…the honor to reprint many of our hymns. Now they are perfectly welcome to do so, provided they print them just as they are.” He went on to say that, if anyone insisted on making changes, they should print a disclaimer absolving the Wesley’s “for the doggerel of other men.”
In the 1782 publication of the Tate and Brady New version of the Psalms of David the change had been made to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing/Glory to the Newborn King.” This statement was now echoed at the end of each stanza, the way we still sing it today.
This change in text is where we most likely gather the image of the angels singing. However, Luke does not say that the angels sing, but that they “praise God.” We are not told whether they do or do not sing in scripture.
Whitfield also cut the final verses of the hymn. These verses have been largely forgotten today.
In 1840, famed classical composer Felix Mendelssohn composed a cantata to commemorate the invention of the printing press by Johann Gutenberg. William H. Cummings adapted music from Mendelssohn’s cantata to fit the lyrics to Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.
With all of these changes came the popular Christmas Carol we know today.
Imagine trying to sing “Hark, how all the welkin rings” to the tune “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” We are all probably thankful for the changes, even if Wesley wasn’t.
The song richly retells the account found in Luke 2 of the birth of Jesus in a picturesque manner.
Congregations continue to love signing this carol and audience are greatly enriched by its inclusion in movies such as A Charlie Brown Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life.
We are reminded through the song that Jesus is “Prince of Peace”, “Everlasting Lord”, “Emmanuel” and “Incarnate Deity”. However, most important we’re reminded to give “Glory to the Newborn King”.