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Hark! The herald angels sing

“Hark, how all the welkin (heaven) rings!” That was the original text that Charles Wesley wrote. Under the title ‘Hymn for Christmas Day’, it was published in 1739 in the book Hymns and Sacred Poems. It had 10 four-line stanzas. However, George Whitefield, a contemporary of Charles Wesley, selected six stanzas, altered the first two lines and published it in Hymns for Social Worship (1753). Even more changes were done in 1760 and 1810. Please see the text below.

Charles Wesley


Hark how all the welkin rings!
“Glory to the King of kings,
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled.

Joyful, all ye nations, rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
Universal nature say:
“Christ the Lord is born to Day.”

Christ, by highest heaven adored,
Christ the everlasting Lord,
late in time behold him come,
offspring of the virgin’s womb.

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see!
Hail the incarnate deity!
pleased as man with men to appear,
Jesus! Our Immanuel here!

The United Methodist Hymnal (UMH) 240


Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born king.
(George Whitefield, Hymns for Social Worship,
London, 1753)

with the angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
(Martin Madan, Collection of Psalms and Hymns,
London, 1760)

Christ, by highest heaven adored,
Christ the everlasting Lord,
late in time behold him come,
offspring of the virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead
see! Hail the incarnate deity!
pleased as man with man to
dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel!
(J. Kempthorne’s Select Portions of Psalms from Various Translations, and Hymns from Various Authors, London, 1810)

The original 10 four-line stanzas were considered the Christmas equivalent of ‘Jesus Christ is Risen Today’ and were sung to the same tune, EASTER HYMN (UMH 302). The “alleluia” at the end of each line was similarly sung. Many other tunes, such as BERLIN, JESU REDEMPTOR, NATIVITY and ST VINCENT (none of which are in the UMH) were also associated with this hymn.

MENDELSSOHN is the tune which we use today. It was from Felix Mendelssohn’s ‘Festgesang’ (1840) which was composed to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg’s invention of printing. Mendelssohn envisioned and hoped for a text that would match the melody of the second movement. He was certain that if this happened, the song would be very much liked by the singers and the hearers. However, he thought it would never work with sacred words.

In 1856, unaware of Mendelssohn’s idea, William H. Cummings adapted the second movement of ‘Festgesang’ to Wesley’s text. It was an excellent match! Felix Mendelssohn was right! The tune MENDELSSOHN was loved by the people and displaced all other tunes associated with the hymn.

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Wesley’s hymns are always rich in biblical allusions. We hear the first stanza proclaiming the birth of our King while at the same time, declaring that we sinners are reconciled to God. It is a merging of Luke 2:14 and 2 Corinthians 5:19. It is not the usual sentimental “baby Jesus” kind of carol.

As the hymn develops, it discloses who this Saviour is: the everlasting Lord, born of a virgin (Galatians 4:4), the incarnate Deity (John 1:14) and the Emmanuel (Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:23) – which means “God with us”. Yes, He is with us!

The final stanza displays deeper theological thought – Wesley wove in themes from Isaiah 9:6, Malachi 4:2, Philippians 2:7-8 and 1 Peter 1:3. While we remember and celebrate the birth of our Saviour, Wesley tells us to proclaim that Jesus was:

Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth!

Sources:
• Brink, Emily R. and Bert Polman, eds. The Psalter Hymnal Handbook (Michigan: CRC Publications, 1998), 498-499.
• Glover, Raymond F., ed. The Hymnal 1982 Companion (New York: The Hymnal Corporation, 1994), 166-172.
• Young, Carlton R. Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), 505 – 506.

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Judith Mosomos is Acting Director of Worship and Church Music at the Methodist School of Music, and a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.

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