Angels Announcing the Birth of Jesus to the Shepherds / by Govert Flinck (1615-1660)
Charles Wesley wrote more than 6,500 hymns, most of which condense a deep understanding of Christian theology into simple poetic form. Many of them maintain an important place in modern hymnals. According to noted hymnologist John Julian, “Hark the herald angels sing” is one of the four most popular English-language hymns.
Except, that’s not what Wesley wrote.
Here’s the beginning of the original text, written for Christmas day 1739:
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 today!”
“Welkin” means the vault of heaven. It’s a very old English word, dating back to the time of Beowulf. Chaucer and Shakespeare both used it, but it was archaic by Wesley’s time.
The familiar text
His contemporary George Whitefield issued his own collection of hymns fifteen years later and changed the first two lines to the more familiar
Hark! the herald angels sing
“Glory to the new born king . . . “
Wesley was furious. There was no copyright law in those days. He didn’t object that Whitefield had copied his text. He objected to the change, which introduced some faulty theology.
The Bible says nothing about angels singing! And the angels praised God, not the baby Jesus. The revised text violated Wesley’s entire approach to hymnody. He wanted hymns not only to contribute to the experience of worship, but also to the singers’ correct understanding of Scripture.
Whitefield countered that there was no sense in insisting on a particular theological detail if it required using a word that no one but scholars understood. It’s his version that became so popular.
Notice also that Wesley’s text has verses of four lines. A suitable text would have been half the length of the tune that is so familiar to us now. Tunes now used for “Holy Spirit, truth divine” or “Softly now the light of day” would fit Wesley’s original four-line structure.
The familiar tune
One hundred one years after Wesley wrote his hymn, Felix Mendelssohn composed a cantata, Festgesang, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Johann Gutenberg’s invention of printing. It has not remained in the repertoire.
In 1855, William H. Cummings, an English tenor, organist and choral conductor, decided to adapt music from the second chorus of Festgesang, to fit the words of “Hark the herald angels sing.” The pairing soon became unbreakable.
Ironically, it appears that neither Wesley nor Mendelssohn would have approved. Wesley, of course, objected to Whitefield’s theologically dubious alteration of the text. He also requested a slow, solemn tune. Mendelssohn had very clear ideas of what was suitable for sacred music, and it explicitly did not include the music of his secular cantata!