Behind the Christmas Carol: It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear was a Christmas poem written by Edmund Sears.
This is a Christmas Carol that doesn’t focus on the holy family, but the song of the angels. Luke 2:14 says the angels said “Peace on the Earth, good will to men.”
Edmund Hamilton Sears was born in 1810. He earned a degree from Harvard Divinity School and became an ordained Unitarian minister in 1839.
Sears was a pastor of the Unitarian Church in Wayland, Massachusetts. In 1849, he composed a five stanza poem in Common Metre Doubled. The poem first appeared in the Boston Christian Register on December 29, 1849.
He wrote It Came Upon a Midnight Clear during a time of personal melancholy. He had recently suffered a break down and left a larger congregation in Lancaster, Massachusetts to return to his Wayland congregation. The news of the United States war with Mexico and revolution in Europe also preyed heavily on his mind.
He struggled with the dark world, “full of sin and strife” and not “hearing the Christian message.” The troubled context found in the song was inspired by the turbulent times in which he lived.
He is said to write the hymn at the request of his friend, Rev. William Parsons Lunt. “One account says the carol was first performed by parishioners gathered in Sears’ home on Christmas Eve, but it is unknown to what tune as Willis’ familiar melody was not written until the following year.”
However, the song was taken from a poem Edmund Sears had worked on a dozen years
earlier titled, “Calm of the Listening Ear.” At the request of Rev. Lunt, Sears pulled out the old poem and revised his work.
“According to Ken Sawyer, Sears’ song is remarkable for its focus not on Bethlehem, but on his own time, and on the contemporary issue of war and peace. Written in 1849, it has long been assumed to be Sears’ response to the just ended Mexican–American War.” This was also the decade leading up to the Civil War.
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear is one
Christmas Carol that does not mention Jesus Christ. However, the hymm leaves room for those that do. There is debate over whether Edmund Sears believed in Jesus, because the Unitarian Church does not preach about Jesus Christ. However, it is believed that Rev. Sears stated he was a believer.
Edmund Sears wrote other Nativity poems and songs and several books on religious topics. From 1859-1871 he served as editor for the Boston
based Monthly Religious Magazine. He died in 1876.
The tune the hymn is most often sung to in the United States is a melody called “Carol”.
“Carol” was written by Richard Storrs Willis, a student of Felix Mendelssohn.
In the United Kingdom, the hymn is usually sung to a tune called “Noel”, which was adapted by Arthur Sullivan from an English melody in 1874.
Numerous performers have covered this Christmas Carol over the years including Bing Crosby, Anne Murray, Glen Campbell, The Carpenters and Josh Groban to name a few.
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear is considered to be the first Christmas carol composed in the United States.