Hark! The Herald Wesley Wrote: How a Christmas Hymn Transformed America

In 1739 a young colonial Georgia preacher wrote a “Hymn for Christmas Day.”

His opening line was “Hark! how all the welkin rings.” Welkin is an old Dutch word for “heaven.”

The lyricist’s name? Charles Wesley.

In the late 1720s, he and his older brother John had founded a new form of Protestant Christianity known as “Methodism”–featuring a novel “method” for connecting people to God. Methodism became wildly popular at Oxford University when they were students.

It’s why, in 1735, the young Wesleys migrated to America to help lead a new colony known as “Georgia.”

The Wesley brothers came to pastor the colonists and preach to the Indians. Unfortunately, their high hopes were soon dashed. John’s efforts to evangelize the Indians fell flat. And fellow Georgia colonists despised the Wesleyan strict religiosity of “methodism.” After a year. the discouraged and defeated brothers returned to England.

That’s when they met Peter Boehler, a Moravian missionary soon headed for Georgia.

Boehler reignited the Wesleys’ spiritual fire, converting them to a new understanding of the indwelling Holy Spirit and Grace. John journaled about this “grace” he had never known: “I felt my heart strangely warmed.” Armed with this new theological perspective, the Wesley brothers decided to return to George to serve, pastor and teach again.

The Wesley brothers also loved contemporary music, including bar tunes.

They felt these modern secular tunes were the perfect vehicle for communicating Christian theology. Theology, after all, proved more memorable if sung. Consequently, the theologian Charles soon became a master lyricist. In his life he composed over 6500 hymns, including the Easter classic: “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.”

But it’s his composition “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” that most people–whether you’re a believer or not–still know and love.

And yet we only know it because a friend of the Wesleys–the famed Methodist evangelist George Whitefield–got involved. It was Whitefield who suggested Charles change that opening line from “Hark! how all the welkin rings” to “Hark! the herald angels sing.” And then to help the young lyricist, Whitefield included this Christmas song in his famous “Collection of Hymns for Social Worship” (1754).

That particular book became the primary hymnal of the First Great Awakening. During the mid-1700s a religious revival swept through Great Britain, America and other British colonies that transformed the religious landscape. Preaching and singing became central to Protestant worship services. Hymnals were as valued as Bibles in the church, thanks to Whitefield and Wesley.

In America, the influence of religious awakening reached the highest levels of government and culture.

Ben Franklin penned a mid-1750s recruitment pamphlet for Europeans intending to send their kids to America. Franklin boasted about our Christian colonial culture, claiming it had no adolescent misbehavior. Franklin further noted America was so Christianized that it was possible to grow old and never personally meet “either an Atheist or an Infidel.” He extolled how America’s Christian culture produced “mutual forbearance and kindness” and a “remarkable prosperity” that brought “favor” to the nation.” In 1778, Franklin wrote to the French there’s “a Bible and a newspaper in every house, a good school in every district…the principal support of [America’s] virtue, morality and civil liberty.”

And to think “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” helped to light that path.

But what about that beautiful tune? Originally Wesley envisioned a slow and somber melody. He even proposed the same tune as “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” For a hundred years it’s impossible to know exactly what tune the lyrics employed. However, in the mid-1800s, W.H. Cummings adapted a Felix Mendelssohn cantata to perfectly fit “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Mendelssohn’s original music was a secular ode to technology and Gutenberg’s printing press. In fact, if Cummings hadn’t adapted either Mendelssohn’s music and Wesley’s hymn, both probably would’ve been lost to history.

However, when the Mendelssohn music was matched to Wesley’s rich lyrics it created a new Christmas classic.

For many people, it’s their favorite Christmas hymn. It’s likely a song you’ll hum or sing sometime this week. You might be humming it right now.

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. Glory to the newborn king. Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinner reconciled. Joyful all ye nations rise. Join the triumph in the skies. With angelic hosts proclaim: “Christ is born in Bethlehem.” Hark! The Herald Angels Sing: Glory to the newborn king!”

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 with us in flesh to dwell, Jesus, our Immanuel. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing: Glory to the newborn king!”

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. Hark! The herald angels sing: “Glory to the new-born king”

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