There’s quite the story behind “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Originally written by Charles Wesley, this hymn was meant to be made up of ten stanzas, each with four lines. Even more, it was originally intended to be sung to “Easter Hymn” (that’s the tune for “Christ the Lord is Risen Today”). Just think of how long that would be, ten stanzas and four alleluias in each one! To make it even more complicated, the famous opening lines (and thus the title!) used to be totally different. Wesley wrote, “Hark, how all the welkin rings, ‘Glory to the King of kings.'” George Whitefield, another famous Methodist and associate of the Wesleys, didn’t like those words, presumably because people had already forgotten what “welkin” meant, and so he changed them to what we have today. Wesley was furious with this for a variety of reasons, not least of which was the fact that “the Herald Angels” did not, in fact, sing “glory to the newborn king.” In fact, they didn’t even sing at all!
Poor Wesley, he wrote a slew of fantastic hymns, but people were always changing his lyrics. This annoyed his brother John so much that he wrote the following in the 1779 Methodist Hymn book:
I beg leave to mention a thought which has been long upon my mind, and which I should long ago have inserted in the public papers, had I not been unwilling to stir up a nest of hornets. Many gentlemen have done my brother and me (though without naming us) the honour to reprint many of our hymns. Now they are perfectly welcome to do so, provided they print them just as they are. But I desire they would not attempt to mend them, for they are really not able. None of them is able to mend either the sense or the verse. Therefore, I must beg of them these two favours: either to let them stand just as they are, to take things for better or worse, or to add the true reading in the margin, or at the bottom of the page, that we may no longer be accountable either for the nonsense or for the doggerel of other men.
Well of course, John didn’t get his wish. In fact, not only were the words changed, but the entire form of the text was eventually changed, as the first six stanzas were combined and formed into three, the final four stanzas were dropped altogether (though some hymnals brought them back), and those barbarized opening lines also managed to get turned into a refrain. This glorious monstrosity was eventually set to a new tune, added into the appendix to the Book of Common Prayer, and thereafter made immortal. This Frankenhymn was even named one of “The Great Four” in the late 19th cent. Take that originalists!
The tune for this carol (I suppose we can call it that) also underwent several mutations. As we said, it was originally set to the same tune as “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” and was supposed to have been quite slow. One hundred years after Charles Wesley wrote his hymn, Felix Mendelssohn wrote, wholly independently, his tune as a part of a cantata named Festgesang an die Künstler. It was in honor of Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. Well, fifteen years after that or so, William H. Cummings, a music teacher and hymn-writer who had actually sung in Mendelssohn’s Elijah, thought it would be a good idea to set Wesley’s already-modified words to the new Mendelssohn tune. And he was right. We now just call the tune “Mendelssohn” for short. A third tune was later tried out by a yet different composer and hymnal in 1906, and there was even a fourth one set to a Handel arrangement, but these could hardly compare to Cummings’ creation. “Hark! the Herald” was finally here to stay. I told you it was a long story.
This hymn is also the source of my favorite line perhaps of all hymnody. It comes in what is now the second stanza, and yes the lyrics are slightly different from the original. Of the Incarnation, we sing, “Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see, Hail the incarnate deity! Pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.” This is the gospel of Christmas. God has become man so that we might live with Him forever.
Those lines and others like them also generated a good deal of controversy over the years. You see, the Wesley brothers were taken by themes of what might now be called “Eastern Christianity” (it was just a variant of Pietism back then). Charles loved to write about the divine nature dwelling in humanity, the resulting theopoiesis (which his brother John took to the extreme form of “entire” or “total sanctification”), and even a picture of the atonement which bordered on theopaschism (the most famous example being found in “And Can it Be That I Should Gain”). This probably contributed to his lyrics being changed so often, though most of the examples can be understood in a perfectly orthodox fashion according to the communicatio idiomatum. But never mind all that.
Christmas really is the time to celebrate God become flesh, Jesus as “Immanuel,” and we should be happy to sing about it. In fact, we should be happy to sing about it in songs that have been changed so many times that their authors are now rolling over in their graves. Public domain is a beautiful thing.
Here are the complete lyrics, in their original form. I’ll leave it to you readers to piece together the contemporary version:
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 ador’d,
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 men to appear,
Jesus! Our Immanuel here!
Hail, the heavenly 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,
Ruined 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,
Thee, the life, the inner Man:
O! to all thyself impart,
Form’d in each believing heart.