Charles Wesley (1707-1788) was a prolific hymn writer. ‘He published more than 4,500 hymns and left some 3,000 in manuscript’. Among his many enduring compositions, is his most popular carol, ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ which first appeared in Hymns and Sacred Poems in 1739.
Charles, the eighteenth child and youngest son of Samuel and Suzanna Wesley, “found rest to his soul” on May 21st 1738 and wrote this best of carols sometime in the year following his conversion to Christ.
The carol as we know and appreciate it today is the result of a few minor revisions from Charles’ original. His own revision of it appeared in the new edition of Hymns and Sacred Poems in 1743 having four lines of ten stanzas with the heading: “Hymn for Christmas Day”. It was in George Whitefield’s Collection of 1753 in which the next revision appeared. This concerned the first two lines of the carol. Whitefield an ordained Anglican minister and outstanding preacher of the gospel was a contemporary and associate of the Wesley brothers in the great evangelical movement that gave rise to Methodism. Originally Charles’ opening stanza went:
“Hark, how the welkin rings ‘Glory to the King of Kings Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.’”
In Whitfield’s Collection the first two lines were changed to what we have today as well as the omission of verses eight and ten. By the way ‘welkin’ refers to ‘the sky or heavens’.
The next modification was seen in M. Madan’s Psalms and Hymns, 1760 which appeared with eight stanzas of the carol. The second stanza of Wesley’s original read:
“Joyful all ye nations rise, Join the triumph of the skies; Universal nature say ‘Christ the Lord is born to-day.’”
Here lines three and four were changed to the way they appear today.
Other minor changes were made over time. A few words were altered in Wesley’s fourth verse, eventually the other two later stanzas were omitted with the first six being combined into three longer stanzas while the first two lines were added as a refrain leaving it in the form we now know and sing. The changes can be observed below by a comparison with Wesley’s original of 1743.
Beyond the words, the music too was changed. It was an English composer, William H Cummings who in 1856 adapted music from ‘Felix Mendelssohn's 1840 choral cantata Festgesang’ giving to this most eloquent of carols the suitable tune to which it’s sung today.
This is a favourite carol for many, myself included. But what is really important about Wesley’s composition is the depth of gospel truth he communicates with poetic genius. If only those who sing these majestic words along with the many more who hear them sung could truly grasp the truth Wesley teaches us concerning the purpose of the birth of the Prince of Peace. Who Jesus is, why he came to this world and what His coming means for us who are sinners is what the gospel is all about. When we understand this and the price the Lord Jesus ultimately paid for our sins on the Cross, repentance and faith in Him is the only appropriate response.
May you know peace through the Prince of Peace at this season of the year.
“Hark, how 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 a Virgin’s womb.
“Veil’d in flesh, the Godhead see, Hail the Incarnate Deity! Pleased as man with men to appear Jesus! our Immanuel here!
“Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Sun of Righteousness. Light and life to all he brings, Risen with healing in his wings.
“Mild, he lays his glory by, Born – that man no more may die. Born – to raise the sons of earth, Born – to give them second birth.
“Come, Desire of Nations come, Fix in us Thy humble home; Rise, the Woman’s conquering Seed. Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
“Now display Thy saving power, Ruin’d nature now restore; Now in mystic union join Thine to ours, and ours to Thine.
“Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface; Stamp Thy image in its place; Second Adam from above, Reinstate us in Thy love.
“Let us Thee, though lost, regain, Then the life, the inner man; O! to all Thyself impart, Form’d in each believing heart.”
Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King! Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.” Joyful, all ye nations rise, Join the triumph of the skies, With th’angelic host proclaim: “Christ is born in Bethlehem.” Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”
Christ by highest heav'n adored, Christ the everlasting Lord! Late in time behold Him come, Offspring of a Virgin's womb. Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail the incarnate Deity, Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel. Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!” Hail the heav'n-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Son of Righteousness! Light and life to all He brings, Ris'n with healing in His wings. Mild He lays His glory by, Born that man no more may die, Born to raise the sons of earth, Born to give them second birth. Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”
(Main Sources) Wesley, Charles. (2011). Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Deluxe Edition. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica. A Dictionary of Hymnology Edited by John Julian MA. (Secondary Sources) https://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/lyrics-hark-the-herald-angels-sing/ https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-12-24/hark-how-all-the-welkin-rings-hark-the-herald-angels-sing/11756918