Summary: This hymn begins with an exhortation … a command … a call to action: “Hark!” “Hark!” … “Listen!” … “Listen to the angels singing!” As we are about to see, this hymn has a remarkable theological depth and richness not often found in carols.
How many of you pay attention to all the little type at the bottom of the hymns? Turn to page 240 and look at the bottom of the page. See them down there? They’re there to give you a little bit of the history of the hymn. If you look at the bottom of “Hark! 5he Herald Angels Sing,” it says that the words were written by Charles Wesley in 1734.
When you speak about the history of Methodism, John Wesley’s name immediately comes to the fore. He is considered the founder of the Methodist movement … which is only partially true. His brother, Charles, was also an important and influential guiding force in the birth and development of our denomination.
Like his brother, John, Charles was an ordained Anglican or Episcopalian priest. Upon his conversion, Charles Wesley immediately began writing hymns … “each one packed with doctrine,” says Professor and Pastor Robert J. Morgan. “All of them exhibiting strength and sensitivity … both beauty and theological brawn” (Then Sings My Soul, 2011, p. 49). As we shall see, Wesley knew how to pack a hymn with theology. As a preacher, he wanted his listeners to hear the truth of God’s Word. As a hymn writer, he endeavored to present those truths in a memorable format.
Charles Wesley wrote over 6,000 hymns over the course of his life. He wrote constantly. Even on horseback, his mind was constantly filled with new songs. He often stopped at houses along the way to ask for a pen and some ink so he could jot down an idea or a tune before he forgot it.
Out of all the hymns that Charles Wesley wrote … out of all the hymns we have today … hymnologists … people who study and preserve hymns … consider Charles Wesley’s hymn “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” to be among the top three hymns ever written. You’ll be relieved to know that the version that we have in our hymnal has only three stanzas. Charles Wesley’s original has 10. Also, Wesley intended for the hymn to be sung in a slow, somber manner.
Now, Wesley didn’t mind people singing his hymns … that’s why he wrote them. But he had a real pet peeve when it came to people “tinkering” with his work. And yet, that’s exactly what happened to “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” … both to the words and to the music.
The original first stanza that Wesley wrote went like this:
Hark, how all the welkin rings
Glory to the King of kings;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinner reconciled!
Joyful all ye nations rise
join the triumph of the skies;
universal nature sin,
“Christ the Lord is born today”
Do any of you know what a “welkin” is? If a welkin “rings”, you might assume that it’s some kind of bell or musical instrument, right? “Welkin” means the “vault of Heaven.” When Wesley proclaims that the “welkin” or “vault of Heaven” rings, he is speaking of the totality of the inhabited universe giving vocal and musical glory to Jesus … from top to bottom … from the Highest to the lowest … the totality of the universe … from God’s throne to His creation … ringing with the songs of God’s glory. What an incredible, powerful, moving picture that conjures up, amen?
You’ll notice at the bottom of the hymn that it says: “Alt. by George Whitefield 1753.” That means: “Altered by George Whitefield, 1753.” George Whitefield was a close friend of the Wesley brothers and a very famous and influential pastor and evangelist. When he published Charles Wesley’s hymn in his collection of hymns in 1753, he took it upon himself to change a few words in the first stanza to make it sing better. Care to guess what he changed it to? “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” … which was the title of the hymn. He also changed the end of the first stanza to read: “… with th’angelic host proclaim, ‘Christ is born in Bethlehem.”
Now … at the bottom of the hymn it also says that the music for this hymn was written by Felix Mendelssohn in 1840. Actually, Mendelssohn wrote the music but not for this hymn. It was the second chorus of a cantata that Mendelssohn wrote in 1840 to commemorate Johann Gutenberg and his invention of the printing press.
You’ll also see another name after Mendelssohn’s name: “Arr. By William Cummings, 1856.” (“Arranged by William Cummings, 1856.”) Like Wesley Mendelssohn didn’t like his work “tinkered” with. He strictly warned that his composition was to be used only in a secular manner. However, in 1856, after both Wesley and Mendelssohn were dead, Dr. William Cummings ignored both composers’ wishes and joined the lyrics that Wesley wrote … with George Whitefield’s editorial changes … to Mendelssohn’s music … and the result was this beautiful, lively, gospel-centered carol that we have been singing ever since.