Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Posted on 18th December 2020 under The Rectory Bulletin | Carol Story


And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:13–14)

In 1739, Charles Wesley would have had the satisfaction of seeing his Christmas hymn published in Hymns and Sacred Poems. Given that Charles would end up writing somewhere in the region of six and a half thousand hymns this would become a very common event, but in 1739 he had only been converted for a year. That year had also seen a thirty-two year old Charles and his brother John take to preaching in the fields to great numbers. Hymns were a great way of teaching the masses, and so Charles had taken to the task with great vigour.

Once published, the carol suffered the same fate as many others: it began to be altered. First of all, George Whitefield - the greatest evangelist of the eighteenth century - took his pen and made some tweaks. Wesley had begun: “HARK how all the Welkin rings, ‘Glory to the King of Kings’”. Whitefield changed this to: “HARK! the Herald Angels sing, ‘Glory to the new-born King’”. The second verse also fell under the evangelist’s pen. Wesley had written: “Joyful all ye Nations rise, Join the Triumph of the Skies, Universal Nature say ‘CHRIST the LORD is born to Day!’”. This became: “Joyful all ye Nations rise, Join the Triumphs of the Skies; Nature rise and worship him, Who is born at Bethlehem”.

Those changes were made in 1754, but the alterations continued (you’ll have noticed that we no longer sing ‘Nature rise and worship him’). Out went the four line verses of Wesley, which were merged to become eight line verses. In came a refrain at the end of each verse. Then, in 1855, William Cummings got hold of a tune written by Felix Mendelssohn to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Gutenberg Press. With some judicious pruning, it was made to fit the new eight line verses and so we got the tune so familiar to us today.

One of the lines which has survived is one which I would gladly change myself: “veiled in flesh the Godhead see”! Jesus took flesh and was not simply veiled in flesh. Jesus is the second person of the Trinity, and not the “Godhead” (which points to the Trinity as a whole). But then it is difficult to get good theology to rhyme.

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 the angelic host proclaim
"Christ is born in Bethlehem"
Hark! The herald-angels sing
"Glory to the new-born king"

Christ, by highest heaven 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 Heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Son 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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