If he had been asked to guess which of his approximately 6,500 hymns would become the most famous and popular around the world, it is highly unlikely that Charles Wesley would have got the answer right. As we shall see, it required a stroke of genius over a century later for ‘Hark! the herald angels sing’ to become universally regarded as an essential part of Christmas worship.
It was written, as were so many of Wesley’s most enduring hymns, within a few months of his conversion in 1738. Charles’ brother John had trusted Christ just three days after him, and their journals record that their first Christmas spent together in full assurance of saving faith was a truly joyful time.
Tinkering with the words
The subsequent history of this slow burner of a hymn is rather complex, and also a reminder that few of the great hymns of the past have remained unchanged over the years. As a result, complaints about tinkering, for whatever reason, with much-loved words are nothing new. Just forty years after the writing of our hymn, John Wesley had to protest in the preface of his new Methodist hymnbook about the way in which others had turned his brother’s hymns into ‘nonsense’ and ‘doggerel’. They must be printed ‘just as they are’, he insisted, ‘because they are beyond the possibility of improvement!’
But the most famous, and successful, tinkering had already taken place – by the hand of no less a figure than George Whitefield. When compiling ‘A Collection of Hymns for Social Worship’ in 1753, not only did he omit two of Wesley’s original ten four-line stanzas, but he dared to completely alter the hymn’s first two lines.
Wesley had opened with the words,
Hark, how all the welkin rings
Glory to the King of Kings.
Now this was a strong beginning. In the 18th century, most people would have understood the idiom. They might not have been able to tell you what the ‘welkin’ was, but they knew that ‘to make the welkin ring’ meant to make a great noise, usually in celebration.
Quite why Whitefield felt he needed to change the lines is therefore rather a mystery. Perhaps he objected to the ancient and discredited cosmology in which the welkin was the solid surface of the vault of heaven which might ring like a bowl if the noise on earth were only loud enough. Anyway, for whatever reason, Whitefield changed the opening words to the ones we all know and love:
Hark! The herald angels sing
Glory to the new-born King.
This quite possibly saved the hymn from premature obscurity.
But the arch-tinkerer of hymns in the 18th century was a man called Martin Madan. He was converted under the preaching of John Wesley and became a very popular preacher until he unfortunately published a book advocating the practice of polygamy. Anyway, his extensive alterations very often proved successful and many of the hymns of the time that we still sing today bear his mark. When Madan published our hymn in his ‘Psalms and Hymns’ in 1760, Wesley’s rather weak original lines
Universal nature say
‘Christ the Lord is born today.’
With the angelic host proclaim
Christ is born in Bethlehem.
The hymn takes shape
The next notable year in the history of ‘Hark! The herald angels sing’ is 1782. When, in that year, Cambridge University reprinted what is generally known as ‘Tate and Brady’, the Church of England’s officially approved metrical version of the Psalms, there were some blank end pages which an enterprising printer thought he could usefully fill. He selected five hymns for the purpose, of which our hymn was one. What is most remarkable, however, is that it was printed for the first time in what thereafter became its standard form. In other words, this anonymous publisher turned the first six stanzas into three eight-line verses and added Whitefield’s opening two lines as a refrain to each verse – exactly as it appears in many hymnbooks to this day.
One other readily adopted amendment is worthy of note. Sometime in the early 19th century, someone changed
Pleased as man with men to appear
Jesus! Our Immanuel here!
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel.
This raises the sensitive, modern question of gender inclusivity, as do a couple of other lines in the hymn. One simple and unobtrusive solution has been proposed by ‘Hymns for Today’s Church’ – and later taken up by ‘Praise!’:
Pleased as man with us to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel.
A stroke of genius
But at this point we need to consider the stroke of genius that transformed the fortunes of Wesley’s hymn. The great composer, Felix Mendelssohn, had been brought to a living faith in Christ initially through his study of the scriptural text of J. S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion. He was also captivated by the hymns of Martin Luther, always carrying an edition of them with him.
In 1847, very shortly before Mendelssohn’s untimely death at the age of 38, he was in London directing the UK premiere of his oratorio Elijah. Singing in the chorus of that performance was a teenager named William Hayman Cummings. Now Cummings was destined to have a long and very distinguished musical career of his own, but his early appreciation of the oratorios of Mendelssohn soon led to a remarkable and unlikely outcome.
As the young organist at Waltham Abbey, Cummings decided in 1855 that ‘Hark! The herald angels sing’ demanded a far better and livelier tune than any of those to which it had so far been set. He soon chose and arranged the tune from the second chorus of Mendelssohn’s Festgesang, written in 1840 to mark the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg’s invention of movable type printing.
Cummings subsequently printed his arrangement, which became instantly popular when adopted in the 1861 edition of the highly influential ‘Hymns Ancient and Modern’. Wesley’s hymn now received the widespread recognition and appreciation it had long deserved but never achieved. William Cummings’ stroke of genius brought text and tune together in a perfect marriage that would never be broken.
The irony is not simply that Wesley obviously never heard Mendelssohn’s tune and Mendelssohn probably never read Wesley’s words, but that both had left instructions that should have prevented the marriage of the two. Wesley had requested and received slow and solemn music for his hymn, and Mendelssohn had suggested to his English publishers that his tune could do with some new words, as long as they were not sacred!
Our greatest Christmas hymn
No modern hymnbook, to my knowledge, includes all original ten stanzas, but it is well worth checking them out online. ‘Christian Hymns’ manages the first eight in four eight-line verses, while ‘Praise!’ also offers eight, but adopts Whitefield’s selection of stanzas 1-7 completed with the very strong stanza 9.
Above all, however, ‘Hark! The herald angels sing’ displays all the glorious, Christ-exalting strengths of the very best of Wesley’s hymn-writing – crammed as it is with a heady mix of biblical references and uncompromising doctrine, all mingled together with vivid spiritual experience and exhortation.
Long may the welkin ring to the sound of this our greatest Christmas hymn!