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Who Wrote “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing?”

In the stained glass windows over the Central Avenue door of St. Peter’s United Methodist Church there are four figures that are important to Methodist history. One of these is Charles Wesley, who with his brother John (also depicted in the windows), was instrumental in the Methodist movement in 18th Century England. While Charles should be remembered for many reasons, he is best known for the hymns that he wrote. During Advent we sing “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” and as Christmas approaches, we sing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” one of the most beloved of the Christmas hymns. My hope is that we would recognize it as written by Charles Wesley and be proud of the Methodist contribution to hymnody the world over.

Charles wrote the hymn in 1739 (even though our United Methodist Hymnal indicates 1734 which I can’t explain) and it was originally 10 four line verses. Our hymnal has 6 of these in 8 line verses. For me, the most interesting historical fact is that Charles wrote the opening line to be, “Hark! How all the welkin rings, ‘Glory to the King of Kings.’” Welkin is an old English word meaning “vault of heaven.” In 1753, George Whitefield, coworker of the Wesley’s and a well-known preacher in both England and America, changed the first line to what we sing today, for which we should all be grateful.

In the 18th Century the carol was frequently sung to the tune we now use for “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” (Tune: Easter Hymn). The current tune was written in 1840 by Felix Mendelssohn, but not applied to Charles’s words until after 1856. William Cummings combined 2 four line stanzas to make 1 eight line and repeat the opening line as a chorus or refrain. Hence, we have our beloved Christmas hymn. The next time you sing this, you may want to note that much of this information is found at the bottom of the page in our hymnal (#240).

I would also hope that we recognize the many references to Scripture that are found in the hymn.  All of the poetry of Charles Wesley is filled with phrases from the Bible. Just a few examples from “Hark”:

    • “late in time behold him come” (verse 2) – Galatians 4:4
    • “Veiled in flesh the God head see” (verse 2) – John 1:14
    • “Prince of Peace” (verse 3) – Isaiah 9:6
    • “Sun of righteousness… risen with healing in his wings” (verse 3) – Malachi 4:2  This reference I find quite interesting because it is rather obscure. Malachi offers comfort to the devout in a coming day of judgment. This promise of protection and blessing found in the image of the wings of the sun of righteousness is expressed in the carol as “Light and life to all he brings.”

Whenever I hear this hymn in the shopping mall during December I think to myself, do those who hear it have any idea what a wonderful and life changing message is being conveyed through the words of Charles Wesley and the music of Felix Mendelssohn.

Robert Williams