On behalf of the Chaplains in the URG Chaplaincy, I wish to the members of the Rio Family a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. To the Jewish members of the Rio Family, I offer greetings for a Happy Chanuakh!
John and Charles Wesley. George Whitefield. Felix Mendelssohn. Names that should be familiar to educated people. Not so familiar is a connection among this quartet. They each have a connection to the hymn “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”.
The hymn began as a five-stanza poem “Hymn for Christmas Day” from the pen of Charles Wesley in 1737. Charles Wesley was the author of more than three thousand hymns and is recognized as a major English Christian poet and songwriter. He took inspiration for this poem from the verses in Luke 2:13-14 “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, good will toward men!”. The first line of Wesley’s poem was as follows “HARK how all the welkin rings ‘Glory to the King of Kings’”. Welkin is a word that indicates a loud pronouncement from Heaven. Wesley planned for his hymn to be set to the tune of his Easter hymn “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today”. In 1739, John published his brother’s hymn in the book Hymns and Sacred Poems. Fifteen years later, George Whitefield, a friend of Charles Wesley and a fellow minister, published a version of Charles’ hymn in his own book Collections of Hymns for Social Worship. Whitefield changed the first line of Wesley’s hymn to “Hark!, the herald angels sing. Glory to the new born King”. This unauthorized change so outraged Wesley as the passage from the Book of Luke stated nothing about angels singing. It is said that for the remainder of his life, Charles Wesley never sang the version of his hymn that Whitefield modified.
Nearly a century after the publication of Whitefield’s hymnal, an English youth (and future professor at the Royal Academy of Music) named William Hayman Cummings was selected to sing as one of the lead tenors in Felix Mendelssohn’s London premiere of his oratorio Elijah in 1847. Eight years later, Cummings took music from Mendelssohn’s cantata tribute to Johann Gutenberg (another very familiar name) and combined it with Whitefield’s version of Wesley’s hymn to create the Christmas carol the modern world recognizes as the correct version of the song.
The first known sound recording of this carol was by the Trinity Choir in 1911. Musicians from various genres have made recordings of this song, including Mariah Carey, Johnny Cash, Bing Crosby, Josh Groban, Mahalia Jackson and the Annie Moses Band. Most Americans may be familiar with this carol from two sources in popular culture. It is one of the Christmas songs used in the 1946 film It’s A Wonderful Life and the 1965 animated television special A Charlie Brown Christmas.
How fitting that an allusion to a Scripture verse would be combined with the music written to honor the man who gave the world the first ever printed Holy Bible to make a carol commonly heard at Christmas. Then again, one could argue that the subject of that carol is worthy of an anthem, Heavenly royalty that came to Earth to serve, not to be served.
This Christmas season, as we celebrate the birth of the Savior who came to serve, let us not forget our gratitude to those wearing the uniform of our nation’s armed forces, away from their families serving at a distant post in our country or on a foreign shore. Let us also remember those in law enforcement and those emergency service workers who are on duty on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, absent from their families on behalf of public order and safety.
You may hope to have a joyous Christmas, yet there are still on this planet and in our own country, those who are homeless, hungry, grieving, addicted, abused, trafficked, poor, financially struggling, lonely, depresses, infirmed, prisoners, institutionalized, who may not find much about which to be merry about this holiday season. Well before next year, may such individuals find their station in life changed for the better and may they be able to experience, as a line in the carol states “Peace on Earth and mercy mild”!
William E. Plants
URG Chaplaincy Coordinator